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Elul and Spiritual Do-Overs

The High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are coming, which means it’s time to start thinking about self-improvement. During the month of Elul, which precedes the Jewish New Year on the Hebrew calendar, it’s a Jewish custom to review the past year, take stock of our shortcomings and vow to try harder. For me, it’s the same story every Elul–a new year may be coming, but I’m still working on the same old flaws.

Maybe imperfection loves company, but I suspect I’m not the only one whose Eluls are like the Jewish version of the movie Groundhog Day. Instead of an alarm clock ringing, the shofar blasts on the first morning of Elul, bidding me to wake up and face a familiar, inescapable list of failures, broken promises and unrealized goals. What happened to all that great spiritual growth I was supposed to achieve last year? At what point did I get off my shiny new path of self-improvement and slide back into the same narrow but comfortable rut? Why is this Elul no different than other Eluls?

As we know from modern psychology, acknowledging the problem is the first step, usually followed by a varying number of additional steps designed to effect change. Judaism, being ancient psychology, boils the process down to three steps: teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah–repentance, prayer and charity. Not only do these steps have pleasing consonance (the “Three T’s!”), they are deceptively simple: all we have to do is get back on the right path, reflect/mediate/pray and send a check to our favorite charity. And presto! We’re good to go for another year.

If only it were so easy. Take just one of the “T’s,” teshuvah. Personally, I find this step to be the hardest, since it involves unflinching self-examination. We’re not looking at superficial stuff–this isn’t like secular New Year resolutions about losing 10 pounds or finally uncluttering the closet. Instead, teshuvah means tallying up our spiritual deficits (in my case, the list invariably includes gossiping, judging and complaining) so that we can see when and how we’ve let other people and ourselves (and even God, if we’re religiously inclined) down. Obviously, this makes for some pretty uncomfortable “me time,” but it’s essential if we’re going to change.

If you’re really a glutton for punishment, you can try a traditional Jewish practice called hatarat nedarim, the absolution of vows. Ask three people (preferably forgiving types) to serve as your religious court, your bet din. They’re like proxies for the One True Judge, if you will, and you ask them to let you off the hook for all the vows you made last Elul that you didn’t keep. Although this sounds like a really humiliating exercise, the upside is you get to swap roles–the other three have their turn in the hot seat while you play judge and jury (be gentle).

For most people (including me), hatarat nedarim is great only in theory. It’s hard enough to admit to yourself that you’ve screwed up, let alone bare your soul to others. You’ll do that soon enough anyway, because another important aspect of teshuvah is asking forgiveness from anyone you’ve hurt or offended.

But there’s more to teshuvah than privately or publicly copping to bad habits and defects. The root of the word is le-shuv, to return. Paradoxically, coming back can be the only way to ultimately move forward. I know this because of something that happened when I was 6.

I was feeling “big” and declared that I wanted to go for a walk around the neighborhood by myself. My mother carefully explained the correct route and even took me on a trial run. Then I set out on my own. I strolled along, glorying in my independence. It was dusk, and as the shadows lengthened, my surroundings became unfamiliar. I’d missed a turn somewhere, and now I was lost (keep in mind this was long before cellphones–I was really flying blind). I was scared, but I decided to retrace my steps exactly, reasoning that I’d eventually find a familiar street or landmark. So I doubled back and returned home the way I came. Did I feel like a failure because I didn’t “make it” all the way on my own? Hardly–I was relieved to the point of tears that I got back home at all.

That’s the gist of teshuvah. Once we realize we’re way off course spiritually, we are supposed to turn around and get back on track. We return to our original intentions and continue forward. But what were those intentions? What was it we vowed to do “from now on” (last year and the year before that and … etc.)?

Here’s the easy part (relatively speaking)–take a look at the values that have been the compass points on your journey through life. Not to get too lofty or anything, but why do you think you are here? What’s your purpose? What matters most to you–family, friendships, making a difference in the world? Whatever it is, teshuvah will bring you back to it and prepare you for a fresh start.

Elul teaches us that history doesn’t have to repeat itself in our lives. We get a second chance, a spiritual mulligan. God knows we can all use a do-over–it’s hard to change entrenched habits. We need all 40 days (from the beginning of the month of Elul to Yom Kippur) to figure out what’s important and what we need to change–and to start on the road to becoming an improved version of our former selves (incidentally, don’t worry about backsliding. The tradition understands our tendency to make resolutions with great gusto only to slack off. That may be why Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidrei, a service during which we nullify in advance all the vows we’ll make between this Yom Kippur and next).

You know, I’m feeling pretty good. This time around, maybe Elul won’t be Groundhog Day, but instead, Back to the Future.

There’s one more Elul custom I want to share: a blessing for you and your family for health and joy in the new year.

Marinell James

Marinell James blogs at