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Ellul Preparation for the High Holydays-Week 2-Cheshbon HaNefesh and How We Speak and Use our Words

Dear Friends

As we spoke about last week, we are currently in the Jewish month of Ellul – which means it’s almost Rosh Hashana! In fact, Rosh Hashana is now less than 2 weeks away – beginning on the night of Monday 6th September.

There is important work to be done in Ellul, as we prepare for the powerful, transformative experiences of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This work is known in Hebrew in our tradition as “Cheshbon HaNefesh” – which literally means “Soul Accounting”.

The idea is that we engage in a process of inner exploration – of exploring and uncovering what has really been going on in our hearts, in our minds and in our souls over the past year. Of course, what we actually do in the world, the way we behave, is of utmost importance, and, yet, much of how we show up in the world is determined by what happens in our inner worlds – those worlds that no one else can see.

Sometimes we may hide even from ourselves what’s going on inside us out of shame, guilt or pain. So, I want to say that this process isn’t easy. No one said it was easy – walking the Jewish spiritual path isn’t easy, but it is real and it is meaningful. And it is also an incredible opportunity for healing, for opening and for returning to our truest, best and most beautiful selves (Teshuva). My experience has been that if we engage in this work in an authentic and real way, then the Universe / The Source of Life / Hashem / Universal Consciousness / God comes to support us as we engage in this.

The invitation is to be as honest as we can. So, you may wish to do this work on your own with a journal or with a trusted friend, mentor or therapist.

This week I would like us to focus on: THE WAY WE SPEAK and HOW WE USE OUR WORDS, in Hebrew this is known as ‘Shmirat HaLashon’.

After the formal end of each silent ‘Amidah’, our siddur invites us to say a beautiful personal prayer that begins with the Hebrew words: “Elohai netzor leshoni mei ra v’sefatai mi’daber mirmah”.

This prayer is attributed to Mar Bar Ravina, a 4th century sage who lived in Babylonia, and is based on Psalm 34, verse 14. The translation is roughly:

“My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from speaking deceptively. If people speak badly of me, I will try to hold my tongue, and I will practice humility.”

The ability to speak is one of the defining features of us human beings. It enables us to create connections and build relationships. At a deeper level, when we speak, we can use our words to reveal to others our innermost feelings, emotions and deepest desires.

But, as we know all too well, we can use our speech in very destructive ways. In moments of frustration or anger we can hurt people –too often, people whom we love and care for. We can use our words to spread gossip, to slander others and even to ruin another person’s reputation in the eyes of others.

At Yom Kippur, many of the ‘Al chets’ that we say relate to our faculty of speech.

So, in this time of Ellul reflection, here are some questions to reflect on:

1. When you have the urge to say unkind things about another person (lashon hara), why are you doing this?

  • Are you trying to build a relationship with someone at the expense of a third person? Might there be a more wholesome way to build that relationship?

  • Are you doing it out of anger or frustration? Can you wait for those painful emotions to subside before speaking? Once spoken, words cannot be unsaid.

Maimonides teaches that 3 people are damaged by speaking lashon hara: the speaker, the listener and the subject.

2. Sometimes choosing to stay silent is the wisest thing to do. Are there times when you feel you could be silent rather than speak? How can you use silence more skilfully in the coming year?

3. Were there times when you could have used your words to praise or acknowledge or thank someone, and you didn’t use that opportunity? Could now be a time to let them know what you wanted to say?

4. Are there any areas in which you struggle with cultivating the wise use of speech? Do you give advice when it is not requested? Do you interrupt others? Do you leave enough space for others to speak?

5. Have there been any times in the past year when you have been careless or negligent with your words? Is there someone to whom you owe an apology because of how you spoke to them?

I think that being skilful, compassionate and, when needed, firm, with our words, is one of the most challenging of all areas of human development and spiritual growth – I know it is for me.

Let us work hard to make sure that in the coming year we do our best to use our words and our speech for good and not for bad.

With love and blessings

Rabbi Danny

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