Stopping in Elul As a Radical Act of Freedom
Updated: Sep 23, 2022
One of the most important things one can do for their spiritual health is stop. Just stop. Stop moving and stop acting for a few moments or an hour. Create space for something new and unexpected to emerge. Create space for reflection on your life and relationships. Momentary stopping is especially important for activists and for all of us living in a deeply capitalist society where time is thoroughly equated with money. Stopping is a radical act of freedom and is essential to the spiritual practice of Elul.
Judaism has moments of stopping built into the flow of the calendar with Shabbat every week and the shmita/sabbatical year every seven years (ending next month). There is also the practice of Hachana/Preparation, an intentional stopping before doing a mitzvah or spiritual activity like prayer.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (d. 2005, Israel) taught that the Hachana/Preparation for a mitzvah was a spiritual practice itself. We find in Mishna Brachot the practice of the early pious ones who would prepare their minds and hearts for an hour before entering into formal prayer. I find that it makes a difference if I can even take several seconds before starting prayer to say to myself, “I am now about to pray.” That small break in the steady, unconscious flow of activity, can raise up the activity that follows with a wholly different level of awareness. The month of Elul itself is a Hachanah/Preparation for the New Year and period of spiritual return that is the Jewish high holidays. According to Rabbi Wolbe, the most important thing we can do during Elul is stop and create at least an hour for reflection on our lives. It is the Yetzer HaRah, so stoked by the pressures and attractions of capitalist culture, that keeps us constantly busy and unable to reflect.
Why is stopping such a radical act of freedom? When we stop we exercise choice and say, “I’m going to create space for something right now.” We break out of the internal and external demands for constant productivity. I often find the most valuable moment in a meditation or session of hitbodedut (spontaneous conversation with God) is just noticing that I’ve stopped and have made space for the spirit. My heart and mind will open in these moments to a sense of awe that I didn’t notice before. Stopping and creating such space is a way of taking a stand for ultimate meaning and purpose that underlies our activities.
Elul is a month to practice this stopping and Hachana/preparation. Built into the Jewish calendar are special rituals like blowing shofar each day, reciting psalm 27 and calling on God’s 13th attributes of compassion (daily in Sephardic communities and towards the end of the month in Ashkenazic communities). In addition there is the imperative that we take at least an hour during the month to reflect on our lives and relationships over the past year and check-in with ourselves to what degree we are living in and out of alignment with what is most important. To this end we invite you to join our annual Teshuva Workshop on 9/19 and 9/29, designed to offer this stopping and reflection to help you prepare a spiritual action plan for the coming year. For those who want to bring a spiritual dimension to anti-racism practice, we invite you to join our new Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out program, which integrates the reflective practice of Mussar with anti-oppression training methodologies.
As we work to create a more just, liberated world, the practice of stopping reminds us of the world we are trying to birth. May this Elul be the time of preparation we need to envision that world.