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Chance to meet God anywhere as Jews prepare for new year

By Eleanor Steinman
Special to the American-Statesman
Rabbi Eleanor Steinman has joined Temple Beth Shalom.

This week in the Hebrew calendar we began the month of Elul. This month holds special significance for the Jewish community as it immediately precedes the new year, Rosh Hashanah, and is a time of spiritual and physical preparation.

There are a variety of approaches to be ready for the new Year. They include offering penitential prayers early each morning, the recitation of Psalm 27 throughout the month and some might journal as a way to engage in self-reflection. Each of these paths, along with many others, are ways that an individual might prepare their mind, body, and spirit to do the work of teshuvah (repentance) that this season of the year compels us to do.

There is a teaching that the word Elul is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase from the Song of Songs 6:3 translated, “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.” This phrase, often used at weddings between partners, is a reminder of the potential for our relationship with God.

It is possible for each of us to have an intimate relationship with God, however we might understand it. This relationship can help to center our personal accounting at this season as we reflect on our actions and encounters from the past year.

Our individual repentance work compels us to seek forgiveness from other people we wronged, from ourselves, and from God. The notion that God is our beloved helps to infuse the onerous work with a heavy layer of kindness and compassion. When we begin with love our ability to be generous of spirit, demonstrate patience, and lead with kindness is amplified.

This textual interpretation relates beautifully to another text, a midrash, that helps us to expand our ideas about the relationship we might have with God. Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi of the 19th century taught and I adapted slightly:

"The sovereign’s usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone who wants to approach the ruler must go through palace bureaucracy, and get approval of the ruler’s ministers before being granted access. A person must meticulously prepare for such a meeting: they must go to the capital, abide by palace custom, present themselves in dress befitting the presence of the sovereign, and adhere to a specific manner of speech and behavior.

"However, there are times when the ruler comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach them, and when they do, the ruler receives them all with a friendly and welcoming smile. When the ruler comes to the field, even people in the lowest ranks of the social hierarchy can have access to them, just as they are."

Elul, right now, is the time that we can meet The Sovereign, God, in the fields. Whether it is in prayer, meditation or preparation, God is accessible to us. On the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is also available. However, it might be a bit more akin to an encounter in the palace as we use the liturgy and traditions of observance of the sacred time.

May our encounters with the Holy nourish our soul and strengthen our spirit today and every day.

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman recently joined Temple Beth Shalom. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org