Friday, August 31, 2012

Elul 13

Right now, we are in the month of Elul, the month before the new year of Rosh Hashanah. The 28 days of the month provide a chance for a sort of ‘spiritual calisthenics,’ as we prepare for the 10 holy days that include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Our rabbis teach us that we are supposed to do teshuvah the day before we die. Of course, we don’t know when that day is, and so we challenge ourselves to perform acts of teshuvah every day. But as we know, this is easier said than done.

And so, we have this month as an extra push of motivation.

Many of you are probably familiar with the famous line from Song of Songs, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li:I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me. The first letter of these four words spell out this month of Elul (alef, lamed, vav, lamed.)

This teaches that teshuvah is all about our relationships - relationships we have to each other, to God and to ourselves. If indeed I am for others, and others are for me, this month provides a time to think about how our behavior(s) affect others. And change in the process.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Elul 12

Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught that every person should carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket: in one pocket "For me the world was created." and in the other "I am but dust and ashes." When we have moments of self loathing take out the first; in moments of grandiosity the second. Our souls are poised between greatness and nothingness; in knowing both are we blessed.


Try putting these two pieces of paper in your pockets for the next week.  How does it impact your decision making?  How does it affect your perspective?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Elul 11

“Do you think,” [the Scarecrow] asked, “if I go to the Emerald City with you that Oz would give me some brains?”
“I cannot tell,” [Dorothy] returned, “but you may come with me, if you like.  If Oz will not give you any brains you will be no worse off than you are now.”
- L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy takes three friends (and Toto, too) on a “whirlwind” journey to meet Oz.  The book’s powerful story relates to us on many levels.  Like Dorothy, we must keep our goals in mind as we travel on our path.  Like her companions, we must acknowledge our shortcomings so that we can improve upon them.  We are most successful when we travel in partnership, relying on the comfort and strength that we get from our friends and family.  When we reach our destination, we often find that we have always had the power to achieve our goals.

So too can we achieve our goals during the High Holy Days that approach when Elul ends.  We have a destination in mind: teshuvah.  We acknowledge our shortcomings through S’lichot and making atonement.  We feel the closeness of our community when we gather in prayer.  And by the end of Yom Kippur we may realize that to achieve our goals, we have always had the tools we need to accomplish them.  Only through making the journey together can we learn from the experience.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Elul 10

Just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so can the routine of everyday life keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world. [Chasidic saying, 18th Century]

Each day, we are charged with the task of “living life”. We know that routines are part of that daily ritual, but without even realizing, they can become familiar and comfortable. There are even those who seem to find security in predictability. It’s true that routines can seem to bring some measure of order to life which can otherwise feel disorderly. Like most things, they provide advantages and disadvantages. A routine is beneficial as long as it serves you, and not so good when it “rules you”. They may even feel so familiar and convenient that we may overlook opportunities to see the vast radiance of life.

Routines are about what one needs to accomplish (we call this keva-fixed). Daily life is about how we live that life, and have the potential to be (we call this kavannah – intention). We were not created to be creatures of mindless habit. Rather, we are here for wondrous purpose. In Jeremiah, we learn: “For I know the plans I have for you ... to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11). While being diligent and disciplined today, let us savor the joy, learn the discipline of our routines, and avoid the ruts.

Over the past year, what are those fixed routines in your life that have left you uninspired? How can you enhance those routines and find the wonder and radiance in that which we call life?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Elul 9

A new rabbi was recently hired at the temple, and for several weeks before the High Holidays, he prepared himself for the Rosh Hashanah evening service. He practiced his cues, read, re-read, and re-re-read the Torah portion. He even went over the responsive English readings.  Being a new rabbi, he wanted everything to be perfect, and did not want to make any mistakes. He knew that everyone would be watching him.

He goes into the senior rabbi’s office a few days before Rosh Hashanah, excited to announce that he is completely prepared for the High Holidays. The rabbi shows his mentor the prayerbook, proud of himself for marking it up with cues and notes. He’s hoping to be congratulated for all of his hard work.

Instead, the senior rabbi looks at him and says, “Aaaah kinderlach, you’ve done a lot of work, but you put your efforts in the wrong place! You see, the prayers are the same as they were last year. And the year before that. And even the year before that. But you, you are different. How have you changed?! You don’t need to put the prayerbook in order. You need to put yourself in order!”

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Elul 8

No definition for God is adequate or ever could be, but here is a memorable word on the subject from Martin Buber: “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanely, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

We often consider our moments of solitude when we experienced God: in the wilderness, bearing witness to some act of beauty, etc.  Consider how you were able to experience the surge of God in relationship with one other person.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Elul 7

“On the seventh day God completed the work which God had been doing…then God blessed the seventh day and called it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of Creation.” (Genesis 1:32-33)

When reflecting on the work of creation, God chose to do this work one day at a time. At the end of it all, God rested, establishing a Sabbath as a critical and sacred pattern for healthy living – a guidepost for spiritual wellness. Torah teaches that taking a break can be holy. Shabbat is our climax of creation – let it renew your soul.  

Where are those “Shabbat moments” in your life in which you take time for yourself? Remember to carry them into your every day.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Elul 6

In every service, we sing the Mi Chamocha prayer, which is the quintessential prayer of celebration. We hearken back to the Israelites’ singing with glee as they crossed the splitting waters of the Red Sea.

There’s a midrash, however, that suggests that not everyone was celebrating during that moment of freedom from Egypt. Two guys were in the back of the marching throng, doing what Jews sometimes do best: whining.

They were complaining about the heat. They were complaining about the lack of food. They’re feet hurt. And so on. Their heads were lowered, as they were fixated only on their own negative observations.

After a few minutes of this, a neighboring Israelite couldn’t take it anymore. He yelled at them, saying. “Guys, stop complaining. Lift your heads. Look up! Look at this miracle!”

Both men stood in shock for a moment, and then looked up at the miracle of the splitting sea. It was in that moment that they too started singing Mi Chamocha.

Often, we are those Israelites - marching through life without realizing the miracles that surround us. Look up, and you might surprise yourself with a miracle.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Elul 5

Why do we hide? To be found, perhaps. There is a Hasidic tale of a Rabbi who found his child crying. When he asked what was wrong the boy said, "I was hiding and no one came to look for me." The Rabbi comforted him and mused, "You know, God makes the same complaint." Don't only hide. Seek.

Devote one hour of sacred living today to the pursuit of God, even if it means pausing from other pursuits.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Elul 4

Ben Azzai used to say: Do not despise any person and do not consider anything impossible; for there is no one who does not have his hour and there is nothing that does not have its place. [Pirkei Avot 4:2]

Living in the moment is one of the most challenging things in life to actualize. And sometimes, we get in our own way. In this passage, Ben Azzai focuses on the potential of humanity – not knowing what life will bring, we all have the potential, the capacity to live in the moment. One of my favorite pieces of writing comes from an anonymous author:

Enjoy life. This is not a dress rehearsal.
One day at a time--this is enough. Do not look back and grieve over the past for it is gone; and do not be troubled about the future, for it has not yet come. Live in the present, and make it so beautiful it will be worth remembering.
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
Live life so completely that when death comes to you like a thief in the night, there will be nothing left for him to steal.

What are those moments in your life that take your breath away?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Elul 3

The shofar is a powerful symbol.

The shofar may be likened to a spiritual alarm clock. It wakes us up from the slumber of our lives. We remember that our time is brief; tomorrow is a maybe, but the possibilities of today are right here.  There’s a midrash that teaches us that God created the very ram that Abraham would later sacrifice (the shofar is a ram’s horn) before God even created the world!

The shofar is an important instrument (pun intended) indeed.

On the High Holidays, we listen to 100 blasts of the shofar. There are four different ‘kinds’ of blasts. I want to briefly discuss two:

The Sh’varim blast comes right before we listen to the final, loud (deep breath!) blast of T’kiyah G’dolah. The first is a series of short, staccato notes. The word sh’varim means ‘broken;’ we listen to several broken sounds. The final blast, as we know, is one long sound.

These sounds are a metaphor for the High Holiday experience. We are meant to take our broken lives (akin to the separate sounds of the Sh’varim) and transform them into the wholeness of theT’kiyah G’dolah." This month of Elul provides that opportunity.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Elul 2

Elul is the name of the last month of the Hebrew Calendar year.  The word Elul has no meaning in Hebrew other than being a proper noun, but the root aleph-lamed-lamed in Aramaic means “circle” or “seek out.”  As the last month of the year, it makes sense that it might be related to the word “circle,” pointing to the cyclical nature of the year.

There are many traditions associated with the month of Elul.  We blow the shofar every morning.  We recite S’lichot (forgiveness prayers), especially in the last week.  We send cards and letters to our loved ones, asking forgiveness for any offenses we may have committed throughout the year.  We spend much of our time focused on preparing for the upcoming High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It is this preparation that might elude to the other Aramaic meaning of Elul.  We are seeking, within ourselves, a way to improve ourselves in the coming year.

As we “circle” around to the end of 5772, may we find all that we “seek” within ourselves.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Elul 1/Aug 19

The month of Elul precedes the High Holidays. Its 28 days are meant as a time for introspection, learning and growth. Judaism teaches that we don’t just walk into the Rosh Hashanah service, all ready to go. Elul is a ‘warm-up’ time, allowing us to spiritually stretch ourselves to prepare for the intensity (and joy) of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Starting on the first day of Elul and continuing through the end of the month, there will be a daily post here on this blog that is pertinent to this month of introspection. Each posting will have a brief thought on the topic of preparing for the High Holy Days, and each thought will be paired with a tweet using the hashtag #elul5772.

The postings this Elul represent the collaboration of Rabbi Bradley G. Levenberg of Temple Sinai in Atlanta, GA; Rabbi Eric Linder of Congregation Children of Israel in Athens, GA; Rabbi Jason Nevarez of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, NY; and Rabbi David N. Young of Temple Sinai in Miami, FL.  Together we hope to provide our respective congregations with 28 opportunities for growth during this introspective time.

Elul 1, 5772:
 We are used to judging by endings. We focus on a person's last days, or on the bad breakup, or the final inning that determines the game. But most of life is not the end and if there was joy in the journey, arias and intoxications, let us try to embrace that time. We are not defined by the last, but by all.

Let us consider the good that we have done prior to this year, how we have impacted those around us in positive ways.  Perhaps we introduced a couple, or mended broken fences, or inspired positive living in others.  Now may we seek to connect, over phone or email orFacebook or even in person with one of those people.