BY: Rabbi Michael Ross
The single most important spiritual practice in my annual High Holiday preparation has nothing to do with Jewish rituals per se. During the month of Elul, the month of preparing for the Days of Awe, I take a pen in my hand and begin journaling. Sometimes I use writing prompts, sometimes I simply journal. At the moment I put pen to paper, or now more frequently, type on my keyboard, I stop thinking and just write. I don’t edit these words. I simply allow them to flow out of me.
After the words slow down, my writing session ends. And I feel better. I experience this huge sense of relief and accomplishment. A few minutes later, I find another prompt or encounter a new idea and the process begins again. It is always new, always fresh and always real. These are the words of my soul on paper or on screen.
The Jewish mystics teach that this type of writing prepares us for the Days of Awe. If you don't keep a journal already, I invite you to try it this Elul. Here are a few prompts to help you get started:
1. What stands out about the past year? First, just review it your head. Spend 30 seconds remembering each of the occasions listed below. What were they like for you? Who were you with? Who was missing? What was the experience like? For the holidays, where and how did you celebrate them?
- Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
- Sukkot or Halloween
- Channukah and Christmas
- The winter
- Purim or Mardi Gras
- Mother’s Day
- Father’s Day
- July 4
- Summer vacation
Now, take 3-5 minutes to write about your year.
2. What are three things you are most proud of that happened in the last year? How do these moments help you understand your strengths? (3-5 minutes)
3. Where have you missed the mark this year? What was that like? How can you improve next year?
Be gentle as you go through this spiritual practice. Don’t criticize or edit your thoughts while you are writing. There will be plenty of time to edit. Simply write. Also, remember that no one else ever needs to read these thoughts. They serve the most important audience: your heart.
Like yoga, swimming, meditating or praying, journaling is a practice. It gets easier each time. And like any practice, too much time away can make it cumbersome, difficult.
Fortunately, journaling doesn't need to take up much time. I typically write for 5-10 minutes a few times a week during the month of Elul and during the 10 Days of Awe. I warm up with a brief review of the past week, month or year. After that, I find a way to feel confident about what is there before assessing what is missing.
Over the past 12 years, I have found that journaling helped me feel that my preparation for the holidays was worthwhile, important. I also deeply dislike walking in on the High Holidays with a sudden desire to remember everything that was really important to me in the past year. This process empowers the writer to truly wake up to his or her own soul before entering the synagogue. Beyond davening and meditating, I have found no single practice as effective for this time of year.
May we have time to hear our soul’s story this coming year. Our happiness and well being depend on it.
Rabbi Michael Ross is the education director at Am Haskalah in the Lehigh Valley and teaches at Gratz College's Jewish Community High School.