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I am privileged to lead two meditations during the High Holidays this year at my synagogue. One will be during the Shofarot section of Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and the other during the Avodah Service on Yom Kippur. This is largely a result of my participation in Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training II, and the good work of my teachers Jeff Roth and Sheila Weinberg in preparing me to teach.
Each meditation will start with a discussion of mindfulness but for this article let me get to the heart of the matter. Imagine that you are sitting in services on Yom Kippur in the early afternoon:
Our tradition teaches that in the time of the Temple, on Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would enter the Holy of Hollies to pray on behalf of the people of Israel and seek forgiveness. He would prepare himself for this moment through prayer and fasting. We are told that The Ark of the Covenant was originally inside the Holy of Hollies, but by the time of the second temple, the space inside was empty. Holy space. He would enter into the space in silence but when inside, would utter the ineffable and secret name of God, that only he knew.
We have no record of that name from any of the High Priests We only have an image of a holy man entering a holy space in silence to connect with the divine. However, I like imagining a different scenario.
The High Priest prepared himself with fasting and prayer, both spoken and silent. He was prepared to connect with the divine on his own behalf and that of the people of Israel. It was an awesome responsibility and perhaps the sound of a voice would have taken him out of his concentration and the holiness of the moment. Imagine instead that the High Priest entered in silence and stayed in silence. Imagine that his connection to the Divine was just his breath, his essential ruach.
I invite you now to enter into your personal holy of holies. So just sit up, in a dignified posture and gently let your eyes close.
Notice your breath as it enters and leaves the body. You don’t have to do anything special, just notice the breath either at the nostril or in the chest or in the diaphragm. As you follow your breath, let it lead you inward. Your fasting, prayer and song have brought you to this holy moment. Allow your breath to usher you into this holy space.
As you notice a thought cross your mind, gently return your attention to the breath. This is not about clearing your mind of thoughts. Minds don’t work that way. This is about noticing our thoughts and directing our attention to this holy moment, to this holy breath.
Rabbi Jonathan Slater
A profound shift in human consciousness took place when someone imagined that God spoke and the world came into being. Previously the cycles of nature were the basis on which people conceived of time: fixed in a pattern of birth and death, decay and renewal where nothing truly new or innovative could take place. Now, time stretched in a linear fashion from a point of beginning forward. Every day brought something new; innovation and transformation were necessary to adapt to changing conditions and contexts. This shift had moral implications: acts have consequences, and we are responsible for our deeds.
The past, as it recedes in our mind’s rear-view mirror, can become foggy, vague. We forget what we’ve done; major mistakes become smaller the farther away they get in time. We can trick ourselves into thinking that with time we have changed, that we are not who we were in the past. Our tradition, wisely, retained something of the ancient cyclical mind-set, and so at this time of year we are coming round again to “the beginning”. We are being brought face-to-face with our past, as if it were today. That which we wished to ignore comes into view and demands our attention.
That is the gift of the month of Elul, which so often coincides with our season of vacation, of spaciousness and openness. Rather than waiting until Rosh Hashanah to take stock, under pressure of the Day of Judgment, we are invited to allow our past to come into view now. In the spaciousness of long, languid days, we can allow our hearts and minds to open to the truth of our lives, to see clearly who we have been, how we have been in the past. We can meet it fully, without judgment, held in the capaciousness of free time, and self-acceptance. We can do the work of personal assessment and change before the rush and tumble return to school, business and busyness.
The mystical tradition holds that each month in the year can be identified with one permutation of the four letters in God’s name Y-H-V-H. A phrase in which the letters appear in that particular order – either as the first or last letters of words – is attached to each permutation. For the month of Elul, the phrase is connected to the verse “And righteous-merit will it be for us when we take-care to observe all this commandment before YHVH our God, as He has commanded us” (Deut. 6:25), particularly on the first few words: utzedakaH tehiyeH lanU kY, the last letters of which are H-H-V-Y. The spirit of this month is that God is waiting to credit us with righteous-merit (tzedakah), to find the good in us. But, we have to do some work. We have to “take-care”, pay attention, look out for what is true in our lives, and begin the process of change.
We have the time and space now, and the spirit of the season welcomes our efforts. Why wait?
“The JMTT program created a context for me to access and expand my knowledge of Jewish text and traditions from a perspective of mindfulness. This perspective brought Torah into my daily life on an on-going basis. The JMTT program created a context for me to begin to read and understand Torah from a Mindfulness perspective.”
“The combination of Jewish and Buddhist texts were excellent. I was introduced to Buddhist practices and teachings that I never knew.”
“The Hevruta study was incredible and invaluable. I learned so much from my Hevruta partners. It showed me again the value of having spiritual friends.”
I have a very exciting announcement to make.
But first, let me set the stage. We have long believed that cultivating mindful Jewish leaders could have a profound and even transformational impact on Jewish communal life. However, one of the persistent questions we have struggled with has been how to help alumni of our cohort programs transmit the practices that we have found so personally meaningful to their communities who are also seeking. The obstacles are many: overwhelming busy-ness, a lack of confidence in teaching the practices, Jewish organizational culture, lack of support, just to name a few.
Over the years, we have developed various tools to help address these obstacles. Starting this fall, we will have a new one to add to our repertoire.
The John Templeton Foundation has given us a major grant to support an innovative, national program to promote character development through mindfulness and tikkun middot practice in targeted Jewish communities led by Institute-trained rabbis, cantors, educators, mindfulness teachers, and community leaders. Over the next three years, we will work with 28 Jewish communities to bring a mindful approach to cultivating desirable behaviors or character traits (such as generosity, patience, truth-telling and humility) into the culture of these communities.
There are three significant innovations to this program. The first is that we will be providing training to help leaders bring a specific practice to their communities in a way that reflects the unique culture and realities of that particular community. Participants in the program will be given curricula, in-person trainings, regular webinar support and targeted consultations, all with the support of the other members of the cohort. Secondly, we will be exploring what happens when we make a systemic connection between strengthening individual character development and communal norms and culture. This will give us the opportunity to learn more about how transformation works along the spectrum of change within an individual, in interpersonal relationships, in institutions and in society at large. And thirdly, we will be pioneering a new approach to mussar that is grounded in mindfulness practice.
Rabbi Marc Margolius will be the director of the program. For more information, please visit the program page.
That a non-Jewish foundation with the clout of the Templeton Foundation has decided to invest in our exploration is just thrilling. We are hopeful that this will significantly improve the tools we can offer our alumni in helping to revitalize Jewish life.
For more information on the Templeton Foundation’s work, please click here.