The On-Ramp to Meaning

In Los Angeles, the hardest part of starting a big trip can be getting from the entrance ramp onto the freeway. I sit impatiently, watching the cars in the carpool lane flying by, and wait for the line of vehicles in front of me to get past the green light that allows just one car to pass every 30 seconds.

At this moment on the Jewish calendar, we’re about to go on a momentous journey. It’s the month of Elul, the days and weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As we approach the Days of Awe, we all sit like anxious commuters who are waiting to get onto the 405, looking in front of us and behind us, to the left and the right. We’re all lined up together as on an entrance ramp, ready to go. But like waiting for that light to change, it takes some psychological and spiritual preparation. And this week’s Torah portion has insight on how to do that.

In enumerating the myriad blessings the Israelites are to encounter when they inhabit the land of Israel, God — through Moses — tells the people: “You shall be blessed when you come in, and you shall be blessed when you go out” (Deuteronomy 28:6).

The Mishnah, our earliest rabbinic code of law, relays a story that helps us draw meaning from this divine promise. It tells us that a certain sage, Rabbi Nechuniah ben ha-Kana, was in the habit of uttering a short prayer both on his entrance and his exit from the academy. When he was asked what it was he prayed for, he replied, “Upon entering, I pray that no mistakes are made because of me; and when I leave, I give thanks for my portion.”

When he would enter, he would take the time to recognize that, in doing so, he might significantly affect the place. Any time we step into a room, we have the potential to accomplish great things, but we also might cause great harm. Even the smallest blunders might cause all sorts of ripple affects. That’s why, in his prayer upon entering, Rabbi Nechuniah would pause to ask God to help him cause no harm, no pain, no denigration or bad feelings.

Upon leaving, Rabbi Nechuniah offered a very different thought. He thanked God for what he had in life. While at the entrance, he had prayed that his behavior would be positive, here at the departure he stopped to consider his own good fortune. As he walked through another doorway, he took a moment to remind himself that his life was filled with blessings.

He would give thanks for his portion. In doing this, he avoided the more common impulses most of us have when we leave a place. It’s easiest, when we walk away from an encounter with another, to criticize, to demean, to regret. Instead, he suggests, we pause. Look around us. Take a deep breath, and appreciate the countless wonders.

Throughout this month — and during the High Holidays as well — it is our tradition to spend time each day taking a personal inventory. The Hebrew term for this is cheshbon ha-nefesh — literally, taking an “accounting of the soul.” It is to be a time of introspection, a time of rigorous examination of what kind of people we’ve been over the past year, what we’re proud of, and how we might want to change.

Taking a personal inventory is an enormous task. How is this best to be accomplished? Perhaps we may learn from the model of Rabbi Nechuniah. Begin with the transitional moments, the entrances and the exits. What are our expectations as we start encounters? How do we treat others, and ourselves, on our way out? And in the larger sense: How do we handle each life transition, as we walk out of one period of our lives and cross the threshold to another?

Driving on the freeway, the most dangerous and difficult maneuvers often take place on those ramps going on or off. And during these crucial days of personal inventory-taking, we can begin our introspection by looking at the transitional moments and how we treat them. And then, as we embark on the journeys of the new year, we will truly find blessings in our entrances and in our exits.

Shawn Fields-Meyer is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is also instructor in liturgy and adviser to students at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.