Clear out the sludge so the soul can shine
When winter is nearly over and a hint of spring is in the air, it’s not unusual to get an urge to start the yearly spring cleaning ritual.
You know — take the curtains down to launder, make the windows shine, get the dust out of all the corners, sort through those junk drawers.
Visitors will probably never notice that your junk drawers have been weeded out and organized, that there is no dust behind the sofa — but you know, and if you have cleaned, you feel the brighter for it. So it is with the soul. In Jewish tradition, we enter this world with a clean soul. But because we are incarnated beings, we then spend our lifetime living — and life can get messy.
A period of introspection and soul-clearing is part of multiple religious traditions. Unlike spring cleaning, this process may not be tied to the season, but to some other religious event. For example, in Christian tradition, the Lenten season connects to the glory of Easter. That it occurs at this latitude just before spring arrives in full force is coincidental. For Christians in the southern hemisphere, the same experience is in the autumn. But wherever they may live, their process is the same, and the feelings of newness and awe know no seasonal boundary.
In the Jewish faith tradition, there are 49 days between the Ninth of Av (July 22nd this year) and Rosh Hashanah (our spiritual New Year and the start of the High Holiday season, September 10th this year). On this day of the Jewish month of Av, multiple disasters have befallen the Jewish people over the millennia, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as the expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492. The shock of these cataclysmic events has become part of our spiritual DNA.
As we count the days until Rosh Hashanah, that urge to clean starts to rise in the soul. Three weeks after Tisha B’Av, the month of Elul begins (August 12th this year), and we can no longer put it off. It is time to work on clearing out the sludge in our souls. We have a standing appointment with the One on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (September 19th this year), and unlike those spring visitors who pay no attention, the Almighty sees all — we cannot hide the dimming film of grudges held, the mud of self-righteous judgments made, the charred remnants of relationships strained by our poor behavior. We cannot hide the metaphorical idol-worship of money or power or the twisted paths of rationalization that we have followed to avoid the hard work of living that the prophet Micah (6:8) described so long ago: “He has told you, O man, what is good/ And what the Lord requires of you:/ Only to do justice/ And to love goodness, /and to walk modestly with your God.” It is time for teshuva- return. A return to the right paths of action. A return to honorable relationships. And a return to our connection with the One.
During the month of Elul, Jews the world over reflect on the past year and do the hard work of asking forgiveness of those whom they have offended in some way. Bit by bit, they let go of grudges and self-righteous anger, and bit by bit, the emotional burden lightens. They look in the mirror of the heart and admit that they are human and imperfect, but able to change and improve. They listen to the still, small Voice within and admit that yes, even though they might have said the right words, their actions did not always match. And when the joy of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (5779 this year) comes, they ready themselves for Yom Kippur, when before God they will stand shoulder to shoulder with Jews the world over, as well as each person alone before God, asking for forgiveness and a better year ahead. And when the shofar (ram’s horn) sounds at sunset on that day, the lightness of spirit reflects the Light that can now shine through the soul as the last vestiges of the past year’s soul sludge is transmuted to the rays of hope.
No matter what your faith tradition, no matter what the season, working to clear out the sludge in your soul can let the Light begin to shine through once again.
Suzanne J Schermerhorn CAS is the Shlichat Tzibbur/Spiritual Leader at the Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Gloversville.