Rabbi Simcha Bunam Bonhart of Przysucha would 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.”
On this final day of Elul, moments from Rosh Hashanah, think about when you felt discouraged or disconsolate this past year. What was happening in that moment and how did you respond? When you felt high and mighty, what was happening, and how did you respond? Elul prepares us to stand before Hashem on Erev Rosh Hashanah feeling courageous yet humble, strong yet vulnerable. (We are large, we contain multitudes!). Only then will we be prepared to stretch our hearts, the essential task of the season. L'shanah tovah!
One of the most beautiful ways to enter this season of teshuvah is to immerse in the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. You can follow the phases of the moon during the month of Elul here. We also invite you to take your own pictures of the moon and share them here. Enjoy the gallery and thank you to those who have contributed!
A parable from the Ba'al Shem Tov, the 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?
Last year during Elul I shared this Japanese concept of Ikigai, which means "a reason for being," with our community members and we had many wonderful discussions about it.
We probably locate ourselves in different spheres of this conceptual design at different points in our lives. Where do you locate yourself now? How would you describe your reason for being?
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.
As we enter this last week of Elul, how can we extend the openness we have created within our own hearts to others?
From the Talmud (Tractate of Nedarim - Oaths):
It was taught: There is no measure for visiting the sick. What is meant by, "there is no measure for visiting the sick?"
R. Joseph tried to explain what this means. He said: "its reward is unlimited."
Abaye explained: Even a great person must visit a humble one.
Raba said: A person must visit even a hundred times a day.
R. Abba son of R. Hanina said: He who visits one who is ill takes away a sixtieth of his pain.
Is there someone who is ill whom you might reach out to this week before Rosh Hashanah?
A teaching from Pirkei Avot 4:1.
Ben Zoma said:Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” Who is mighty? He who subdues his inclination, as it is said: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit than he that takes a city” Who is rich? He who rejoices in what he has, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper." “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come. Who is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings as it is said: “For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored."
How do you define wisdom, wealth, happiness and honor?
Poem Without An End
by Yehuda Amichai
Translated by Chana Bloch
Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
Inside my heart
Inside the museum
inside my heart
As we turn the corner into the last 10 days of Elul, this Amichai poem offers an image of these days: awareness of the movement between our inner and outer worlds, the old and restored inside the new, the relationships among (including confusion!) of time, identity, memory and renewal, and the closeness - and the distance - of the synagogue and the person. What do you find here in Amicha's poem that speaks to your experience of these days?
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. (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?
Lift up your eyes and see!
How does a man lift up his eyes to see a little higher than himself? The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with God who is greater than the world; that man may lift up his mind and be attached to the absolute; that man who is conditioned by a multiplicity of factors is capable of living with demands that are unconditioned. How does one rise above the horizon of the mind? How does one free oneself from the perspectives of ego, group, earth, and age? How does one find a way in this world that would lead to an awareness of God who is beyond this world?”
Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.
~ Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
In a small town, a man opened a grocery store directly across the street from another grocery store. As soon as the old grocer saw the sign in the window announcing the opening, we went across the street and introduced himself to the new merchant. He shook hands and welcomed him warmly, then sat down and taught him all the tricks of the trade - where to buy, how to buy, and how to get good value
When asked why he had been so kind to a future competitor, the old grocer answered by quoting a Talmudic teaching: "All the sustenance of a person is determined for him from New Year to New Year. Only Hashem can diminish it."
When do you feel the need to protect your own interests? When and why have you been able to let go of that need? What and whom do you trust?
The Hasidic rebbe Yitzchak of Berditchev and his friend spotted a man greasing the wheels of his own wagon while wearing a tallit and tefilin.
The Rebbe's friend was furious. How could this man so disrespect Hashem, to wear tallit and tefilin while greasing wheels?
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak turned his eyes towards heaven and proclaimed, "See, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, how holy are your children! Even when this man is greasing his wheels, he nevertheless remembers to pray to you."
One of our primary mitzvoth is to "dan b'chaf zachut," to "judge generously." Who are you angry at? Can you find a way to judge them in the best possible light?
A poem by Simon Lewis from his book of poetry, Jewtown.
The Picture Framer
Mendel loved art school in class and he drew pictures of scenes he saw in Monerea Terrace,
brought them home to show us. Today it was a simple scrawl of a stickman family.
"That's you, Daddy," he said, pointing at the tallest one. "Will you put it in a frame?"
I took the scrap of crayoned newsprint, searched the pile of sticks I'd left aside, the spare edges
of failed jobs, faded greying shadows of their sepias, siennas, browns, chipped and splashed with old paint
worn in deep. All these edges were different lengths and had no shape but in the stack I found four
to make a rectangular frame of sorts and when I snapped the last clasp down I held it out and saw it was still
a grubby scene of crayon marks, inside a cramped wooden-framed house, just like us, confined, imperfect, but here.
"A blessing in de-skies"
We will have a Full Moon today, meaning the moon will be 100% illuminated as seen from Earth and on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. The moon will be visible throughout the night sky rising at sunset in the east and setting with the sunrise the next morning. The point at which a Full Moon occurs can be measured down to a fraction of a second. The time it takes between full moons is known as a Synodic month and is 29.530587981 days long.
After today the moon will wane every day until the New Moon. Then on the first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, a sliver of the moon will be seen again.
The very first mitzvah given to the Israelites in Torah was to sanctify the moon by testifying to the appearance of the tiniest sliver in the sky. Our Hasidic tradition sees in this sanctifying ritual a teaching about the human spirit: even a tiny amount of good in a person is holy. Imagine how much goodness is captured by the full moon - it lights up the whole sky!
The essential task of a spiritual life is to uplift the sparks of goodness in ourselves and others and hold them high; they are bright and will guide us on our way through the dark.
On this full moon Elul 5780, ask: what's good about you? What's good about others? There is so much goodness in this world of ours. It is calling out to be seen.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook is one of the last century’s greatest, most influential and most celebrated Jewish teachers, mystics, and Talmudic scholars. In his book, The Moral Principles, he writes about the personal qualities that we must cultivate to lift us up towards a higher spiritual realm. Among the most essential is courage: “A person must be trained in courage and firmness of heart and only then will he be fit to embrace God.”
What does it mean to be courageous?
Can we accept our failings and flaws - and those of others - and decide to love anyway?
Can we be honest with our spouse or partner?
Can we set a vision for our life’s work and pursue it?
Can we ask for forgiveness, and forgive generously?
Will we offer our compassion, our insight, and our companionship to communities in need?
Will we assure others, Jewish and non-Jewish, that we will support them, particularly during painful times?
Before going to bed each night, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, a Hasidic rebbe of the late 18th century, would make a list of all that he had done wrong. He would recite the list over and over until regret and grief overcame him. The flow of his tears would be so great that the paper would be wiped clean.
I have such mixed feelings about this tale. The Rebbe's teshuvah is so heart-felt, his regret so deep - but perhaps too much so?
There are many Jewish spiritual teachings that caution against being so hard on yourself that you feel intense despair or guilt. An important counter to "chesbon ha'nefesh" - the accounting of the soul - is to remember your nekuda tovah, the good inner point at the center of one’s being. The Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav teaches us to seek out our good points and meditate on them in order to counter the inner voices of self criticism.
We are called right now to focus on the suffering we have caused ourselves and others, as well as our inner goodness. The balance we achieve will help us to heal from the past year and feel some sense of renewal.
We're approaching the half way point of Elul. It's time to seek forgiveness from others. As you do, be gentle on yourself.
I am always amazed that things come from somewhere. Someone had to imagine roads, cars, houses, medicine, writing, technology, and sanctuaries. At some point, they didn’t exist and no one in the world had yet dreamed up their first stage of development.
I think about this a lot, and a number of years ago I began a kind of thought experiment that goes like this: if I were the only person on earth, and nothing had been invented yet, what would I come up with? What can I imagine?
I wouldn’t come up with advanced mathematical equations or principles of physics. That’s someone else’s job to do. But I might be able to come up with the concept of song by experimenting with the different tones of the human voice. I might figure out how to draw to help me remember my experiences. I think I’d recognize I was growing older, and I might begin to imagine that there’s something, or someone, who transcends my limited years and is much bigger than me. But honestly, I think I would mostly live quietly, trying my best to take care of the earth.
The experiment is very humbling; it both activates our imagination and requires us to recognize our limitations. What would you imagine? What would you invent?
Many years ago, after a conversation with my parents about a family trait of keeping our homes super organized, which we agreed was a blessing and, well, less than a blessing, my father gave me a challenge: "take some big item and place it in the corner of the room. Not in the middle, where you'll be tripping on it and aggravated by it; to the side, where you'll notice it and be slightly (maybe even moderately) agitated. Leave it there for a week. See what happens."
It seemed like a fun enough challenge, and I accepted. I lugged our old, bulky vacuum cleaner up the steps from the basement and placed it in the family room, which we used a lot. The first day, all I could see was the vacuum cleaner. It was like the room had disappeared, replaced by 10x20 foot vacuum.
I fought the urge to lug it back downstairs. The second day it was a little smaller, and as the days of the week continued, I saw it less and less. At the end of the week, when I passed by that vacuum cleaner, it was just part of the room, as if embedded in the foundation of the old 1920 house. Some time later my dad asked me how it went. I had forgotten about the vacuum and the challenge.
It's amazing when we pay attention to what we see. There are so many factors that influence our perceptions of the world, and with a lot of practice and good fortune, we may even become aware of one or two of those factors, and consider how they are impacting our sight. It is often the case that what we've become accustomed to - what we fail to see - was once shocking! A vacuum on the side of the room? It doesn't go there! Put that away!
This is the purpose of this whole month. Blowing shofar, reading and reflecting on themes of forgiveness, preparing for the holy days - they're all meant to help us see better, or at least see differently. What are the factors that influence the lens through which you notice the world? What don't you see anymore? What have you been missing? Does it matter?
In the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, we hear from the great sage Hillel, who would say:
If I am not for me, who will be for me?And when I am only for myself, what am I?And if not now, when?
Hillel’s first concern is personal fulfillment. To the claim that, to be legitimate, moral and ethical ideals need to be free from our own interests, Hillel responds, emphatically: "no! That’s not true." Personal fulfillment and living one’s own truth is central to one’s ability to love, to give and to teach.
But, he continues, you cannot only be for you. Be attentive to others’ needs, which are great. That is why you are here on earth, and it is also where you will find the most meaning.
Hillel then offers a final insight, adding urgency to his questions: "If not right now, then when?"
"Tell me," he seems to be challenging us: "when will you claim and exercise the power you have to make a positive change? When will you stand up for what you believe is morally non-negotiable and necessary for human dignity? There is suffering right now. When will you tend to it, and how will you do it?"
Is there a more important teaching for us right now than this? The spiritual preparation of Elul is not only meant to help us grow, heal and find meaning and purpose in the High Holy Days; but also to help us clarify what we stand for. Is there something you are being called to do in the world, something broken you feel you can help repair? What's giving you pause or holding you back from pursuing it? What might help you "go forth" (lech lecha)?
Lo alecha ha’mlacha ligmor, we learn in the next chapter of Pirkei Avot. You do not need to complete the work of perfecting the world. V’lo atah ben horin l’hivatel mimeneh. But you are not free to desist from it.
A poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai z"l
The Place Where We Are Right
From the place where we are right Flowers will never grow In the spring.
The place where we are right Is hard and trampled Like a yard.
But doubts and loves Dig up the world Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place Where the ruined House once stood.
What do you doubt? What/whom do you love? How have your doubts and loves offered you wisdom and guided you?
This week we begin our book group discussion on This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew (Sign up here).
Rabbi Lew 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. It helps us live genuinely. What does this look like for you? What can you forgive yourself for this Elul?
All the people witnessed the thunder and the lightning, the voice of the shofar and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.
It was almost impossible last night, as lightning lit up the sky and thunder shook the ground for hours on end, not to think of this description in Torah of the Israelites' experience receiving the Ten Commandments. I imagine Ha'Kadosh Baruch Hu was calling out the notes of the shofar - tekiyah! shevarim! teruah! tekiyah! - and the universe was responding with lightning and thunder - the voice of the shofar.
Jewish texts teach that when God hears us blow the sound of the shofar during Elul, God "stands up" from the seat of judgment and moves to the seat of compassion. Last night as we heard the sounds of the cosmic shofar, it was a reminder for us to do the the same.
Where and when did you feel critical recently? When did you critique instead of listening, make a comment instead of asking a question, judge instead of leading with curiosity? Elul is real. This is our opportunity to reset, to listen to the ways we are being called to change. Something will happen today and you will be called to respond. May the sounds of the cosmic shofar lift you from the seat of judgment and may you land softly into the seat of loving kindness.
This is one of our most visceral prayers on Rosh Hashanah. On this prayer, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the Hasidic teacher known as Sefat Emet, taught that there is a holy point within every person's heart. But over the course of a year, our more mundane and material needs tend to overwhelm that inner holy point. That's what happens when you live inside a human body! Each year we then have to ask for compassion from the Blessed Holy One, that this imprint of our hearts be renewed again. This is what it means to be "inscribed for life".
The Sefat Emet has changed the concept of the Book of Life so that it's not about whether a person lives or dies, but rather, it is now about how one lives. That Book is within us. We ask God to write "Life!" on our hearts every year. Our religious task is to keep that inscription as clear and simple as possible. What makes life meaningful is how open-hearted, compassionate, generous in spirit, and genuine we are willing to be. Everything else just clutters the inscription, making it harder to read.
Because we're humans, you and me, we'll certainly need to ask to be inscribed again this year, and next year... It might even be necessary moments after we return home from Rosh Hashanah prayer. There are so many distractions from living compassionately and genuinely. We will fail.
Judaism reminds us that as far adrift as we wander from that inscription, there is a path to return. Let's set a path during this Elul. Where have you drifted off to? What can you do to reset your path, to return to the writing of the Book of Life that is within you?
One of my dearest friends taught me everything I needed to know about Jewish spiritual life one afternoon during rabbinical school as we ate lunch together between classes, under a tree.
I was typically quite hungry by mid-afternoon and would eat a large lunch extremely quickly. My friend brought an equally large, though much nicer, lunch that he had prepared the evening before. My cheese sandwich with yellow mustard dripping from the sides looked fairly silly next to his kale and quinoa salad with nuts and berries.
We sat down. I reached into my bag and grabbed my sandwich. He took out a blanket (I'm still not sure from where, it just seemed to appear), spread it on the ground, and collected small stones from a nearby garden to place on the corners of the blanket. We said a blessing and I began to eat quickly. He took a bite of his salad and chewed slowly. He put his food down, took a deep breath, and said another blessing. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu Melech ha'olam, she'hakol nihiyeh bid'varo. Everything comes to us through God. He then took another bite. For the next thirty five minutes (thirty three and half minutes after I finished my sandwich), he continued this spiritual practice. As the end of the lunch hour neared, he had said over thirty blessings, one for each time he brought food to his mouth. Now, at the time, we were just getting to know each other. He noticed my curiosity and asked me to join him. I was out of food. He offered me a berry. One berry. I laughed to myself. I put it in my mouth and swallowed it whole. He gave me another and encouraged me to say a blessing again, and this time, remember to chew. Which I did.
I had recited a lot of blessings in my life. Blessings before food, after food, at sunrise, at sunset, blessings for people who were sick and blessings for my children. But I had never said a blessing for every bite of a berry. It still doesn't come easy. But at least now as I eat my mustardy sandwich, it occurs to me, this is what our rabbis in the Talmud meant when they taught us to say one hundred blessings a day: every bite is a gift.
On this first day of Elul, I wonder how you might slow down and say a blessing for something you may not have imagined blessing before.