BY RABBI PHIL BRESSLER
Erev Rosh Hashanah is about six weeks away, but in case you haven’t thought about it yet, the High Holidays are going to be...different this year. In order for them to serve their purpose – turning us inward to take stock of who we are, how we’ve missed the mark, and how we can do better next year – we’re going to need to spend time preparing ourselves.
In most years I’ve found that the transformative power of the yamim nora’im, the Days of Awe, depends at least in part on physical presence with others engaged in the project of introspection and self-refinement. Although some communities will do their best to create that sense of community in a virtual space, it won’t be the same. It’s important to name this feeling – being apart from one another will be painful, and it’s OK to grieve for that loss.
And yet, we always encounter this season not as we want to be, but as we are. And if what we are is more solitary than usual, then let’s get prepared for that.
Fortunately, the Jewish calendar provides us with a framework for that preparation. The month of Elul begins the evening of Aug. 20, opening a particularly auspicious time to do the work of teshuva, turning in repentance toward a righteous path. What should you do? Practice breaking your own heart.
The reason is that our hearts are hardened most of the time – made rigid and inflexible to enable us to go about our day-to-day lives. In order to make our hearts malleable enough to change, we essentially have to break and reassemble them. So, if the yamim nora’im are going to be a chance for us to re-
arrange our hearts, in a fashion that better reflects the person we are striving to be, we need to become adept at breaking them. You can do it any way you know how – with art, music, nature, meditation, prayer – whatever leaves you feeling open and vulnerable. With a bit of practice in the month leading up to the High Holidays, we can hopefully set ourselves up to have the kind of transformative experience we’re seeking, even without the benefit of physical togetherness.
The rabbis of the Talmud lived within memory of the Yom Kippur ritual as it was practiced in the Temple. Yet in the 8th chapter of Tractate Yoma, they discuss how Yom Kippur can come along and effect atonement for wrongdoing all on its own, apart from any of the rituals that were or are now associated with it. What this means is, although our rituals may look different this year, it’s never been about the rituals. The High Holidays are an edifice in time that stands independent of any support from the physical world, and that we can inhabit without recourse to physical structures or human activities.
I’m both saddened and excited by the possibility this coming year brings, and I’m looking forward to entering it together.
Rabbi Phil Bressler is the rabbi of Beit Am in Corvallis and serves the Jewish community of the entire mid-Willamette valley. He received his rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in 2018.
The Rabbi's Corner is a space reserved for our community's rabbis to share their thoughts on the week's parsha or current events. The Oregon Board of Rabbis coordinates the project. To schedule a date to submit a 500-word piece, email OBR President Rabbi Eve Posen, firstname.lastname@example.org.