All of the holidays of the Jewish year require preparation. However, the preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur differs in kind from the necessary preparations for the other holidays of the year. Those holidays require strenuous physical preparation. Pesach brings with it thorough house cleaning and purchases of special kosher on Passover foods. Shavuot also brings with it a potential storing of sleep to successfully participate in the all night mishmar so currently popular in our society as well as the preparations for the traditional dairy foods that are so singular to this holiday. Succot requires the construction of the sukkah and the purchasing of the four species that are the integral part of the holiday celebration. These are all physical acts of preparation that signal the advent of the holiday. However the preparations for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are basically spiritual and private in nature. There are no special items for mitzvot that one must acquire. One shofar for the entire congregation will suffice. There are various foods that are traditional for Rosh Hashana but these are matters of custom and not halachic requirements. Yet because of the difficulty of private introspection and spiritual preparation - they are far more difficult to accomplish than physical preparations for the other holidays - and the ephemeral quality of such preparation Jewish custom ordains that these preparations begin a month before the date of the actual holiday itself. It takes time and consistency to work upon one’s habits, traits and self. In realty a month to think about one’s past, present and future is not a long time. But at least it is a minimum reminder that the effort to really think about one’s true self must be made at least periodically and that is really the message of the High Holidays that are soon upon us.
All of us are beset by the problems of everyday life - children, family, finances, work and the pressures of time. In such a situation it is naturally difficult to deal with lofty spiritual matters and issues of self-improvement spiritual progression. In Eastern Europe great people would withdraw from their every day lives and spend the month of Elul in splendid isolation and contemplation. For most of us this is an impossibility given our schedules and life responsibilities. Nevertheless it is important to know that such behavior was deemed necessary by people of impeccable greatness and piety. We can all afford at least a few moments a day for serious thought and contemplation. Someone once asked the great rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant, the founder of the Mussar movement in Lithuania in the nineteenth century that if one has only ten minutes a day to spare should one study Mussar or concentrate on Talmud. Rabbi Yisrael answered that one should stud Mussar for then he will realize that he has more than ten minutes a day available for the study of Torah. In brutal actuality, we all have sufficient time every day to think about our true selves and where we are headed. But since we are not trained or accustomed to think in those paths and are prone to give up on our spiritual growth rather easily we comfort ourselves to believe that we really have only ten minutes a day available for our souls. The month of preparation for the High Holidays is meant to allow us to climb out of this rut of hopelessness and life’s pressures. We should attempt to truly exploit the opportunity for spiritual growth that this month presents to us.
Spiritual growth comes in small increments and rarely is it achieved through dramatic, sudden, unexpected leaps of faith or epiphanies. The fact that spiritual growth is a long range goal and a far journey oftentimes deters people from taking the first step on this road to personal growth and greatness. We are always interested in instant diets, quick fixes and simplistic solutions and this tendency prevents us from pursuing the only true path that can lead to a better life and better living. We all have heard the famous maxim that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first lone step taken toward the destined goal. This is certainly true as regarding one’s spiritual growth and the improvement of one’s character traits. Our father Yaakov is represented in the Torah as a wrestler who contends with an angel. He also wrestles with himself, so to speak. The main struggle in life is really with one’s self. The preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur lies in the recognition and acceptance of this lesson of life.
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