An American visitor was passing through the Polish town of Radin and stopped to visit the Chafetz Chayim.
Entering the sage's apartment, he was struck by how minimally it was furnished.
"Where is your furniture?" the man asked.
"Where is yours?" the Chaftez Chayim replied.
"Oh, I am only passing through," the man said.
"I too, am only passing through," said the Chofetz Chayim.
I talk about this spiritual insight a lot, I know. We are borrowers of the gift of life. We don't own anything, even our own individual existence is not "ours."
How do you understand this? In what ways can you look at what you feel you own today and see it as something you're borrowing?
From Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabriel, 11th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet
In seeking wisdom
the first step is silence
the second listening
the third remembering
the fourth practicing
the fifth teaching others.
How might you allow yourself more time for silence? It is the foundation upon which wisdom is built.
The Fourfold Song by Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, First Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, renowned Rabbi, scholar, mystic and author
There is a person who sings the song of his soul. He finds everything, his complete spiritual satisfaction, within his soul.
There is a person who sings the song of the nation. He steps forward from his private soul, which he finds narrow and uncivilized. He yearns for the heights. He clings with a sensitive love to the entirety of the Jewish nation and sings its song. He shares in its pains, is joyful in its hopes, speaks with exalted and pure thoughts regarding its past and its future, investigates its inner spiritual nature with love and a wise heart.
There is a person whose soul is so broad that it expands beyond the border of Israel. It sings the song of humanity. This soul constantly grows broader with the exalted totality of humanity and its glorious image. He yearns for humanity’s general enlightenment. He looks forward to its supernal perfection. From this source of life, he draws all of his thoughts and insights, his ideals and visions.
And there is a person who rises even higher until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, and with all worlds. And with all of them, he sings. This is the person who, engaged in the Chapter of Song every day, is assured that he is a child of the World-to-Come.
And there is a person who rises with all these songs together in one ensemble so that they all give forth their voices, they all sing their songs sweetly, each supplies its fellow with fullness and life: the voice of happiness and joy, the voice of rejoicing and tunefulness, the voice of merriment and the voice of holiness.
The song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the world—they all mix together with this person at every moment and at all times.
Is there a song here that you tend to sing? Which one?
If not, what is your song?
A second parable for the middle of Elul. This time from the Baal Shem Tov, spiritual founder of Hasidism.
A King had a child. The King wanted his child to learn and to experience various cultures, so he sent the child to a far-off country, supplied with a generous quantity of silver and gold. Far away from home, the child squandered all the money until he was left completely destitute. In his distress he resolved to return to his father's house and after much difficulty, managed to arrive at the gate of the courtyard to his father's palace.
He had forgotten the language of his native country, and he was unable to identify himself to the guards. In utter despair he began to cry out in a loud voice, and the King, who recognized the voice of his son, went out to him and brought him into the house, kissing him and hugging him.
In the parable, God, of course, is King. Each of us is God's child. And the cry of despair is the sounds of our voices, longing to reunite.
Who have you been away from? (physically, emotionally, spiritually)
How might you tell them you're ready to be back?
From Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad.
The king's usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of secretaries and ministers. One must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. One's presentation must be meticulously prepared, and he must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.
However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace.
The month of Elul is when the king is in the field.
We're half way through our Elul reflections.
The royal presence is not hidden or inaccessible.
It is right there, in your midst.
In your minds and in your hearts.
You are in the field with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Consider these past 2 weeks of spiritual reflections.
Has this month been different at all? How?
Self-abasement --------------- Humility --------------- Pride --------------- Arrogance
Consider where you are on this spectrum at any point today.
(The spaces between the words are also locations).
Are you where would you like to be?
There is only one time during the year when the overwhelming majority of Jews around the world gather in the community's public institution (such as a shul or community center).
The High Holy Days.
Why? Why do we not need to open up the accordion wall between the Sanctuary and Ordis Hall and set out hundreds of seats on Tu b’shvat, Pesach, or Shavuot?
Rabbi Art Green, Rector of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, taught me that Jews don’t see the high holy days as part of the cycle of the year, but rather, as part of the cycle of our lives.
We think of life cycle events as birth, baby naming, bar and bat mitzvah, getting engaged and married, having children, growing older. We’re very drawn to these times, celebrating them, inviting people to be with us, and developing new rituals that mark them as holy.
Unlike any other times on the calendar, we treat our High Holy Days not as year cycle events but as life cycle events.
Are High Holy Days important to you? Why? What's different about these days to you?
In 1938, a multi-generational, 75 year research study called The Grant Study began at part of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School. The subjects were 268 healthy Harvard college male sophomores from the classes of 1939 to 1944. Incidentally, one of the men was John F Kennedy. The men, who continue to be studied to this day, were evaluated at least every two years concerning their mental and physical health, career satisfaction, retirement experience and quality of relationships. The goal of the study was to identify predictors of healthy aging.
The study has identified that a key indicator of healthy aging is generativity. The term generativity was coined by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson in 1950 to mean the ability to transcend personal interests to provide care and concern for the next generation.
The study found that those who are healthy as they age have invested their resources, work, time, energy and efforts in a way that will have generational impact.
Generativity can be expressed in countless ways: raising a child, teaching students, philanthropy, writing a family history, restoring land, and many more.
How can you be generative? What have you done - or what can you do - that you feel can impact the generations that come after you?
Our ancient rabbis who interpreted Torah acknowledged the great effort it takes to live Jewishly.
They even inserted phrases like "chazak chazak v’nitchazek" after completing the chanting one of the five books of Torah. "Strength, strength, may we be strengthened," we call out, an explicit claim that absorbing all the words of Torah into our lives is an enormous task. It can feel weakening.
But what's paradoxical about this teaching is that Torah - the very thing that weakens us - also strengthens us.
What have you taken on in your life that has left you feeling weak?
How do you regain your strength?
There are many occasions in the Talmud when a rabbi's students come to him and ask: rabeynu, our teacher, teach us what we need to know to live well. In one of my favorite passages (from the tractate of Brachot/blessings), Rabbi Eliezer’s students come to him as he is dying, and ask him for his wisdom.
He tells them:
make sure you always honor your friends;
don’t take your study too lightly, or too rigorously;
place your children between the knees of scholars;
and when you pray, be mindful of the Holy One before whom you stand.
Not long after he dies, his students begin living and teaching the values of their teacher, holding the meaning of his life, and sharing it with their own students: honor your friends, be gentle and balanced in your study, teach your children wisely, and be mindful of the presence of the Sacred.
We, too, have been touched by our grandparents, parents, and teachers. We, too, are asked to be keepers of meaning, living the core values we have received from people we have trusted, and teaching them to children and students. We should not be the center of our universe. Nothing should end with us; when we are at our best, we see ourselves as borrowers, not owners; then the many gifts we have received can flow forward to those whom we are privileged to parent or teach.
What gifts you have received?
How can you give them forward?
How are you a keeper of meaning?
One of the questions that emerged from Friday's prompt was: what fears do we have that might stand in our way of making the changes we envision? A few years ago, I led a community conversation during Shabbat about the things we are afraid of. It was a very moving conversation. Here is what people shared:
We’re afraid of
losing people we love
losing our memories or control of our bodies
failing and suffering.
We’re afraid that we don’t know very much, even in the fields that have named us experts, and that that will be revealed to the world.
We’re afraid of
feeling exposed, rather than empowered, by forgiving.
We're afraid of
dying, particularly unexpectedly, or tragically, and
leaving behind people who love us, and who will mourn this loss. We're afraid and saddened that we won't be there to comfort them.
Jewish spiritual tradition doesn't ask to overcome our fears, but rather to acknowledge them, reflect on them, deepen our understanding of them, and transform ourselves into kinder, more generous, more compassionate people because of our fears, knowing that others, too, are facing very similar fears.
What are you afraid of?
You don't need to overcome it.
With reflection you can transform it.
In his book Nefesh Chayim, Reb Chayim of Volozhin (late 18th century) comments on the moment in Torah before the parting of the Sea of Reeds, as the Israelites are fleeing Egypt.
At that moment, Moses cries out to God.
God responds: "Moses, why are you crying out to me? Speak to the people and let them journey."
Reb Chayim writes that God meant that the parting of the Sea actually depended on the people: "If they will be firm in their belief and trust and travel towards the sea, secure in their hearts and not fearful, due to the strength of their faith that it will definitely split, then this will cause an awakening above and ensure that a miracle will be done for them. Then the sea would split before them."
At first, this feels like an expression of the pre-modern belief that faith enables God to intervene and perform miracles.
But it’s more relatable than that. The comment inspires a deep insight:
We can change if we visualize - and believe in - the change we want to make.
What changes in your life have you thought about over the last year?
Can you visualize yourself having made these changes?
What does it look like? How do you feel?
It is taught that the Hebrew name of this month, Elul, is an acronym for the line from Song of Songs, ani l'dodi v'dodi li. I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine.
Personal reflection can be hard and tiring.
You might think of this month of Elul as a love song.
Why is God “closer” this time of year? Because we’re willing to be open hearted and loving.
To help the work feel less tiring, more loving, take today to share with someone you love why you love them.
Spiritual practice means bringing to mind and heart the qualities we want to live by, so we have them ready to give.
A Hasidic story.
Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his disciples. He was crying and no one could comfort him. One student asked his Rebbe, "Why do you cry? You were almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham." Reb Zusha answered, "When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won't ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,' rather, they will ask me, 'Zusha, why weren't you Zusha?'
In what ways do you feel you have lived genuinely?
How might you still strive to do so? What changes would you need to take on?
I was a 20 years old college student in New York City the first time I went to buy a men’s suit. I needed it for an interview. My sister Ilana was visiting me, so we went together. We walked into this enormous warehouse of men’s suits in midtown Manhattan, and - knowing nothing but the fact that suits were expensive and I wanted to buy the right one - I asked every possible question I knew to ask. What kind of suit collar goes with this kind of shirt? Is this too lightweight for a New York winter? Do stripes make me look confident? I had never asked these kinds of questions before. After a couple of hours I walked out with a new suit. It didn’t need tailoring or anything. Just slipped right on. The second I walked out of the store, the world had changed. Every man in New York City had been to the suit store that morning. Everyone. They were all wearing suits. I never noticed.
I wonder what you might notice today that you didn't yesterday.
Rabbi Alan Lew was the spiritual leader of a congregation in San Francisco for many years before dying suddenly 10 years ago. He was a Conservative-trained rabbi who also established the world’s first Jewish meditation center. He also is the author of many beautiful books. In one of his books about the High Holy Days, "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared," he tells the story of sitting in his living room one afternoon and hearing the sound of a basketball bouncing outside. He unexpectedly broke out crying. Not typically that moved by sounds of bouncing balls, he realized the sound took him back to a time he would play with his father, who had died 14 years earlier, on an asphalt court his father built for them near their house. Rabbi Lew was a typical American kid, raised on watching and playing sports. His dad was born in Poland to a family of war refugees; he didn’t know how to play. He’d fling the ball wildly towards the hoop and dribble off his feet. His father was stubborn and competed fiercely in every thing he did. Yet, Rabbi Lew writes about his dad, when it came to playing with his son, he regularly humiliated himself, laughing at his own ineptitude, cackling with self deprecation.
Sitting in his living room that day, hearing the sound of the ball outside his window, Rabbi Lew understood that his father was really only fully genuine there on the court. He writes, "It was the only time I ever knew him to be comfortable saying, ‘This is me. With all my limitations, with all my loss and suffering my life has dealt me, this is exactly who I am.' I could see that open, radiant, laughing face of his, transformed by self-forgiveness."
Self-forgiveness is an essential act of the High Holy Day season.
"The old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy." Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook In Hebrew - הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש / ha-yashan yitchadesh v'ha-chadash yitkadesh.
Think of something "old" in your life - the way you wake up, the foods you eat, the way you greet people when you see them. Try doing so differently today. How can they can be different, more generous, more intentional?
Rabbi Simcha Bunam Bonhart of Przysucha used to say, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” – from Tales of the Hasidim, by Martin Buber.
When have you felt discouraged or disconsolate this past year? What was happening in that moment? How did you respond?
When have you felt high and mighty? What was happening in that moment? How did you respond?
Reflecting on these experiences, how might you respond differently?