I’ve chosen fragments of poetry and writings that speak to the themes of renewal and reflection. I hope some of these speak to you during the 29 days of the month of Elul. Elul’s acronym is I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine ( ani l’dodi v”dodi li), speaking about the individual and God, however you understand the sacred and your relationship to it. This exercise is to enable us to arrive readier and more open to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur journey. Take what you find helpful and leave what you don’t.
Tonight is the last night of Elul. We have almost arrived at the moment of the New Year and all it may bring for us. If it is your custom to join the community at synagogue, I look forward to seeing you there. If it is not, I hope you have a healthy and a hopeful beginning to 5784. The ambitious nature of renewal means it is a large enterprise for each of us and we can choose what to make of it.
Psalm 27 that has accompanied us through this month finishes with these lines;
Let your heart be strong and of good courage,
And wait hopefully for Adonai.
I wish you strength and courage in the New Year, in the ways that is meaningful to you. Thank you for joining me on this Elul journey.
To find our way back to hope and joy . . . is perhaps the hardest task each of us can face. Whatever our hardships have been, so many of us find ourselves merely surviving, just going through the motions. Many of us have long since given up the struggle. Perhaps we have lived through hell. . . . Each of us possesses the power to overcome the unthinkable and be reborn, to live life not as survivors but as partakers, rejoicers, participants.
Naomi Levy To Begin Again
Certainty is a dead space, in which there’s no more room to grow. Wavering is painful. I’m glad to be travelling between the two. I’ve come to love this part.
May, Katherine. Wintering (p. 94)
What is the benefit of openness and not always being fixed in our opinions?
Anger. Hurt. Guilt.
You have given so much away.
Gather what you can, for you have scattered
the only power that you have.
This is the great resolve a reclamation of power.
We must not be ruled by fear, or revenge, or insult, or pain.
There is loveliness upon your heart, let that be your guide.
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar Resolve
Most of us, I think, tend to think of the spiritual path in terms of the high points: a birth, a death, that moment of transcendence we felt during a great storm or standing by a waterfall or viewing a sunset on a trip to the mountains. But the truth is, neither thunderbolts nor visions of pink clouds are the primary engine of the spiritual quest; suffering is.
Lew, Alan. Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life (p. 47)
‘Don’t believe your every thought.’ Few things have helped me more in life. Unfortunately, that superpower, which we all possess, is often overlooked. But the fact is that approaching our own thoughts with a measure of scepticism and humour makes it infinitely easier to be you and me. So what do you gain from not unquestioningly believing every thought that flashes through your mind?
Björn Natthiko Lindeblad. I May Be Wrong (pp. 33-34)
Why! Who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles.
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love— or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of an August forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds—or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down—or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new-moon in May….
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles…. To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle, Every inch of space is a miracle….
Every spear of grass—the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.
Walt Whitman Miracles
Rabbi Simcha Bunam taught about the balance everyone should attempt. (1767–1827) of Przysucha
“Everyone should have two pockets. In the right pocket, one should place the words: ‘For my sake was the world created’ (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). And in the left: ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27).”
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
“Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.”
― Marge Piercy, The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme
An interview between the late Elie Wiesel and Christa Tippett On Being about attitudes to tradition.
MR. WIESEL: Within my traditions, you know, it is permitted to question God, even to take Him to task.
MS. TIPPETT: Quarrelling with God?
MR. Wiesel: It’s even more than that, you know. It is suing God. The expression is really “suing God.” I sue God because in Hebrew, (speaking Hebrew), I bring him to rabbinic tribunal. And the arguments are all the arguments I take from the Bible and from his words. I mean, I take God’s words and say, since You said these words, how is it possible that other things or certain things have happened?
MS. TIPPETT: It’s because you take God so seriously that you ask?
With your own frustration and disappointment, what will you take into the New Year?
“ I find it easy to admire in trees what depresses me in people”
You have taught us: Guard yourselves well; take good care of your lives. Your word calls to us: Do no harm to yourself! Do not weaken or exhaust yourself! In gratitude for the gift of our bodies, we pray for a year of renewed health and replenished strength. May caring for our bodies become our daily practice.
May we be attentive to our need for proper food, sleep, and exercise. Let no injury come to others through our acts or failure to act; but let our mitzvah be this: to build a just society in which care is a birthright and the blessing of health the responsibility of all.
New Prayer from Mishkan HaNefesh
Every year as we enter Yom Kippur, we take a step out of our death-denying culture and peer, for one day, into the deep. Every year we talk about how the rituals and liturgy of this day create for us a deathscape: we fast, we wear white, we say Yizkor, immersing in the memories of loved ones who have died. We sit with the terrible realization that we are—all of us—standing at the edge of the abyss. That some of us will be here next year and some will not.
Rabbi Sharon Brous – Kol Nidrei 5780
“Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?…The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
― Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People
STATISTICALLY, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places. Even more astounding is our statistical improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond…. Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin, maybe
Statistically. By Lewis Thomas (1913–1993)
That’s what you learn in winter: there is a past, a present and a future. There is a time after the aftermath…‘The needle breaks the fabric in order to repair it. You can’t have one without the other.’’Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.
May, Katherine. Wintering
Elul is a time of refocusing of looking at things a little differently. When we leave home, when we leave our habitual relationship to the world, we see things freshly, we become flush with our lives, we see reality and not the habitual idea of reality we have settled into at home. We see the thing itself and not the idea of the thing…We must leave, we must let go of that which is stale, in order to make room for that which is fresh and new and arising of this moment.
Alan Lew. Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life (pp. 52-53)
to the path that
leads you to your highest good.
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar Repentance
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver
I’ve found regret to be one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary. In fact, I’ve come to believe that regret is a kind of package deal: A function of empathy, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.
Like all emotions, regret can be used constructively or destructively, but the wholesale dismissal of regret is wrongheaded and dangerous. “No regrets” doesn’t mean living with courage, it means living without reflection.
To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make, and no opportunity to be braver with your life. I’m not suggesting that we have to live with regret, but I do think it’s important to allow ourselves to experience and feel it.
I was struck by the conversation between the writers Michael Pollan and Katherine May on the podcast On Being when he said;
I realised the opposite of spiritual was not material. The opposite of spiritual was egotistical thinking.
Managing that egotistical thinking is part of the process we are invited to participate in over the High Holydays. Where are we in that? What part does kindness and humility play in our lives?
The Mendl of Kotzk famously said; ‘we should be looking after our own souls and other peoples’ bodies; never the other way round.’
Edmund Flegg wrote these words at the start of the twentieth century as he reflected on his Jewish identity. As you reflect on yours ahead of the HHDs what resonates with you for why you choose your Jewish life?
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps…
I am a Jew because for Israel, the world is not completed; we are completing it.
An attitude of optimism and joy ensues, and it is to foster that outlook that we practice gratitude throughout our day. The intention is that the seeds we plant in practice will sprout, and then we will find ourselves experiencing flashes of gratitude as we go about the ordinary activities of our life.
(Morinis, Alan. Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar p. 63)
The most important experience in the life of every human being: is something being asked of me. Every human being has had a moment in which he sensed a mysterious waiting for him. Meaning is found in responding to the demand, meaning is found in sensing the demand.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who is Man, p. 107
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
― Mary Oliver Wild Geese
“Pain is the price we pay for being alive. Dead cells—our hair, our fingernails—can’t feel pain; they cannot feel anything. When we understand that, our question will change from, “Why do we have to feel pain?” to “What do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless empty suffering?”
― Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Tonight is the first night of Elul. I’ve chosen fragments of poetry and writings that speak to the themes of renewal and reflection to share with you. I hope some of these speak to you during the 29 days of the month of Elul. Elul’s acronym is I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine ( dodi li v’ani lo), speaking to each of us and God. However, you understand the sacred and your relationship to it.
This exercise for Elul is to arrive readier and more open to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur journey. Take what you find helpful and leave what you don’t.
Every day of the month we are encouraged to read Psalm 27. I’ve found that different stanzas and phrases call out at different times. I’m sharing a particularly beautiful translation by Rabbi Richard Levy.
Set to music is this line “… one thing that I ask is to dwell in the house of God forever “. Aly Halpert and Joey Weisenberg. Below is the full psalm.
1 Of David.
Adonai is my light and my victory—
From whom should I feel fright?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life—
From whom should I feel terror?
2 When evildoers approach me in battle to feed on my flesh—
My pursuers, my adversaries—
They have stumbled, they have fallen down.
3 If a camp encamps against me, my heart will not fear;
If a war arises against me,
In this I would trust:
4 One thing have I sought from Adonai—how I long for it:
That I may live in the House of Adonai all the days of my life;
That I may look upon the sweetness of Adonai,
And spend time in the Palace;
5 That You might hide me in Your sukkah on a chaotic day,
Hide me in the hiding places of Your tent,
Raise me high upon a rock.
6 Now my head rises high above my enemies roundabout,
And in Your tent I’ll offer offerings to the sound of t’ruah.
I shall sing and chant praises to Adonai!
7 Hear, Adonai, my voice—
I am crying out!
Be gracious to me, answer me!
8 My heart has said to You: “Seek my face.”
I am seeking Your face, Adonai—
9 Do not hide Your face from me.
Do not turn Your servant away in anger,
You have been my help—
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, God of my deliverance! 10 For my father and my mother have abandoned me,
Yet Adonai gathers me up.
11 Make Your path apparent to me,
Guide me in the upright road
Because of those up ahead who lie in wait for me.
12 Do not hand me over to the lust of my adversaries—
For false witnesses have risen against me, puffing violently!
13 Had I not the faith
That I would see the goodness of God in the land of life . . .
14 Wait for Adonai—
Fill your waiting with hope in Adonai;
Let your heart be strong and of good courage,
And wait hopefully for Adonai.
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