11 September 2007

Elul Thoughts

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Each fall, I try to write something about the upcoming Jewish holidays, partly because it helps me get myself in the right frame of mind for the days of awe and atonement. This year, my starting point was a little different: an e-mail from our congregation’s rabbi about sharing thoughts within the community on the process he described as a time to be “confronting ourselves with the ugly evidence of our own shortcomings.”

That is a terrific, well-framed starting point. Over the years, I have struggled with this kind of exhortation – not so much with the self-reflection, but with finding the positives within all the negatives. Moreover, it can sometimes be too easy to reproach one’s self; it can be too easy because in self-criticism we find self-forgiveness, or because the self-criticism starts to feel like its own end game, without the renewal and rediscovery we need.

Year to year, my approach has varied: I have read books to stimulate my thinking and greater (self-)understanding; I have spent high holiday services contemplatively crying; a Yom Kippur day climbing a small mountain, looking for spiritual nourishment in nature; and time wandering in Central Park, thinking about life, love, and loss. Clearly, I have also tried to write down my thoughts, about the year past and the one ahead, and about the spiritual challenges the high holidays present, to help me remember, learn, and change; some of these I make public, and most remain quite private.

Now, I find myself in an altogether different place: approaching my first high holidays as a father. Our little girl is (at 12+ weeks) already more beautiful and enchanting than I could ever have imagined, and her arrival in my life has had an earthquake-like effect. This is more than just a shifting of the ground under my feet, but a process of emotional leveling and rebuilding. My world, our world, the world – it all feels immeasurably different, moved from its point of origin.

And so contemplation of the past and future is different now, too. Cataloging, addressing, and coming to terms with “the ugly evidence of my own shortcomings” becomes an even more complicated exercise, since I have one more person to whom I now have a great responsibility. But fatherhood also brings the kind of joy – reflected in my daughter’s smiles, her radiating love, or the phenomenal image of my wife and daughter together – that helps ensure that the context for reviewing and addressing the negatives of the past is, and should remain, firmly rooted in working to be the best person I can in the future.

L’shana Tova, Happy New Year.


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