14 August 2015

Forty Days of Purification

29 Menachem Av 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh

(Reposting from last year in preparation for Rosh Chodesh Elul which begins on Shabbat.)

As shared by Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi on his Facebook page...

Elul – the month preceding Rosh Hashanah – begins a period of intensive introspection, of clarifying life's goals, and of coming closer to God. It is a time for realizing purpose in life – rather than perfunctorily going through the motions of living by amassing money and seeking gratification. It is a time when we step back and look at ourselves critically and honestly, as Jews have from time immemorial, with the intention of improving. The four Hebrew letters of the word Elul (aleph-lamed-vav-lamed) are the first letters of the four words Ani l'dodi v'dodi lee"I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me" (Song of Songs 6:3). These words sum up the relationship between God and His people. In other words, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah is a time when God reaches out to us, in an effort to create a more spiritually-inspiring atmosphere, one that stimulates teshuva (repentance – coming closer to Hashem).


Rewind 3,000 years to the Sinai Desert. God has spoken the Ten Commandments, and the Jews have built the Golden Calf. Moses desperately pleads with God to spare the nation. On the first day of Elul, Moses ascends Mount Sinai, and 40 days later – on the seminal Yom Kippur – he returned to the people, with a new, second set of stone tablets in hand. For us as well, the month of Elul begins a 40-day period that culminates in the year's holiest day, Yom Kippur.


Why 40? Forty is a number of cleansing and purification. Noah's Flood rains lasted 40 days, and the mikveh – the ritual purification bath – contains 40 measures of water. Elul is an enormous opportunity. During this time, many people increase their study of Torah and performance of good deeds. And many also do a daily cheshbon – an accounting of spiritual profit and loss.

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Guilt is the pain of the spirit. It starts to act up when you have done something that is harmful to your soul. Instead of prompting bandages, antibiotic and painkillers it is meant to prompt feelings of regret and resolve never to repeat our spiritual failure [teshuvah]. The human being is unique in that we can change and grow. Guilt is the alarm system that tells us we are going in the wrong direction and have to make a behavioral adjustment.


Today when guilt strikes don't let it get you down. Appreciate the gift of G-d that warns you when you are in danger. Confront the problem with a plan to fix it! It's a minute that will save your life - literally!

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Teshuva literally means "return." When we "do teshuva," we examine our ways, identify those areas where we are losing ground, and "return" to our own previous state of spiritual purity. And in the process, we "return" to our connection with the Almighty as well. Every transgression creates a block between us and the Almighty. Making teshuva reconnects us to our Father in Heaven.


The process of teshuva involves the following four steps:


Step 1 - Regret. Realize the extent of the damage and feel sincere regret.

Step 2 - Cessation. Immediately stop the harmful action.
Step 3 - Confession. Articulate the mistake and ask for forgiveness.
Step 4 - Resolution. Make a firm commitment not to repeat it in the future.

The "sins" we do teshuva for on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the instances we fell short of our full potential self. One word for "sin" in Hebrew is chait, which means "missing the mark." The disparity between our full potential and our present reality fuels our heartfelt teshuva. We have tremendous potential, and when we strive to fix those things which need improvement we are coming closer to fulfilling the incredible potential latent within each and every one of us.

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Confession is one of four crucial steps in the Teshuva process. However, some people fear confession believing that “I’m as rotten as my sins.” The human ego is too wobbly a table to load it up with a couple hundred pounds of wrong-doings. If I admit that I cheated on my exams, then I’m a despicable, dishonest cheat. If I admit that my outbursts of anger traumatize my children/employees/friends, then I’m an out-of-control, savage ogre. My wrong actions are not simply the garments that clothe my essential self; they become my image of who I really am. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.


The Hebrew word chet does not mean sin at all. Chet appears in the Bible in reference to a slingshot which "missed the target." There is nothing inherently "bad" about that slingshot! Rather, a mistake was made ― due to a lack of focus, concentration or skill.


The same is true with us. When we engage in irresponsible or destructive behavior, we have simply misfired. Every human being has a soul, a pure piece of Godliness that distinguishes us from the animals. When we do something wrong, it is because the soul's "voice" has become temporarily muted by the roar of the physical body. This confusion is what we call the "Yetzer Hara." But our essence remains pure. We only need to make a few adjustments ― and we're back on target!


This is the idea of teshuva. Teshuva literally means "return." When we "do teshuva," we examine our ways, identify those areas where we are losing ground, and "return" to our own previous state of spiritual purity. And in the process, we "return" to our connection with the Almighty as well.