Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Elul 28, 5774

It is Never Too Late, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis 
The last word has not been spoken,
the last sentence has not been written,
the final verdict is not in.
It is never too late to change my mind,
my direction,
to say no to the past and yes to the future,
To offer remorse,
to ask and give forgiveness.
It is never too late to start over again,
to feel again
to love again
to hope again....

Elul 27, 5774

Growing up, video game play was taboo, and my parents drilled into my head that they were a complete waste of time. Of course, that didn't stop me, because I knew I was the Mario who could save the Princess. As it turns out, businesses that are hiring young employees like to see some time in front of the screen with thumbs twitching. They consider it an asset when as applicant spends about 30 minutes a day playing video games, because video game players are used to failing.

It is not that businesses want their employees to fail; it is that they know they will. Everyone does, from time to time. The question is not whether they will fail, but how they will react when they do. More often than not, a person who plays video games is used to seeing the big, red GAME OVER sign on the screen. When they do, they simply start over and try a different tactic. There is no crying, no complaining that it isn't fair, just reset and try again.

While we don't often get Nintendo-charged chances to immediately reboot and start again, we always have a choice about how we react to failure. We can get upset and kick and scream at our misfortune, or we can dust off, get up, and try a new tactic, hopefully having learned from our failure.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Elul 26, 5774

David Foster Wallace wrote this story: There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the heck is

We are like those fish, going through life without understanding, without gratitude, without introspection. Our High Holidays help us to better understand our world, our religion, and most importantly, ourselves.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Elul 24 and 25, 5774

Tomorrow night is S'lichot, the holiday when we "officially" begin the High Holy Days. If you are lucky enough to receive these Elul Reflections, you have been preparing since late August. Nevertheless, tomorrow night is the kickoff. It is a long, slow trek from S'lichot to Yom Kippur and on through Simchat Torah. It all starts tomorrow.

Meanwhile, enjoy the double portion of Elul Reflections:

Elul 24

At the start of moments that are incredible, weddings and baby namings and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, we turn to words of liturgy: May God bless you and keep you; May you always draw comfort from a close relationship with God; May a loving God guide your steps and inspire your decisions and may our lives be filled with peace.


Now we gather at the twilight of this year, and I can borrow language from Jewish liturgy to capture this moment: "I confess that I have left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did and the good that I tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven." How have your acts of goodness, as opposed to errors, given meaning to your life in 5774?

Elul 25
Three Questions

I once heard a story about a rabbi who was stopped by a Russian soldier while he walking in his shtetl. The soldier aims his rifle at the rabbi and demands, "Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?"

Completely calm and unfazed, the rabbi asks, "How much do they pay you?" A bit surprised, the soldier responds, "Twenty­-five kopecks a month." The rabbi pauses, and in a deeply thoughtful manner says, "I have a proposal for you. I'll pay you fifty kopecks each month if you stop me here every day and challenge me to respond to those same
three questions."

Elul 24, 5774

At the start of moments that are incredible, weddings and baby namings and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, we turn to words of liturgy: May God bless you and keep you; May you always draw comfort from a close relationship with God; May a loving God guide your steps and inspire your 
decisions and may our lives be filled with peace.
Now we gather at the twilight of this year, and I can borrow language from Jewish liturgy to capture this moment: “I confess that I have left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did and the good that I tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be
forgiven.” How have your acts of goodness, as opposed to errors, given meaning to your life in 5774?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Elul 23, 5774

In the 1998 movie The Prince of Egypt, one of my favorite scenes is where Moses (voiced by Val Kilmer) approaches the burning bush. A voice comes out of the bush voiced by...Val Kilmer. The same casting decision was made in 1956 for The Ten Commandments, in which both roles are played/voiced by Charleton Heston. This casting choice is also a theological choice. It says, in essence, that when Moses hears God's voice, he hears his own voice. In other words, God's voice is not the cinematic presentation of a booming, masculine voice from the clouds. It is the still, small voice within us. This is why the Hebrew word l'hitpalel, "to pray," is a reflexive verb. We do not direct our prayers outward; we direct them inward, to the Divine Spark nestled deep in our soul.

When I am reading or thinking and I "hear" words in my head, the voice of those thoughts is my voice. I assume it is the same with all of us. Who knows? Maybe we all hear God's voice, disguised as our own. Perhaps what we call the voice of conscience is that same voice that Moses heard at the burning bush, that all the Israelites heard at Mt. Sinai, and anyone can hear if we are able to recognize our own connection with God.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Elul 22, 5774

The Sling by Rabbi Hirshy Minkowitz
Question: Imagine you are right handed and you suffer a bad fall on your right side. You end up with torn ligaments in your shoulder and the doctor says you need to wear a sling and cannot use the arm for a week. You are right handed so now it becomes difficult to write, drive, text, email, etc.
How are you supposed to go on with your regular day to day functioning with your primary arm immobilized?
I thought about this all week since a fall last Wednesday put me in this exact predicament. And of course the allegory and metaphor associated with this was swimming in my mind all week. What does one do when their figurative right arm is unavailable? When the thing they rely on most for so many of their basic functions and survivals is simply not there? How is it even possible to continue?
My life the last four months was relived in a metaphoric microcosm the last eight days.
And then I discovered the answer, it was a very simple and short one, and it applied to the last four months as it did to the last week.
Answer: You learn to use your left arm.
As you consider the year that is almost passed, how have you “learned to use your left arm?”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Elul 21, 5774

We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as Hayom Harat Olam, the Birthday of the World. We read the story in Genesis that tells us that Shabbat began when "...the heaven and the earth were completed and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that God had done" (Genesis 2:1­2). And yet, Creation never really came to an end. In the prayer Yotzer Or, we praise God every morning as the One who in goodness renews the work of Creation every single day: uv'tuvo m'chadeish b'chol yom tamid ma'aseh v'reishit.

Over 30 years ago, Rabbi Harry Danziger spoke to his congregation on Rosh Hashanah Eve at Temple Israel in Memphis, TN. He said "When God finished creating the world after those six days, He left a lot of unfinished business...You and I have the power to do God's Unfinished Business." With that sermon, God's Unfinished Business, or GUB, began as an outreach network within Temple Israel to help connect members with one another, to provide help and support to each other at different moments in life, and continues to offer many services today.

Each day we have the power to take up God's unfinished business, to complete one more part of the acts of
Creation. In the year to come, what talents and skills can you lend to completing the task?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Elul 20, 5774

From Rabbi David Wolpe: We have all been saddened by times of war and loss. May we remember during these moments that each day, millions are patiently building, working, creating, dreaming, and rescuing others. Do not despair; the human heart has hidden resilience and secret hopes.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Elul 19, 5774

Think about one thing that you wish you had done differently in the past year. Now, I ask you to imagine what it would look like for you to do it differently. Perhaps you wish you were nicer to a family member. You may wish that you were kinder to an employee, or that you gave more of your time to volunteer efforts. Judaism teaches us that these thoughts can be more than wishes ... more than good intentions. As we approach the High Holidays, start by doing just one thing differently, they way that you wished for in your thoughts. Lao Tzu said, "Every journey begins with a single step." Before the High Holidays start, take that one step.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Elul 17/18 5774

Again, a double portion as we prepare for Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom!

Elul 17

When Moses encounters God for the first time, God immediately commands Moses to take his shoes off because Moses is on "holy ground."

What might be a connection between bare feet and holy ground?

I like to think that God's command reminds all of us of unnecessary barriers. Just as Moses' feet needed to feel the ground, we need to feel the pains and joys of others, increasing our empathy and caring for one another.

Often times, we may encounter holiness but our senses are not attuned enough to feel the sacredness of the moment. DuringElul, let us metaphorically take our shoes off ... we are standing on holy ground.

Elul 18

Today is my 40th birthday, though I am rarely one to focus on my age. How many trips I have taken around the sun has never been a number that deserves my attention. People have told me that how we feel, or how we act (which would lower my number significantly) is more important than the number. After all, it is not like last night as the clock moved from 11:59 to 12:00 I magically aged exactly one year. I have gradually been moving toward 40, month by month, day by day, second by second. Perhaps this is why age as a number is rarely something that I consider.
It is better to think of aging not by numbers but by connections. In my time here I have experienced great joy and terrible loss. All of these moments are because of how significant other people are to me. My parents, grandparents, wife, and children have been and remain some of the most important people in my life. Other relatives, friends, and colleagues keep me laughing, crying, and holding on to precious moments, good and bad. Congregants and students who need me in a particular role keep me strong and make every day an adventure.

So as a birthday gift to me, please reach out to someone and tell them how they have made your time matter. Tell them what their connection means to you and do what you can to keep it strong.

Elul 16, 5774

Lilla Watson wrote, "If you ever come here to help me, you're wasting our time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together."

During this time of Elul, we must realize that our lives are bound up with one another. By doing acts of T'suvah and repentance, we take these words seriously, acting them out through our actions as well as believing them in our hearts. My redemption is bound up with yours. Let us work together.

Elul 7, 5774

A man once cried to God, “Lord, the world is in such a mess – everything seems wrong.  Why don’t you send someone to help and change the world?”  The voice of Adonai answered, “I did send someone.  I sent you.”
This is a time to ask for forgiveness, seek mercy, and pray for life.  We ask God for a year of health and holiness and joy.  This is also a time where we do more than ask because we have work to do.  We work to reflect deeply on our past, we work to bring healing to ourselves; we work to find a true sense of wholeness and completion in our lives.  During this month of Elul we work to understand that God has sent us.  It is up to us to help and change the world.  This is a time to accept this sacred task.

Elul 15, 5774

We think of the *Mi Chamocha* as the ultimate song of redemption and freedom. But if we look closely, we see that our ancestors sang this song as they were in the middle of the Red Sea. They were not yet on dry land, and had not yet completely escaped the oppressive hand of Pharaoh. But yet, they were celebrating.

This is a message of the High Holidays. We need to look toward the future with the same hope and faith displayed with the Israelites sang *Mi Chamocha.* If we want freedom, we need to act as if we are free.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Elul 14

Have you ever listened to Klezmer music? This period of Elul can be compared to a beautiful Klezmer melody. A good Klezmer tune weaves together introspection and melancholy with joy and hope. We sing about the past sometimes with sadness, but nonetheless, we dance toward the future.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Elul 13, 5774

A few weeks ago many in this country mourned the passing of the comedian and actor Robin Williams. We hear of celebrity deaths all the time, but Williams’ death touched the heart of so many because of his unique gifts. Of course he was witty and smart, but he exuded compassion at the same time as he did humor. He could bring us to tears of laughter with his incredible gift for improvisation and comedy. He made us think and he made us cry. His roles as an alien, a father, a teacher, a therapist or a genie all touched a special place in the human soul. Uniquely, Robin Williams was an entertainer who spanned generations of audiences. His death awakened us to the tremendous burden and hurt so many carry as they battle depression, and reminds us to reach out to those in need of support.
One of his roles was in the film “Jack,” where he played the title character, a boy with a rare genetic disorder that caused him to age 4 times faster than normal. He was a 4th grader with the appearance of a 40 year old. While the Francis Ford Coppola directed movie was not a success for either of them, there is a touching and tender moment to inspire our New Year. As the aged valedictorian of his High School class, Jack says “In the end none of us have very long on this earth. Life is fleeting. And if you're ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer skies, when the stars are strung across the velvety night, and a shooting star streaks through the blackness turning night into day. Make a wish. Think of me. Make your life spectacular. I know I did.”

Sunday, September 7, 2014

12 Elul 5774

It is common practice to dedicate a teaching to a loved one or a great teacher. Today, on what would have been his 72nd birthday, this Elul Reflection is dedicated to both--my father Vic Young, z"l.

The music at Jewish summer camps is a fundamental part of the camp worship experience. Young women and men lead the camp in songs and prayers that express ancient ideas in new and beautiful melodies that speak to the hearts and souls of our youth. If the melody has hand motions, or inspires the kids to get up and dance, or just sounds good to them, it becomes an instant summer hit. Much of Reform Jewish worship in the synagogue today is influenced by these special moments from camp.
At Camp Coleman this summer, I learned a phenomenal new version of Elohai Neshama, the morning prayer that thanks God for creating and forming the pure soul that exists in each one of us, and allows us to see the wonder and beauty of the world around us. This version is a “mash-up” with the song “Awake My Soul” by the British folk-rock band Mumford & Sons. The refrain of the song reminds us of an important lesson we often take for granted: “In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die, and where you invest your love, you invest your life.” As we prepare for a New Year, where will we invest our love and our lives? How will we use our souls to make that investment?
(And if you want to hear a great version of the Mumford & Sons song, you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pxs_p1535WE)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Elul 10-11, 5774

Reflecting on our lives - our mistakes and how to do better is difficult. It’s difficult to do and more importantly, it’s difficult to want to do. Yet we shouldn't be discouraged. While the Torah teaches us that God is perfect and just (Deut. 32:4), it also teaches us that God regrets, God loses God’s temper, and God kvetches often.  It’s no wonder that Jewish mystics envisioned a broken, shattered God for a broken world and the broken, imperfect people that live within it. Fully aware of our weakness and our flaws, they had the audacity to suggest that we, with our imperfect lives, have the capacity to heal the world, heal God, and heal ourselves in the process. Such healing is possible and the path to healing begins with reflection.
(Charlie Cytron-Walker)

Straying From the Path and Helping Others Find It
Sometimes, we stray from the path of goodness and need the help of others to be reminded of our better selves.
In The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, Jack Kornfield describes an African forgiveness ritual:
In the Babemba tribe of southern Africa, when someone does something harmful, they take the person to the center of the village where the whole tribe comes and surrounds them. For two days, they will say to the man all the good things that he has done.
The tribe believes that each human being comes into the world as good. Each one of us only desiring safety, love, peace and happiness. But sometimes, in the pursuit of these things, people make mistakes.

The community sees those mistakes as a cry for help. They unite to lift him, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth of which he had been temporarily disconnected: “I am good.”

Elul 9, 5774

The tale is told about a cantor who would study with the tzaddik Rabbi Mordechai of Nadvorna and before Rosh Hashanah, he seemed very impatient and asked Rabbi Mordechai to be dismissed early.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” the rabbi asked.
The cantor replied, “I am leading the congregation in services and I need to examine the festival prayer book and put my prayers in order.
Rabbi Mordechai responded, “The prayer book is the same as it was last year, but it would be better for you to examine your heart and your deeds, and put yourself in order.

(ed. Philip Goodman, The Rosh Hashanah Anthology, p. 140-1)

Elul 8, 5774

An old Hasidic tale:  A rabbi and a soap maker were walking down the street together.  The soap maker was puzzled.  “Rabbi,” he asked, “why do we bother keeping our Jewish traditions alive?  We’ve been studying Torah and learning about Judaism for thousands of years.  They teach us values of truth, kindness, compassion and love.  Yet if we look at the world, all we see is lies, cruelty, apathy and violence.  Why hasn’t Judaism really helped us change our lives for the better?”  The rabbi simply remained silent.
As they continued on their stroll they came upon a young boy, dirty and grimy from head to foot.  
Said the rabbi to the soap maker: “What good is the soap you make?  It has been around for years and years, and yet look at this filthy little boy.  Why hasn’t your soap helped to make little boys like him more clean and neat?”
“What do you mean?” the soap maker replied.  “Soap doesn’t do any good unless you use it.”

“Aha!” replied the rabbi. “So it is with Judaism.  Unless we apply the lessons and teachings of our tradition to our daily lives it is of no use.  We can learn, we can study, but if we don’t apply it, then Judaism is as useless as an untouched piece of soap.”  (adapted from “Yom Kippur Readings” edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, 2005)  How will you use your Judaism in the New Year?

Elul 6, 5774

Elul is a time to acknowledge specific acts of wrongdoing as well as the more subtle ways of missing the mark – the times we hardened our hearts or held on to evil thoughts. We uncover a deeper truth about Judaism and our humanity when we not only focus on what we’ve done, but what we failed to do.
Each day there are acts of goodness that we can perform: a kind word, a little patience, a helping hand. The focus on sins and mistakes makes it possible to overlook the small things that we could and should be doing.
The issue, therefore, is not only our misdeeds, but our apathy. Recalling and recounting our sins as well as our missed opportunities challenges us to change and grow, improve relationships and perform acts of kindness. It inspires us to be a mensch – a full human being.
(Inspired by Rabbi Irving Greenberg)

Elul 5, 5774

Boy, am I behind! Sending some Elul thoughts for the week, one post at a time concluding with tomorrow's thought, in respect for Shabbat.

Daze of Ah
Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, the Emory University Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies, writes that one year, "while lecturing on the theology of [the High Holy Day] period, I noticed that a student had written at the top of his notes: the Daze of Ah. I was unsure whether to chastise him for not having done the readings or give him extra credit for offering this insight. For this is exactly how we should approach this time: in a Daze of Ah, a daze of wonderment at the opportunity that has been given to us."
Indeed, the High Holy Day period is a gift, if we recognize it and prepare properly for it. It is a vital chance to reflect on the year that has passed, and plan for the year to come. It is reminder that the value of family and community far outweigh the stuff that clutters our lives. The High Holy Days challenge us to be better human beings - better custodians of our fragile planet and all that exists on it. The Yamim Noraim reignite the flame that represents our relationship with God - a flame that warms us and shows us the way.
Dr. Lipstadt continues by observing that "most of us never achieve this stage. We are like people who have been told that the last scene of Hamlet is the most riveting and only show up for that scene. We fail to understand what the fuss is about. We parachute into the Yamim Noraim. This period is the April fifteenth of the Jewish year, yet I spend more time preparing my taxes than preparing my soul."

In the same way as we would not stand before a king without adequate preparation, so should we give thought to the preparation for and the meaning of this time period.