What should I do to make the next forty days count? Some of these ideas might work for you.
Rosh Chodesh Elul signals the beginning of the season of introspection. It’s hard, in the whirlwind of school beginning and the approaching yamim tovim, to set aside time and brain space for the true avodah of Elul—of coming closer to Hashem and doing teshuvah in preparation for the Yom Hadin—so I figured I’d help you get started.
The truth is, avodas Hashem, and specifically self-improvement, is a very personal thing. Every individual has his or her own unique path and process, built using their specific tools and strengths. That’s why no shiur, article, blog post or class on self-improvement can ever be a one-size-fits-all. And that is why I present you with not one, not two, but forty different approaches you can take and ideas you can try in the hopes that a couple will resonate with you and help you bring the spirit of Elul into your life and into your home. Forty is the number of days we are granted in the yemei ratzon, so this number holds special meaning.
I split my list into two separate parts. One to help you bring Elul into your own heart and the other to bring it into your home.
1. Buy yourself a notebook to be your special cheshbon hanefesh notebook. Try to write in it every day of Elul for just a couple of moments. You can write your own general thoughts, or you can use it to document your journey in self-improvement. You can use it hand in hand with some other ideas I will list here.
2. Find a chavrusa and learn a mussar sefer that speaks to you for a few minutes a night/week, if not for the whole year, then at least for this month.
3. Try the Five Minutes method. Choose something that you will refrain from doing for five minutes a day. Big change comes in small increments. For just five minutes, put away your phone, don’t speak lashon hara, don’t get upset at your children, or whatever your particular challenge is. If you dare, double that time after a week, and keep doubling.
4. Make a list of everything you are grateful for over this past year and everything you are davening for for next year.
5. The Wheel of Life is a wonderful tool to assist in making a cheshbon hanefesh. On the wheel, rate your satisfaction with each area of your life. Use that as a springboard to your avodah and where you want to focus your changes. This is a template, coming from a secular source; you can adjust it on your own to incorporate whichever elements in your life you would like to rate.
6. Even if you don’t daven a complete tefillah because you are busy with your family, daven L’Dovid Hashem Ori (Tehillim 27) that we say at the end of davening during the yemei ratzon. It’s a beautiful perek of Tehillim that encapsulates so much of what we are supposed to be experiencing during these days.
7. Add on an additional tefillah to whatever it is that you say during the year. If you daven the whole shachris, daven minchah during Elul. If you daven only brachos and Shmoneh Esrei, add Shema, etc.
8. Finish the whole Sefer Tehillim this month, saying the yom l’chodesh every day.
9. Choose one person in your life that you will be kinder to this month. Don’t do this in a fake way, but rather work on yourself to build up compassion for this person and look past what normally bothers you. Make it genuine and then ask Hashem to treat you, in turn, with more compassion than you deserve when He judges you this Rosh Hashanah.
10. Complete this sentence: I would like to __________ but _________. Then ask yourself what you can do to get rid of that “but” and achieve your goal.
11. The global approach: Make a list of all of your values and areas you want to improve in, and make a small step in each.
12. The focused approach: Take one area in which you want to make changes and make a step-by-step plan, taking tiny baby steps until you reach the goal.
13. The building approach: List your strengths and talents and try to come up with at least one tangible way you can use some of them to better the world this year.
14. The breaking approach: Make a list of the qualities you are not as proud of, and choose one to try to overcome this year. Once you have chosen one (laziness, anger, jealousy, a particular bad habit, etc.) map out a step-by-step plan to help you work on this trait.
15. Build your Elul mindset. Without taking any extra time out of your day, just look at life through an Elul mindset—looking for opportunities for growth and introspection in the mundane. See every life situation as an opportunity to grow and find Hashem in every aspect of your day.
16. Let go of a grudge you’ve been holding onto for too long. Call the other party and make amends, expressing your forgiveness and asking for theirs. Even if you aren’t necessarily going to build the relationship again because of the potential for future hurt or manipulation, acknowledge and take responsibility for your role in the friction and express your regret for what happened and why.
17. Make a checklist of goals you want to have achieved by Rosh Hashanah 5782. Keep it in a safe spot where you can refer to it often throughout the year, and especially at this time next year, to see how much you’ve achieved.
18. Tune into the Chayeinu, Chazak, or Kol Halashon Hotline daily for inspiration.
19. Speak to your rav or mentor about what your avodah should be at this time. If you don’t have one, perhaps you can think about how to get one.
20. Whatever you do, keep a record. Use your notebook to track your progress, make yourself a chart (yes, with incentives!) and grade yourself on how well you kept up with your kabalos. If you slip and falter, have no fear. Tomorrow is another day, in which Hashem is eagerly awaiting your avodah.
For Your Family
21. Have a family meeting where you decide together on one thing you will work on this year, as a family.
22. Whatever you’ve decided on, make a progress-tracking chart so you can keep track of how well you are sticking to your commitment, and perhaps the prize for filling up the chart can be a special game or toy to keep the children gainfully occupied on Yom Kippur.
23. For the whole month of Elul, every time someone in the family does a mitzvah, write it down on a strip of colorful paper. Save up all of those papers and then use them to make a chain for your sukkah.
24. Learn something together, as a family.
25. Turn on Rosh Hashanah davening CDs in the house. Let songs of inspiration resound through your home and stir the hearts of those who live there.
26. If you own a shofar, have it blown in your home every morning for the family. The men can’t forget it’s Elul, because they hear the shofar in shul every morning, but we’re not there, so we don’t hear it. It’s a reminder to all of us that Elul is indeed here when the shofar is blown in our home after davening.
27. Use supper time to spur growth. Either have everyone share something they are grateful for, a story of hashgachah they experienced that day, etc.
28. Have your children decorate and then hang up around the house signs with mantras and Elul sayings and maamarei chazal to help propel growth.
29. One thing that remote learning has accomplished is making us as parents take more responsibility than usual on how to help our children feel the upcoming yom tov. So in the spirit of homeschooling, I suggest: Work with your children to create an Elul/Tishrei-themed bulletin board to hang prominently in your home.
30. Have them perform skits or play games, such as charades, that showcase proper middos and behavior, making good choices, etc.
31. If your family doesn’t make brachos out loud in the home, institute it as a project this Elul. You can take a jar and put in a bead every time someone says a brachah out loud, and for every Amen said in response. There can be a prize once the jar is filled.
32. Sit down as a family to write shanah tovah cards—the good old-fashioned kind!—to their grandparents, aunts, other relatives, or any person who can use a pick-me-up. Tell them that in the z’chus that they remember people who might be feeling lonely, Hashem should remember them l’tovah during the Yom Hadin.
33. Use the Five Minute approach, but with everyone in the family. Have a specific five-minute window of time, where everyone in the family chooses something that they will use those five minutes for. One child could be helping to clean during that time, one could be refraining from lashon hara, etc., all during the same five minutes so that there is a feeling of togetherness.
34. If you are good about bedtime stories, this month gear your stories—or the books you read—to stories of growth and tikkun hamidos. Tell meshalim of the King and how very close He is.
35. Sprinkle it into your daily conversation. “It’s Elul now; how about you don’t fight with your sister.” “It’s almost Rosh Hashanah; show Hashem how much you love Him by…”
36. Now that they are b’ezras Hashem starting school, have your children share something they learned about Elul or Rosh Hashanah in school that day. Every child can have a chance to share every day, or each child gets his turn on a different day.
37. Aside for playing the music in the house, sing with your children as well. Have a special yamim noraim kumzitz and familiarize them with some of the haunting songs in the davening nusach.
38. Have a conversation with each of the children individually, talking about their strengths and accomplishments, how far they have come in the past year, what they would love to achieve this year, and remind them how capable they are, how special they have been and how much faith you have in their ability to do incredibly this year.
39. Show them extra compassion and love this time of year. Children see their relationship with their parents as a microcosm of their relationship with Hashem. In order for them to feel close to Hashem, they need to first feel close to you. To feel His love, they first need to feel yours. In the spirit of “mah Hu, af atah,” emulate the “Melech Basadeh” by being extra present and extra close during these very special and lofty days.
40. Role model. While I split this list into two separate groups, it is not fully accurate. Anything you do with your family will penetrate into your own psyche and affect your own avodah, and even more important is the converse. Everything that you do for yourself in terms of avodas Hashem and tikkun hamiddos spills over onto your children and affects the atmosphere of the entire family. So really, anything you take on in the first category will have a profound impact beyond anything you teach and explain. Your children will notice and see the changes in you and will be inspired and uplifted by your example.