There are certain numbers that Judaism considers sacred as they occur over and over again in the Torah. Well known of these numbers include 4, 7, 10 and 40. The number 40 is especially intriguing. We read about 40 days of rain during Noah's flood, 40 days Moses spent on the mountain receiving the Torah, 40 years spent wandering in the desert, 40 days Elijah fasted and others. Forty seems to signify a time of purification that leads to transformation where we build to a higher consciousness.
As we begin to prepare for the High Holy Days, our tradition also asks us to offer 40 days of inner work or purification throughout the 30 days of the Hebrew month of Elul and ending with the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This work is so important that each day during Elul which began on August 16th this year, the shofar is sounded, reminding us to wake up and judge our deeds. The intent of this self judgment is not to promote guilt but to help us discern what would like to keep in our lives and what we would like to discard. The daily process of inner reflection is meant to also help us become more aware of our emotions and perceptions allowing us to eventually have control over them rather than having the emotions and perceptions control us.
In Jewish meditation circles, there is a popular teaching story that illustrates this. A retired Air Force Colonel was standing in the express line at the grocery store and found himself getting quite agitated. At the head of the line, the cashier was not only speaking to a customer with a baby but was cooing with the baby and tickling her. While everyone in the line waited, the colonel found himself getting more enraged by the minute. Fortunately he had taken an anger management class and was able to use the tool of focusing on his breath to help his anger subside.
Once he got to the head of the line, he was even able to remark at how cute the baby was. The cashier responded, "Oh, you think so? The baby is actually my baby. My husband was an Air Force pilot who recently died in an airplane crash. I needed to go to work to support myself and my mother takes care of the baby for me. She comes into the store to buy something several times a day so I can see my baby."
May we all be blessed with awareness, discernment, peace and joy as we begin the High Holy Day season!