Elul Reflections Day 28

The first thing that God says to Avram (Abraham) is: Lech L’cha; - Go forth.

This injunction is one of the central essences of Judaism.

By heeding this command, Abraham merits becoming the first of our avot, our ancestors. He demonstrates a willing to go into an unknown future, leaving the comforts of the past behind.

Each of us must heed this command for ourselves. But we have an advantage over Abraham; we have a community of fellow journeyers to walk with.

Biblical Hebrew is interesting. The imperative Lech L’cha can certainly mean: Hey you, GO! This is how we typically interpret the verse; God tells Abraham to start a very long journey … a journey that will lead to a promised land of milk and honey at a place that is far, far away. But, there is another possible meaning of the command. The two words can also imply: Go Towards Yourself!!

At the close of this Elul, let us all heed the command that started the peoplehood of Israel: Lech L’cha. Our journeys will continue taking us toward the best parts of ourselves.

Quote: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them (Albert Einstein). #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 27

“May Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left, Uriel in front of me, Raphael behind me, and above my head the Shekhina, the Divine Presence.” - Traditional Jewish Bedtime Prayer

Many of us might be surprised to learn about the vast amount of angelology and demonology in Jewish thought and practice. Every night before going to bed, many Jews recite the prayer above, invoking the names of God’s four archangels: Michael (God’s messenger), Gabriel (God’s hero), Uriel (God’s light), and Raphael (God’s healer).

In the Talmud, it is suggested that these are the angels Jacob saw when he dreamt of the ladder that stretched from earth to heaven (B. Chullin 91b).

In Rabbi David A. Cooper’s God is a Verb, he writes, “When we call upon angels to be with us, we tap into an infinite resource of good will…The only impediments to connecting with this energy are doubt and cynicism….”

This week, try reciting this traditional Jewish bedtime prayer. Create a ritual with your family that will bring comfort as you prepare for sleep, and tap into that infinite source of good will, the Divine Presence. May we all feel surrounded by angels and protected by God at all times.

Quote: Do you believe in angels? Live as if they are all around you and as if God’s presence is always above you. #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 26

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue." Proverbs 18:21. So today, apply kind speech where you might be harsh. Begin the Shabbat gently, giving life with your words.

Refrain, for 24 hours, from offering any comments of a critical nature. When tempted to do so, discover a word of praise and offer it to a neighbor.

Quote: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." Apply kind speech where you might be harsh and you give life with your words. #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 25

Although many believers are sure they have "the" answer, faith is not the knowledge of the mystery, but the conviction that there is a mystery, and that it is greater than us.

Often we try to define what we think about God. Today, instead of trying to find an answer or definition, may we find a way to celebrate that we DON’T have the answer.

Quote: Many believe they have "the" answer. Faith is not knowing, but the belief that there is a mystery, and that it is greater than us. #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 24

During Elul we consider ways to improve ourselves on many levels-personally, locally, and nationally. Today many of us are thinking of the attack that shook our nation eleven years ago. On September 11, 2001, New York became America’s city. Eleven years ago we were living in Jerusalem when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers. For a little while, as Americans living in Israel, we were considered kindred spirits. We (finally) understood what it was like living in Israel, living in perpetual fear of the next attack, the next explosion, the next silence disrupted by a cacophony of cell phones going off as relatives check in. Israel already gets it, and for a while they embraced us as we wondered what was happening in our home country. September 11, 2001 taught me that in the face of tragedy it is our responsibility as Jews and as human beings to embrace each other and lend strength to those who need it.

Elul is a time for introspection, and September 11 is a day to embrace our community. Whether we live in New York, Jerusalem, or anywhere else, we know we are a part of something bigger, something greater than us.

Quote: What gives you strength and support in times of trouble? #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 23

What does it mean to be written into the Book of Life?

Throughout the High Holidays, we ask God to inscribe us into the Book of Life. I have this image of God on an iPad, typing millions of names into a file: “Book. Of. Life.”

We pray for inscription because we want to live another year, to experience again the sweetness of apples and honey as we celebrate another year of life.

There’s a great quote that says: Trust in God, but tie your camel.

Is it possible that it is incumbent upon us to inscribe ourselves into the Book of Life?

We are all too aware of tragedies that befall us; rain falls on wicked and righteous alike. But nonetheless, there is a spiritual Book of Life ... and you are the author of that book; not God.

The question during this period of Elul is not whether or not you will be inscribed into the Book of Life. The question is rather, what will you do in the next month to merit inscription into the Book of Life? God is waiting for you to answer.

Quote: The universe doesn’t care if you’re scared. #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 22

The highest form of wisdom is loving-kindness. (Berachot 17a)

A critical Jewish value is chesed, loving-kindness. The rabbis have noted that to raise a child is an act of love. But to bring a foster child into your home is loving-kindness. To visit a member of your family in the hospital is an act of kindness. But to visit someone who isn’t even remotely related to you is an act of loving-kindness. Through chesed, we extend ourselves beyond the realms of normative obligation by doing what is not required of us. We obligate ourselves to that which is greater than us.

Take a moment to think about an act of chesed you did this past year, and one that you could do in 5773.

Quote: The highest form of wisdom is chesed: loving-kindness. (Berachot 17a) What acts of chesed have you done this past year? #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 21

On Saturday evening, September 8, we will gather in our congregations across the world for S’lichot. S’lichot are penitential prayers that we recite before Rosh Hashanah. Some people recite them every day during the month of Elul, while others begin the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah.

S’lichot is the kick off of the High Holy Day season. It is a beautiful service with moving music. It is the first service of the season where we hear Ki Anu Amecha, Ashamnu, Al Chet, and other High Holy Day blessings and melodies. At Temple Sinai we have added an incredibly special and moving piece to the service. After Havdalah and before S’lichot blessing begin, we allow the congregation to read through some meditations and prayers while we change the mantles the five Torah scrolls in our ark. We remove the multi-colored mantles that protect our Torahs throughout the year, and replace them with white mantles designed for the High Holy Days. Five families are honored every year as mantle-changers, and as the Torah scrolls are being changed, the clergy change out of the black, blue, or brown suits that we wear throughout the year and don our High Holy Day white robes. It is a visual representation of Isaiah’s injunction to allow our crimson sins to become snow white. We physically whiten ourselves and our Torahs so that we can prepare to spiritually purify ourselves in the coming weeks.

How do you plan to purify yourself in preparation for the High Holy Days? #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 20

A troubled woman went to see her rabbi. It was just before the High Holidays, and she was visibly distraught.

Upon sitting in the rabbi’s office, she started crying almost immediately. “Rabbi … I have done so many things wrong in my life. I’ve upset people, and have pulled away from many dear friends. I know I can do better, which makes me even more upset. I’m so very far apart from God.”

The rabbi calmly listened to her. When she was done speaking, he held out a rope. “This length of rope represents the distance between ourselves and God. When you or I make a mistake, the connection gets severed.” The rabbi cut the rope, letting half of it fall to the ground. “But, if you perform teshuvah, if you are able to move forward in your life, learning and growing, the connection is fixed.” As he was saying this, he was tying the two pieces of the rope back together.

He held out both ropes again. Because of the knot, the length was shorter. He said, "The life with the quickest connection to God is the life that is filled with moments of teshuvah. Our connection with God does not depend on the number of our mistakes. No … it depends on the amount of teshuvah.”

Quote: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see” (Henry David Thoreau). #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 19

“A person’s pride will bring him/her low, but the one who is humble will be raised up.” (Proverbs 29:23)

In our lives, one motion demands another, as my daughter reminds me almost daily: “the wheels on the bus go up and down, up and down, up and down…” This is one of the central messages of the book of Proverbs – understanding that our self-worth is not dependent on our conceit. Rather, it is the balance of humility that comes from within, a sacred response that has the potential to draw us closer to one another, and to God.

Recall a time when you were boastful. Reflecting back, are you able to find that healthy action now that could have moved you toward humility?

Quote: Proverbs teaches: “…one who is humble will be raised up.” Our humility comes from within. How do you demonstrate humility? #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 18

This summer was our oldest son Gabriel’s first year at summer camp. We sent him to URJ Camp Coleman, and of course, he had an amazing time. He has a great deal of ruach (spirit) and at camp he got an opportunity to shine.

We wrote him letters and sent emails, but at home, we were met largely with silence.

I saw how distressed Natalie felt from getting no letters. In her head she knew that less letters home means more fun at camp. In her heart she missed her boy. When he came home at the end of four weeks, all three of us cried in the airport as we hugged the air out of each other. His first comment, “Can I go back next session?”

We know that Gabriel had a wonderful time at camp even without as much communication as we had hoped. Letting him shine in his own element is an important part of letting him grow. During Elul we do the same with ourselves. We consider our strengths and determine what things make us shine. We work on our weaknesses and try to build them into positive aspects. Understanding ourselves is an important part of growing, and Elul provides us an opportunity to grow and shine.

Quote:How do you allow yourself to grow and shine in acceptance of your strengths? #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 17

Today is merely a bridge to tomorrow. (Franz Rosenzweig)

In the Book of Psalms, we learn: “Taste and see that the ways of the Lord are good.” (Psalm 34:9). There are many rabbis and sages throughout the centuries that challenge this verse by calling the probability of everything we experience to be good highly unlikely. But perhaps, the psalmist had another message in mind: the capacity to find something of value along life’s journey; committing ourselves to a reality that events and encounters in the coming year will make us stronger, wiser, more caring and compassionate human beings.

Think of a challenging, almost seemingly negative situation you were challenged with this past year. What critical value(s) can you find in the experience(s)?

Quote: Today is merely a bridge to tomorrow. (Franz Rosenzweig) Finding value in every experience can be challenging. GO! #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 16

Abraham argued to save strangers in the city of Sodom; Noah built a boat to save himself and his family. In Jewish folklore Noah became a tzaddik im peltz, ‘a righteous man in a fur coat’. There are two ways of keeping warm on a cold night: buying a fur coat or lighting a fire. Don't care only for yourself; shuck the coat and light a fire.

Commit yourself during the month to “lighting a fire” for somebody in need. Perhaps the person is a mentee, or works with you, or is a member of your family. Often, we need not look beyond our routines to find somebody in need.

Quote: There are 2 ways of keeping warm on a cold night: buying a fur coat or lighting a fire. Don't care only for yourself; light a fire.#elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 15

People are accustomed to looking at the Heavens and wondering what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves to see what happens there. -Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk

Typically we think of prayer like Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk refers to in his first statement. We think of it as outpouring—calling out to God, often unanswered. The word “to pray” in Hebrew is Lehit’palel. This is a reflexive verb, meaning there is a give and take implied within the word itself. “To pray” in Hebrew is to look inward, to receive as well as to pour out. Try to think about what you receive when you pray, as well as what you give.

Quote What do you receive when you pray? #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 14

People can only learn what their heart desires. (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 19a)

Desire or lip service do not serve us well when focusing on the act of Teshuvah (turning ourselves). That drive, that devotion is actualized when we feel it at our core, and ready ourselves to stay the course. There are many moments in our lives when we have already committed ourselves (i.e. long meetings and work hours, regular temptations we fight against). These are the moments where we teach ourselves about our true desires and commitments. The prophet Jeremiah instructed the Israelites to circumcise their hearts, so that they would always be faithful and in covenant with God. So, too, with our passions, our hopes, and our desires.

Identify those passions and desires in your life. For extra credit, make it a dialogue with God!

Quote: People can only learn what their heart desires. (BT, AZ 19a) ID those passions/desires in your life. Make it a dialogue with God! #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 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.

Quote: “To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light” (Carl Yung).  #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 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?

Quote: Our souls are poised between greatness and nothingness; in knowing both are we blessed. #elul5772

Elul Reflections Day 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.

Quote: What are your goals for the coming year? What tools do you have to accomplish them and for what will you rely on others? #elul5772

Elul Reflections: Day 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?

Quote: Routines can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and the secret wonders that fill the world. How can you enhance your routines? #elul5772

Elul Reflections: Day 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!”

Quote: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” – From Little Nemo #elul5772