Crossroads-Preparing for the High Holy Days

When I drive to work every day, I have to cross through a dangerous intersection. Unfortunately, at this busy crossroad, there’s only a two-way “stop” sign. I would feel much safer if the cars coming from all four directions had to stop.

As I stop, I peer over an incline to see if any cars are careening over the hill, I then look in the opposite direction. I check both ways a second and a third time to see if it’s safe and then I cross over to the other side.

Intersection of Shore Road and North Country Road
Intersection of Shore Road and North Country Road

Each time I need to cross over this intersection, I am a little anxious because the incline on the street perpendicular to me makes it difficult to see the cars approaching. I think: “will a car suddenly zoom over the hill, cross the road and hit me as I am in the middle of the crossroad?”

I am not usually a nervous driver. Yet this intersection leaves me feeling uncomfortable and unsure. I don’t feel safe until I am securely on the opposite side. And then my journey to continues.

I realize this crossroad that causes me agita is really a metaphor for our lives.

Each and every day, we travel along our own highway of life. Each of us – hopefully – does all that we can to ensure that we live our lives to the fullest and best of our abilities: we eat right, exercise, rest and do all of those other “good things.” But we never know what can come careening suddenly over the next incline: will it be an earthquake, like the one that just hit the greater San Francisco area yesterday morning? or illness? or something else for which we cannot possibly be prepared? What about our families, friends and loved ones?

How do we safely navigate these unforeseen obstacles that enter into the intersection of our paths on our life’s journey? Like the cars that come zipping over the hill, some things are simply out of our control.

The upcoming Ya’mim Nora’im – the High Holy Days, and the Hebrew month of Elul preceding them, help give us the tools so that we can chart our course and re-direct our life’s journey if we so need. We might not be able to control what happens, but we are able to approach our circumstances from a different perspective. We can find strength and support from within ourselves, from our community and from God.

The month of Elul begins tomorrow. Traditionally, Elul is dedicated to studying and preparing for the necessary work of “repairing our souls”. But this is not a once-a-year endeavor. The High Holy Days make us stop and take notice of the frailty of life. They remind us that we are on a journey, and that if we take the time to transform ourselves throughout the year – through reflection, prayer, study, acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and repentance, we will be prepared to enter that “danger-filled metaphorical crossroad” of life.

There are many ways to use this upcoming month to begin to prepare. Here are just a few ideas to help begin this process:

  • Join with your congregational community for Shabbat worship and study. The power of community, prayer and music has the ability to nurture and transform one’s spirit and soul.
  • Subscribe to Craig Taubman’s “Jewels of Elul”. These are short, inspirational insights on the theme of the upcoming High Holy Days written by different people, both well-known and not-so-well known: Jewels of Elul
  • Do some preparatory background reading. A few suggestions:
  1. This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, Alan Lew, Little, Brown and Co., 2003.
  2. Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most, Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013.
  3. Rosh Hashanah (or/and) Yom Kippur Inspiration, Contemplation, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing.
  4. Machzor: Challenge and Change: Preparing for the New Machzor and the High Holy Days: Volumes 1 and 2, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2014.

We each will encounter many crossroads in the journey of our own lives. The obstacles we encounter will seem less daunting and the more secure we will feel, the more prepared we are.

K’tivah v’chatimah tovah –May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. ”




Light – and Hope – in a Time of Darkness

For the past few weeks, I have witnessed some glorious sunrises and sunsets on the Long Island Sound.

Sunrise over Long Island Sound. Photo credit: Sharon L. Sobel
Sunrise over Long Island Sound. Photo credit: Sharon L. Sobel

I always feel God’s presence during those moments, as I silently observe the sun, sky and water paint the most awe-inspiring landscapes. I am deeply grateful and appreciative of the beauty that surrounds me on a daily basis.

And yet, I know that for some, the beauty that surrounds us is obscured by the pain of physical or mental illness that weighs like an albatross around their necks. The pain creates an impenetrable fog that is too heavy and thick to break through. And therefore, at times, we are unable to see or feel or be part of the world that surrounds us. We are unable to be present for family or friends. Or it takes every last ounce of our strength to do so. And sometimes, the pain and fog and illness win. We can no longer fight. We have no more energy and no more strength.

Robin Williams’ death this past week touches close to home for many of us. For some, mental illness is part of our own lives, our loved ones’ lives or our friends’ lives. And because it is not a physically visible illness like diabetes or cancer, we are afraid to talk about it.

But if we are going to make any sense of the death of Robin Williams, or anyone else who has died in the same manner, we MUST speak about mental illness. We must learn that it is a disease that is like cancer or leukaemia or kidney disease or migraines. And like those other illnesses, sometimes, people are able to fight them and overcome them. And unfortunately, sometimes the illness wins. So we are left bereft and stunned and at a loss for words. And, we need to keep in mind, Robin Williams did not kill himself, it was his illness that killed him.

Depression and torment have been part of human nature since the beginning of time. In the Hebrew Bible, King David wrote about his anguish in the Psalms:

“My heart is convulsed within me; terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling invade me; I am clothed with horror. O that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and find rest….” ((Psalm 55: 5-7)

Later on, David finds comfort and hope by reaching out to God:

“I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come? My help comes from Adonai, Maker of Heaven and Earth. He will not let your foot slip, your Guardian will not sleep…” (Psalm 121:1-3)

Judaism is a religion of hope and of light. We look for light when darkness comes our way. We find hope and light in the warm, loving embrace of family and friends who do not despair when we are in the depths of our own despair, who wrap their arms tight around us, even if we push them away. We find healing and wholeness in “lifting up our eyes” and hearts to God and community.

Sometimes, we find light and hope in someone’s silent presence. But we know that they are there – not leaving us alone. All it takes is one candle, one flame to dispel the darkness.

But sometimes, the flame does go out. And then, we need to find the strength to light a match anew…to create a new spark to dispel the darkness once again.

Every evening, there is a gorgeous sunset on the water and every morning – another gorgeous sunrise. With hope in our hearts, God in our lives, friends and family by our side, we can help each other to experience the beauty and joy of living each and every day.

Shabbat Shalom.