Recently I returned from vacation with my family. Before I went, I researched hotels and children’s activities, and I planned out the fastest route. I knew where the balloon festival was, what museums had special exhibits and who was available when for a visit. While on my vacation I stayed open to the mood of the day, to surprise discoveries and how weather would affect our daily plans. The success of the trip was truly a combination of spontaneity and planning.
Religious life is the same way. The most powerful moments I remember are a combination of planning and spontaneity. When I read the Torah portion before Shabbat morning, the discussion is more intriguing. When I study different interpretations of a prayer or learn a new melody so I can sing along, I enjoy that moment’s prayer experience. When I buy special foods, clean the house and invite guests, Shabbat dinner holds an endearing quality. And yet all the preparations would be meaningless without being open to the spontaneity that comes with being alive.
There are times when a new melody, a different prayer, an experiential exercise, an unexpected discussion pushes me out of my comfort zone into a new understanding of what my life needs to be. It is at these jarring times that I gain a new or somehow changed spiritual center; it has been transformed by the experience.
At sundown on Aug. 5, the Heb-rew month of Elul beings. The rabbis set aside Elul for us to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Evaluating our relationships, taking stock of our priorities, setting goals are all important activities we do in order to begin the New Year better than we began it the year before. Answers to questions such as, “What keeps me up at night?” and “What gets me out of bed in the morning?” ground us. But in addition to taking stock of our spiritual journey, our Jewish journey is also what we are asked to analyze. Do I know enough Hebrew to find meaning in the services? Do I practice Judaism at home or only occasionally when I go to shul? Can Shabbat hold any meaning for me? Do I consider Jewish thought when confronted with ethical dilemmas? Do Jewish values influence my work practices? How can I add to my Jewish journey in the coming year? Most importantly, who is available to be my chevruta [study partner] and rabbi [teacher] in the coming year? What is it that I have always wanted to learn?
May this coming year be filled with the ability to prepare me for the unexpected sacred moments that are ever present in our lives.
Rabbi Sonya Starr is a spiritual leader in Howard County.