Monday, September 16, 2019 -
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Annual performance review of the soul

HOW many times have you been on a car trip with a small child and a squeaky, somewhat irritable voice emerges from the back seat only to ask: “Are we there yet?”

From the earliest of ages, we tend to view life not so much in terms of where we are at any given moment, but where we want to be or think we should be.

This point hit home on a trip my family made one August to San Diego. Armed with a cache of books, game boys, headphones and cds, they entered the car like soldiers settling in for a siege. Silly me, I actually thought we’d use the road time to talk.

But the car ride was just a means to an end; it had to be endured in order to get to the beaches and boogie boards they were ultimately after.

I think a lot about that trip during the closing days of August. Not because it is unbearably hot in Tucson and the beaches of San Diego would be a welcome respite. But because during the Jewish month of Elul, the 30 days preceding Rosh Hashanah, we are challenged as Jews to think about where we are right now, where we have been in the past year and where we want to go — as individuals, as a family, as a community and as citizens of the world.

The Jewish tradition teaches that Rosh Hashanah marks the birth of the world and the creation of humankind. But rather than being a holiday of Jewish history, it is really a holiday of personal history.

Rosh Hashanah presents us with the opportunity every year of our lives to engage in meaningful questioning and introspection that can become the catalyst for personal renewal.

We link ourselves to the first Creation because we are “reborn” through the efforts we take to renew ourselves spiritually in positive ways.

Rosh Hashanah tells us in no uncertain terms that for Jews, it’s never too late to get it right.

ROSH Hashanah is like an annual performance review of the soul. In most jobs, performance is evaluated regularly to determine if we are eligible for a raise. During the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are asked to evaluate ourselves to see if we have met our spiritual goals, to see if we are eligible for a “spiritual raise.”

We ask ourselves:

What am I doing with my life?

Am I accomplishing what I set out to do?

Where have I failed, where have I succeeded?

What do I want to change in the coming year?

Can I be better person, a more compassionate friend, a more caring daughter, a more attentive father, a more supportive spouse?

This type of hard questioning is called a heshbon nefesh, an accounting of the soul.

But here comes the trick question: Is there anything we can actually do to guarantee becoming a better person?

Can we take steps now to get the spiritual raise we seek in the coming year?

An answer I’ve found that reflects the spirit of the holiday as well as the essence of Judaism itself is this: We can add a mitzvah (Hebrew for commandment) every year to our life.

Judaism doesn’t expect us to do everything at once but encourages us to question, seek and grow throughout our lives.

We can raise ourselves one step at a time if we commit to doing one of 613 commandments every Rosh Hashanah. They cover the broadest spectrum imaginable — from ritual observance to family and community relationships to business dealings — and you don’t have to be “religious” or even particularly knowledgeable to begin.

Just look around you — in your home, at your work place or with your friends — to determine what it is that you want to improve upon in the coming year.

Do you want to help others more?

Would you like to learn Hebrew?

Do you wish you didn’t gossip so much?

Is there someone who is ill that you should visit?

If you have trouble choosing what mitzvah you want to do, consult a rabbi, teacher or respected friend or buy a good book on basic Judaism and begin to explore your options.

Don’t let lack of knowledge or the feeling that you won’t do it right get in your way!

My family has been adding a mitzvah a year since our children were little.

One year we decided to light candles and make Shabbat every Friday night.

Another year we took the plunge and kashered our home.

Some commitments took more time and effort but every decision we made has added to the richness of our Jewish experience and brought us closer as a family. And with each new year we hope to improve ourselves — one mitzvah at a time.

Amy Lederman

IJN Columnist | Reflections

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