Friday, August 30, 2013

24 Elul

Tunneling Through

One of my favorite places in Jerusalem is Hezekiah's Tunnel.  It is a tunnel that was dug underneath the City of David just outside the Old City walls. Its name comes from the story of its origin, namely that it dates from the reign of Hezekiah of Judah (late 8th and early 7th century BCE).  According to 2 Chronicles 32, by closing off the sources of water outside of the city and diverting the spring water through the tunnel into the city, King Hezekiah assured that Jerusalem would have water during a siege by the Assyrians. 

According to an inscription found in the tunnel, the 533 meter tunnel was excavated by two teams, one starting at each end and then meeting in the middle. "And this is the way that the tunnel was cut through: Each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, there was heard the sound of a man calling to his fellow, and there was an overlap in the rock on the right and on the left. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed the rock, each man toward his fellow, axe against axe, and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1200 cubits…"

Along with the amazing technological accomplishment of creating such a tunnel, I think there is a wonderful message for us during Elul.  Sometimes we need to cut through a lot of hard stuff to get to a point when and where two sides can come together.   Hezekiah's Tunnel is dark, cold, and wet, with some twists and turns.  But, when two sides are committed to the effort, it can be life saving.

What relationship of yours needs to be cut through and are you willing to pick up a hammer?


Thursday, August 29, 2013

23 Elul

A congregant told me that he was asked about T’shuvah (repentance) by his granddaughter.  He was thinking about how to explain it to her when he cut himself shaving.  He got a little blood on his shirt, and though his wife told him about it, he decided to leave it for later.  Sure enough, by the end of the day he had let the stain slip his mind, and try as he might to remove the stain, it faded but left a permanent mark on his collar.  It was then that he realized how he could explain it to her.

Just like the stain on his collar, if we make a mistake in life we should take care of it right away, lest it leave a stain that will be with us forever.  Yet like the words of Isaiah that we read on Yom Kippur:

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson, they shall be like [new] wool.
(Isa. 1:18)
We are reminded that we can cleanse ourselves, no matter how stain-soaked we have become.  At the same time, the sooner we deal with our “stains,” the easier it is to get out the scarlet and crimson on our souls.
(DNY-Inspired by Marcos Fintz)

22 Elul

Often, t’shuvah is thought of as repentance - making apologies. We think about people we’ve wronged in the past year, and many of us contact friends and family members during the High Holidays in order to express regret and sorrow for how we’ve acted. This is incredibly important.
The word t’shuvah means turning. Yes, we turn toward each other to make amends, but there is another way we can think about this important concept.
We should turn to correct our mistakes, but we should think of Elul as a time when we turn to our future selves.
Sometimes, the past parts of ourselves are undiscovered, waiting for an experience or a relationship to help us discover new parts of ourselves. This month of Elul can be a catalyst for these future discoveries. 
As our present selves continue to turn toward the future, let us remember this larger meaning of t’shuvah.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

21 Elul

Psalm 92 is a part of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy, used to welcome the Sabbath into our homes and our lives.  According to the Mishnah, this Psalm was sung by the Levites in the ancient Temple each week before Shabbat began, and is a foretaste of the time when every day will be like Shabbat.  Verse 6 proclaims “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai! Me’od amku machsh’votecha – How great are Your works, Adonai, how very subtle Your designs!”  I tried to take some time this summer to find moments to proclaim this phrase:  Looking out on a gorgeous valley, sitting on the shore watching the waves lapping the sand, listening to the voices of children playing and singing in friendship.  Where else might we discover an awareness of God’s creative process in our world?  How do we respond?


Monday, August 26, 2013

20 Elul

From Rabbi David Wolpe

Why does Lot's wife look back to Sodom? Is it nostalgia, regret, curiosity? Rereading the story I wondered if she simply lacked the strength to begin anew. To survive pain and loss and begin again is both a burden and a blessing. May God grant us the strength and stamina to look forward, to ever begin again.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

19 Elul

Sticking his head into my office for the first time, a 6-year-old saw the various superhero pictures and trinkets that dominate my decor.  He laughed and asked, “Is Superman Jewish?”  I told him that someday he and I could sit and talk about all the ways Superman shows us how to be better Jews.  (And yes, it was difficult for me not to deliver a 6-year-old version of my thesis, but that’s another story for another time.)  Many authors have written lately on Superman’s Jewish roots, intentional or perceived, and many of us have heard the comparisons between Superman and Moses.  But Superman isn’t the only hero with Jewish roots.  The superhero motif (an estranged or orphaned young person getting the call to be something greater who eventually goes on to save their world) is all over the Bible.  From Moses to Samson to King David to Captain America, fictional heroes achieving impossible goals are a constant source of awe and inspiration.  They show us that they can overcome the most adversarial conditions, and they do it in a way that promotes justice while not infringing on the rights of others.  Is there anything more Jewish than that?

Friday, August 23, 2013

17 Elul/18 Elul

Once again, a double portion of Elul Thoughts to last you through Shabbat.  Enjoy!

URJ Camp Coleman is the Jewish summer home for nearly 1000 young Jews from the Southeastern U.S.  The camp is guided by four values:  Kavod- Respect”  Kehilah – Community” “Shalom- Peace” and “Chesed- Kindness.”  These values are found throughout the camp.  Literally, they’re on giant arches near the oldest campers’ bunks, and they make up the sign for every cabin.  But they’re also found in every discussion and interaction that takes place.  Every counselor and most campers can recite them aloud.  When someone does something disrespectful, his or her peers often say “You’re not showing kavod.  The campers learn what it means to be guided by the values of our tradition, and how they can permeate all different aspects of their lives.  What are the values that guide your daily interactions?  Are you aware of them?


The Power We Have

The great 20th century thinker, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught: "If a person were able to survey at a glance all he has done in the course of his life, what would he feel? He would be terrified at the extent of his own power."

Do we have the power . . .

To change the world?  Not likely.

To change our community?  It's possible.

To change ourselves?  This is completely within our reach.

To change someone else?  You can count on it!  We must learn to be careful with how we use our individual power.  We should see our relationship with every person as if it was fragile and you could hurt them or help them. It is. And you can.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

16 Elul

Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare?
The tortoise wins the race because of his slow, deliberate movement. The hare takes off at the beginning, but loses steam quickly. 
During Elul, we are like the tortoise, as we also make slow, deliberate steps toward our goals. 
Real change comes slowly. It comes as a result of real, determined work. The hare does not do t’shuvah, the tortoise does.
Each day of these 30 of Elul, let us take a tortoise-like step toward our goal. In our case, however, the goal is not a finish line. It is ourselves. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

15 Elul

Cleaning the Hard Drive

"Defragging" is a process that physically reorganizes the contents of your computer hard drive into the smallest number of contiguous regions (fragments). It is the computer equivalent of taking a jumbled pile of miscellaneous papers that are strewn across your desk, organizing them into files, and then putting them into a cabinet in alphabetical order.  In the same way as our computers run more quickly, efficiently, and smoothly after a process of defragging, human beings could benefit from a similar process.  While we could do emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal "spring cleaning" at any point, if we take this time period seriously, Elul affords us our yearly opportunity to "defrag."  The best part about defragging is that, as it organizes the files, it also creates larger areas of free space.  When we get all of the various "stuff" that clogs our lives in order, we function better.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

14 Elul

Regina Dugan opened her TED talk by asking:  What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? 

As we approach the High Holy Days, our days of judgment, this question is one we should take to heart.  Why is it that when we have made all the amends, made all the apologies, forgiven those who have hurt us, that we still feel dread?  Why do we still feel scared instead of confident going into judgment?  Perhaps because of this – that we did not attempt to change the world, to change ourselves, with our whole hearts.  Our faith teaches us "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:20).”  We are partners in the work of creation.  The mystics teach that God created us for the soul purpose of perfecting and completing the work.  When we fail try, to even attempt to do so, we ignore our purpose in life.  And so we walk into the Day of Judgment full of dread.  But there is still time.  Be who God meant you to be – yourself, a creator; and use your power to begin to change.  You are enough.  God made you who you are for a reason.


13 Elul

The website recently posted this video.  (If you can, click here to watch it, then read on.)  Anyone who has lived in New York City knows that just about every subway ride involves a panhandler or two or eight walking up and down the car, telling their story, and asking for money.  The story often involves a large family, a fall from grace, unexpected expenses such as from an injury, or accolades that no longer help the person.  This man took that story (and its usual cadence) and flipped it on its head, turning it into a tale of success and happiness.

T’shuvah, “repentance,” shares its root with the word lashuv, to turn.  The point of making T’shuvah is that we try to turn away from the behavior we wish to change.  We alter our path, try to take a different course, and make active changes in our lives.  It is a turn towards a positive change in our lives.  The Upworthy video shows a different aspect of T’shuvah: once we have made successful changes in our lives, it is good to celebrate, to acknowledge the good things that we or others have done, and to take a hand shake, a high five, or a hug.  Our own positive changes can have lasting impact on others, inspiring them to change because they see that it is possible.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

12 Elul

An often repeated quote from the Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him the most about humanity: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” 


How much time has been lost this year planning for living?


Friday, August 16, 2013

10 Elul/11 Elul

Once again, a double portion of Elul Thoughts to prepare us for Shabbat, and to allow us to give our technology a rest on the Sabbath.

10 Elul:
Recently I noticed a scab on our daughter’s knee, and I was brought back to when she was born.  Babies’ knees are perfect when they are born, and she was no exception.  Of course I believe she was perfect all over, but I found myself transfixed by her perfect little knees.  By the time our daughter was born, our sons were 5 and 3.  Their knees were already roughed up and often scabbed over.  In fact, most of us tend to picture knees as these scarred, ugly things that tend to go out on us with age.  This is probably why her knees fascinated me.  If our knees are a testament to how active we are at roughing them up, then her knees were a completely blank slate.  Her smooth, pudgy legs had endured nothing, and she had her whole life ahead of her to bang them up and make them into the rough joints that look so natural—just like the rest of us.

With knees we do not expect perfection.  Coarse, bumpy, slightly greyed patches of skin are normal, and perfectly acceptable.  Why then, would we expect any less of the rest of us? 

Life makes us marred.  Humans are not perfect (except maybe when they are babies), so there is no reason to expect anything more than coarse, bumpy, slightly greyed individuals.  The High Holy Days are a time to reflect on that which makes marks on us, and how we impact others.



 11 Elul:
An often repeated quote from the Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him the most about humanity: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” 

How much time has been lost this year planning for living?


Thursday, August 15, 2013

9 Elul

Bungee Cords
I love bungee cords.  There is some question as to who invented them, but whoever it was, I wish it was me.  They are unbelievably useful in a variety of situations.  However, as great as they are for tying down, attaching, securing, and holding together stuff, they are terrible for us as human beings.  The key to a bungee cord is that it springs back into place.   A Bungee Cord is a metaphor for all that pulls us back into the bad habits, old patterns, or wayward actions.
What are the cords that you should untie, detach, loosen, and let go of during Elul and the High Holy Days?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

8 Elul

On Yom Kippur morning, many Reform synagogues read the words of Deuteronomy 29-30 in lieu of the traditional Torah reading from Leviticus, which focus on the ancient Yom Kippur sacrifices.  Regarding the Torah, Deuteronomy 30:12 teaches, “Lo bashamayim hi – It is not in Heaven,” meaning that it isn’t too far away from us that we cannot grasp it. In a beautiful Talmudic legend known as the story of the Oven of Akhnai (Bava Metzia 59b)[1], the Rabbis use this quote as justification for their authority to interpret Torah according to their own understanding.  Judaism teaches that every Jewish soul, in one way or another, stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah.  This beautiful gift is ours to learn, ours to interpret, and ours to pass on.  How will we use this gift in the year to come?


[1] An excerpted version of the story may be found at

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

7 Elul

I always find it fitting that our Torah readings for the month of Elul come from Deuteronomy, which is basically Moses reminiscing, looking back on his life, the life of the Hebrew people, and offering insights (albeit, some in the form of threats).  This is what we do the entire month of Elul.  We look back, we measure, we evaluate and we begin to change in order to build a better future.  Many of us like to try and ignore the past, push it out of our heads.  We don’t want to deal with mistakes, confront our failings, reopen wounds.  Then we come to the month of Elul.  Elul reminds us that if we want our future to be different than our past, we have to reflect, no matter how uncomfortable we feel, we need to take a long and hard look at our choices, learn from our mistakes and commit to not making them again. Looking back is not being stuck in the past; it is what ensures that the past remain there, and not follow us into our present.


Monday, August 12, 2013

6 Elul

From Rabbi David Wolpe
Everything is temporary and everything is reborn: the grass withers and the flower fades but in time there are budding blades and fresh flowers. Monday morning: set aside what was, for today the world is made anew.

5 Elul

Ben Folds sings a song called, “Best Imitation of Myself,” in which he defends his personality and style against an apparent critic who wants him to be someone else.  During the bridge he seems to wonder if the critic is right, singing, “Maybe I’m thinking myself in a hole, wondering who I am when I ought to know.”  This is probably something we all wonder from time to time, if we are being true to ourselves.  A relatively well-known Hasidic teaching has a rabbi named Zusya being asked by his students on his deathbed if he worries God will ask him why he was not more like Moses.  He responds, “No, I will worry that God will ask me why I was not more like Zusya” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim).
The month of Elul gives us the opportunity to explore who we are when we ought to know, so that when the High Holy Days arrive and we come to our Day of Judgment we can easily say, “This year I will be more like me.”

Friday, August 9, 2013

3/4 Elul

In the interest of not posting on Shabbat, here are the Elul Thoughts for Friday and Saturday:

3 Elul/August 9
A quote often attributed to David Mamet: The difference between a good person and everyone else can be summed up like this: a good person, when walking down the street and glimpsing a house on fire, hopes it is his/her own.  How have you been good in 5773?  How do you aspire not to do good but to be good in 5774?

4 Elul/August 10
On the exterior wall of the synagogue where I grew up in Queens, NY, a quote from the prophet Micah was emblazoned in a beautiful mosaic, “It has been told to you, oh human, what is good and what God requires of you.  Only that you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  These words were also carved into the fa├žade of the old UAHC offices on 5th Avenue in New York City, now a multi-million dollar apartment building.  In the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a) it is quoted as one of the summaries of all Jewish teaching, encompassing all of Judaism’s obligations for how we act in our world.  Each of the three exhortations is open to our own individual interpretations.  How would you define these three commandments?  Do you practice them in some form?  How might you incorporate them into your daily life?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

2 Elul

Do you play a musical instrument? Do you like playing sports or are you a gym nut?

I ask because all of these take preparation. Before running a 5k, you warm-up, walking briskly to get your muscles prepared for the jaunt ahead. Before a concert, you play scales on your instrument, tuning it and going over some riffs before the conductor raises the baton.

This month of Elul is our warmup.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can be likened to the race, or the concert. They are the events we are training for. These 30 days of Elul help us to spiritually warm ourselves up so that we will be ready.

The High Holidays are meant to be the culminating days of an experiencing that starts now.

Let us remember to do our spiritual stretches on each of these days of Elul.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

1 Elul 5773/Aug. 7 2013

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.  For the last few years, some colleagues and I have collaborated on a project that we call “Elul Thoughts.”  As I mentioned in the August bulletin, every day during the Hebrew month of Elul you will receive a brief message in your inbox from me with one of these thoughts.  The purpose of these messages is to get us ready for the High Holy Days, just as Elul provides this readiness for the Jewish people all over the world.
This year’s Elul Thoughts represent a compilation of brief teachings from Rabbi Rachel G. Greengrass from Temple Beth Am in Miami, Florida; Rabbi Bradley G. Levenberg from Temple Sinai in Atlanta, Georgia; Rabbi Eric G. Linder from Temple Israel in Athens, Georgia; Rabbi Alan E. Litwak from Temple Sinai in North Miami Beach, Florida; Rabbi Daniel N. Treiser from Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater, Florida; and Rabbi David N. Young from Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California. 

Observant Jews:

When the Jewish community talks about Jews being "observant," it usually means that they follow the mitzvot - those sacred obligations that define us as Jews.  One of the rabbis that I studied with this summer made the following play on words: "Most American Jews are observant . . . all they do is observe, not participate." 

The month of Elul is a time to reassess who we are and what we are doing.  This can mean repairing our interpersonal relationships.  We can use the month to evaluate our work situation.  You can skip the December/January rush and not just make some new resolutions, but actually accomplish them.  You can find deep meaning in living a Jewish life.  The key to all of this is participation; not standing by the sidelines watching others do it.