Soul Work for the Holidays

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation B’nai Israel St Petersburg, FL

Journal Prompts for Elul

Martin Buber tells the story of the great Hasidic Rabbi Zusya (Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol). On his deathbed Rabbi Zusya began to cry uncontrollably and his students and disciples tried to comfort him. They asked him, “Rabbi, why do you weep? You are almost as wise as Moses, you are almost as hospitable as Abraham, and surely heaven will judge you favorably.”

Zusya answered them: “It is true. When I get to heaven, I won’t worry so much if God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Abraham?’ or ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Moses?’ I know I would be able to answer these questions. After all, I was not given the righteousness of Abraham or the faith of Moses but I tried to be both hospitable and thoughtful.

But what will I say when God asks me, ‘Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?’ Why didn't I fulfill my potential, why didn't I follow the path that could have been mine?”

So in the Hebrew months of Elul, it is a good time for us to preempt the question of Zusya: How shall we be more fully our best selves?

  1. What memories do I have of Rosh HaShanah? In the synagogue? With my family?
  2. How do I pray? Why? How did I pray as a child? As a younger person?
  3. What makes a good apology?
  4. What are you resisting? What stories do you tell yourself about your own resistance? Are they true?
  5. Who is the person in the Torah or other books of the Tanakh with whom I most identify? What can I learn from the words or actions of that person?
  6. What 3 (or more) questions would I ask the Eternal? What does God ask of me?
  7. What is my relationship with Judaism now? Has it ever been different?
  8. What meaning does Rosh HaShanah have for me? What would I like to do differently in 5782?
  9. Health permitting, do I plan to fast on Yom Kippur? If I can’t fast, what can I do differently to acknowledge or observe the fast?
  10. What mitzvot could I perform today? Each day?
  11. Who do I need to forgive? Who has asked me to forgive them? Can I?
  12. To whom do I owe an apology — or reparations? 
  13. Where is the land of my soul? How can I return?
  14. What is my relationship to and with the Jewish community? Would I want it to be different?
  15. What part do I play in the life of my synagogue? Do I want that to change?
  16. What does my study or practice of Judaism entail? Do I want to do more?
  17. Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: How do I seek justice, and for whom? How do I participate in tikkun olam, repairing the world?
  18. Which aspects of Judaism make the most sense to me? What do I struggle with?
  19. What are you grateful for in your life right now/ this past year?
  20. When in general did you feel most alive?
  21. What are some of your greatest insights that you now have that you didn’t have as strongly last year?
  22. What is one word or intention that you would like to focus on this year?
  23. What is a unique skill that you have that you can apply to help create change in our world?
  24. What behaviors are blocking you from being your best self? What can you do to reduce and eliminate these behaviors?
  25. What is one area in your relationship with God that you would like to improve in? What is a practical step you can take to work on this?
  26. Imagine High Holy Days three years into the future… 20 years…
  27. Who are you remembering this year?
  28. If your soul could speak, what would she say?

Finally: Write a letter to yourself at the end of 5782. Seal it in an envelope and set a calendar reminder to read it in a year.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was 18-years old when he was called into leadership in a time of communal crisis. He stayed up most of the night in anguish, fearing he lacked the age and experience necessary for the position. But when he woke up the next morning, Rabbi Elazar looked like a 70-year-old, having miraculously aged many years overnight, with the newfound wisdom to match his new gray hair.

We have all gained wisdom this year. What was the most important lesson you learned?

Online Resources

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah: 16 Prompts (Aish)

Preparing for the Days of Awe – Journaling with Symbolic Objects (Reform Judaism)

Writing ideas under Questioning and Journeying

(Jewish Journal)

New Year’s prompts for elementary school students (JTeach)

10Q — A question a day for 10 days.