Saturday, August 29, 2015

Tishrei 1/September 14: Rosh Hashanah

On behalf of all six rabbis who have participated in Elul Reflections 5775, we wish you and yours a Shanah Tovah Umetukah! May the New Year be good and sweet for you and your loved ones!
As we move from 5775 to 5776, we want to thank those of you who have been reading our Elul Reflections, especially if you have been reading them for five years. One of the great High Holy Day texts reminds us that T’shuvah, T’filah, and Tzeddakah help nullify judgment’s severe decree. We hope we have put you on the road toward T’shuvah (repentance) with these daily messages. That is surely our goal. We also hope to have gotten you in the mood for T’filah of the High Holy Days, which began last night. If you have appreciated these messages, we also hope you will consider a gift of Tzeddakah to one or all of the synagogues represented by these daily Elul thoughts. Your gifts help keep us inspired to bring messages of renewal to our six congregations.
Thank you, and Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Sari Laufer, Congregation Rodef Sholom New York, NY
Rabbi Brad Levenberg, Temple Sinai Atlanta, GA
Rabbi Alan Litwak, Temple Sinai North Miami Beach, FL
Rabbi Rick Kellner, Congregation Beth Tikvah Columbus, OH
Rabbi Michael Sommer, Har-Shalom in Highland Park, IL
Rabbi Dan Treiser, Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater, FL

Rabbi David N. Young, Congregation B’nai Tzedek Fountain Valley, CA

Elul 29/September 13

What if I make a mistake?
The truth is that you will.
The answer to the “What if” question is, you will.
The more significant question is, "After I make that mistake, what do I do then?"
If you have chosen well, after you make that mistake, you will be that much closer to fixing that mistake.  You will be smarter and more resilient and maybe even more respected by those who were affected by your mistake.
We have all made mistakes this year.  
Did you fix them?

Did you grow from them?

Elul 27 and 28/September 11 and 12

Remember Our Cities
In honor of the attack in New York City 14 years ago, today's Elul Thought is by Rabbi Julius J. Nodel, and is entitled, "Remember Our Cities."

IMPLANT within the hearts of all who are entrusted with the guardianship of our cities a
constant awareness of the human values at stake.
CLEAR the slums of prejudice from our hearts.
ILLUMINE  the dark alleys of our indifference.
RENEW in us those places in our thinking which are too often willing to try anything
new as long as it has been done before.
TAX us with dreams that are capable of fulfillment.
REAPPORTION our hearts so that there will be no under-representation of You in our
BEAUTIFY our vision so that we do not abuse the natural blessings of Your creation.
REMOVE  the litter of ignorance and greed from the people we serve.
HELP us to restore the dilapidated ideals of civic and national pride which are necessary
for our growth.
And PAVE the streets of our intentions with righteousness..
For we know, dear God, there is no greater blight in our cities than fear; no greater crime
wave than the flood of despair; and no greater delinquency than the mischief of inertia.

The prayer that drove my Great-Grandfather away is the one that calls me back
My great-grandfather of blessed memory was turned away from synagogue because of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. This is perhaps because he lost his beloved wife at such a young age.  It is a shock to read that on “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Who shall live and who shall die.”  The words of this prayer remind us that God takes books off shelves and writes and records our fate.  If I believed these words literally, I, like my great-grandfather, might walk by the synagogue on Yom Kippur with fishing pole in hand.  But I don’t believe in a God like that. I don’t believe that God seals our fate with a calligraphy stroke at this hour of judgment.  In fact, it is this prayer that draws me back to synagogue.  I am fascinated by its metaphor.  I choose to believe in a God who tells me I can change.  That voice of change can be heard from many different directions and I can choose the path that I want to take.   Perhaps, though, our interpretation of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer should be more in line with the teachings of the Hasidic masters who taught us that we each have a book of remembrance on our shelves.  At this time of year we take the books off the shelves and begin writing.  We start to write the next chapter.  That chapter may include acts of righteousness and a commitment to do our best, but it may include some poor choices and some wrong turns.  That’s why we come back each year and take the book off the shelf and write a new chapter.  For the message of this prayer is that we can change.  We can change our direction by turning our outlook through prayer, we can change our actions through righteousness.  It is in the days of Elul that I hear this prayer calling to me reminding me that change is possible.  I am being called to sit before the Divine Judge that a profound love for humanity.

Elul 26/September 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, on 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.  It is a beautiful and complete statement, yet it is also much more complex than it seems at first glance. 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 might we discover a personal relationship with God?  Through prayer? Meditation?  Simple acknowledgement of God’s presence?  Do we exemplify a love of mercy through acts of compassion and kindness?  What is the justice that we perform?  The prophet provides a complete, and complicated, mission statement for our lives.  How can we meet the challenge?

Elul 25/September 9

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!”  When I was in Israel this summer, I couldn’t help but think of these words as we watched the sun set and rise against desert mountains.  But I don’t need to travel to our ancient homeland to find inspiration.  These words come from my mouth at home, too:  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?  And when we see those reminders of the Divine presence, how do we respond?

Elul 24/September 8

Throughout Jewish tradition, rabbis and interpreters of tradition have noticed a unique quirk of Hebrew.  Two holidays seem linked by their names: Yom Kippur and Purim.  The Day of Atonement is often called Yom HaKippurim.  To some, it almost seems to say, Yom Ki-Purim, “a day LIKE Purim.”  How can the holiest, most solemn day of the year be “like” a day of merriment, frivolity and feasting?  Of course, there are many different interpretations offered.  Some teach that the fasting and atonement of Yom Kippur and the joyous celebration of Purim present us two diametrically opposed, yet equally important, methods for approaching God.  Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR teaches that “…the essential message of Purim is that no matter how hard we work to control our lives, how diligently we plan and prepare, life is inescapably unpredictable. On a whim the Jews of Shushan saw their whole world turn upside down and we could too—“grief turned into joy, a day of mourning into a day of celebration” (Megillat Esther 9:22)…It is the reversibility of fortune, the recognition of the capriciousness of life, that Purim shares with Yom Kippur – a day that similarly calls us to reflect on the unavoidable uncertainty of life.” (sermon, Kol Nidre 5772, In the story of Purim, the Jewish people are saved only once Esther removes her “mask” and reveals her true identity to the King.  On Yom Kippur, we can only achieve atonement when we remove the masks we put on ourselves.  By confronting who we really are, what we’ve done right and what we’ve done wrong, we help set our course for improvement in the New Year.  Elul is an important time for us to begin looking in the mirror, looking past the masks, and discovering our true selves.  

Elul 22/September 6

When the Seattle Mariners beat the Baltimore Orioles in extra innings on Tuesday, August 11th, it might have seemed like nothing special, just the end of a game between two teams having mediocre seasons.  But it turns out that the win made August 11th a historic day in baseball.  It is the first time that all 15 home teams won their game on the same day.  (For the purists, something similar happened when the home teams went 12-0 in 1914, but that included the Federal League, and it happened in 1989 when the 11 home teams won.  This is the first time since the league expanded to 30 teams.)  Without taking into account the talent of the teams, the odds of this happening are approximately 1 in 33,000.

I realize that this is not the most earth-shattering miracle one might witness. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable moment for the millions who follow the sport.  Those who were at the games that day witnessed history, and probably didn’t know it.

Sometimes the commonplace is a part of something remarkable.  Day to day interactions take place, but we might not understand the impact they have on others.  We hear the news of a baby being born and feel excited, but may not realize the incredible miracle inherent in childbirth.  In the New Year, perhaps we can recognize the miraculous, the holy, the special in the everyday.  

Elul 23/September 7

*Our Father, Our King
High Holy Day liturgy is majestic and bold. Using grandiose language and strong imagery, it helps pull feeling into our prayers, and drives home the point of why we are gathering for two (or three) full days of prayer over a ten-day period. One of my favorite pieces is Avinu Malkeinu. Its simple, repetitive style coupled with its pleading tones always helps me focus on my needs for the coming Jewish year. We pray that God will hear our voice, show us mercy, remember us, save us, act on our behalf, etc.
The problem many of us have with Avinu Malkeinu is its apparently gendered description of God. The English translates literally to, “Our Father, Our King,” which has led to a variety of different attempts to be more inclusive, such as using “Avinu Imanu,” (Our Father, Our Mother--which leaves out Malkeinu altogether), or “Imanu Malchoteinu” (Our Mother, Our Queen--which is a bigger gender issue than the masculine).  The language of the machzor we use in the Reform movement was changed in 1996 for the second edition of Gates of Repentance. Instead of “Our Father, Our King,” we now say, “Avinu Malkeinu,” choosing not to translate so that we can decide for ourselves what the words mean.
While that non-translation style is still used in the new machzor, Mishkan Hanefesh, it makes an effort to help us understand Avinu Malkeinu as “Almighty and Merciful.” This translation brings to mind the perfect image of a loving parent and ruler. Having both the power to do anything, and the mercy to not use all the power at hand so that we can be loved with that perfect blend of justice and mercy that we ask of God.

We call you Avinu--
as a loving Parent, forgive our wrongs and failings; accept us in our human frailty.

We call you Malkeinu--
as Sovereign of our souls, help us to rise from our brokenness to build a world of shalom.

(Mishkan Hanefesh, p. 74)

*Today's teaching is in honor of my father Vic Young z"l, who would have turned 72 today.

Elul 20 and 21/September 4 and 5

Oneg Shabbat
On Shabbat most synagogues host an oneg before or after services.  It is typically simple.  You might find wine, juice, coffee, cookies, perhaps some bagels and accoutrements on a Saturday morning.  You will definitely find a lot of schmoozing.  Oneg Shabbat has always been an opportune moment to catch up with the community, sharing news of simchas and sorrows, or simply enjoying the presence of friends. I once asked a group of people what they thought the word oneg means.  They answered with the things we find at an oneg, suggesting different food items or even, conversation.”  Actually, oneg means joy.” The whole point of sharing time with our community is to further increase the joy of Shabbat.

The same thing is true about the High Holy Days.  We might not gather for a formal oneg with its sweet treats, but we still enjoy the presence of family and friends.  We still revel in the joy of the coming year, and we still share news with people we may not have seen in a while. We enter the New Year with the same feelings of joy with which we begin our Shabbat every week.

What Shabbat moment in the past year brought you joy?
How could you add making Shabbat a time for joy in the new year?

Shabbat Shalom!

Prepare Your Soul
On Saturday night, Jews will gather to officially begin the Days of Awe with S’lichot, which means apologies.” On this night, we ask: Have we made our apologies? Have we stood face to face with those we’ve wronged and told them we are sorry? Have we forgiven those who have approached us? Each
year on S’lichot we prepare our souls for the High Holy Days, to help us turn” and reach toward holiness.  

A meditation to prepare us for S’lichot:
We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, the country of our birth or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die, nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this choice of choicelessness, we do choose how we will live; courageously or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or in drift. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide that what makes us significant is either what we do or what we refuse to do. But no matter how indifferent the universe might be to our choices or decision, these choices are ours to make. We decide. We choose. And as we decide and choose, so are our lives formed” (Joseph Epstein).

On Saturday night, after Shabbat,  how will you choose to prepare your soul?  

Elul 19/September 3

Sweet Music
Sweet as honey (Let us soak it up),
Sweet as honey (Let it all sink in),
Sweet as honey on the tongue (Sweet words of Torah)
(Dan Nichols)

The song, "Sweet As Honey," combines three wonderful symbols of joy: honey, Torah, and music.  Just thinking about the song has me bopping around in my chair, hearing my youth groupers or campers sing the responses in parentheses as the song leaders sing the lead part.

Words are wonderful tools for expressing ourselves.  Poetry is even better.  Add music to our poetry, and the feelings behind them come to life.  In my high school choir room there was a poster that read, The mouth can learn the words, but only the soul can sing.”  Even without words the melodies behind the music can give powerful expression to our deepest thoughts and feelings.

This is why we sing most of our blessings.  Singing songs of praise expresses our love for God, our wonder at God’s miracles, and our thanks for God’s presence in our lives.  t is also why we have so many different melodies for some of the same blessings.  Singing a mellow Mi Chamocha helps us contemplate the miracles God creates.  Singing an upbeat, hip setting to the same blessing allows us to express our joy and gratitude for the same miracles.

The song Sweet As Honey” is an amazing expression of joy.  It reminds us, like writing an aleph in honey on a tablet, that Torah learning is sweet and joyous.  It should keep us bopping in our chairs, bouncing with anticipation of the next sweet words we are bound to hear.

Think about the Jewish songs and prayers and music that you like.  Which ones help you connect with other people?  Which ones make you feel closer to God?  Which ones evoke powerful memories or express your joy?

Elul 18/September 2

Oneg: Joy of the Season  
"May it be Your will, Eternal our God, God of all generations, that the year five
thousand seven hundred seventy two bring to us and the whole House of Israel life
and peace, joy and exaltation, redemption and comfort; and let us say: Amen.”
(Gates of Repentance)

Rosh Hashanah, which we will celebrate in 2 weeks, is the birthday of the world.  t
is a time for new beginnings, for preservation of our heritage, and for joyous
celebration.  We celebrate with apples dipped in honey.  We wish each other a sweet
New Year.  We sing and pray together as grand communities.  During this month of
Elul we prepare for the New Year, with anticipation of great joy and happiness.

Who do you want to wish a sweet new year to?  Will you call them, text them, see
them or send them a card?
What do you want to eat as the new year begins to celebrate the sweetness it could
bring to your life?
How will you make Rosh Hashanah a joyous day?

Elul 17/September 1

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

Elul 16/August 31

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.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Elul 13 and 14/August 28 and 29

Looking Within
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

The word “to pray” in Hebrew is lehit’palel.  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 form of lehit’palel, however, is
reflexive, meaning there is a give and take implied within the verb itself.  “To pray” in
Hebrew is to look inward, to receive as well as to pour out.

From the Narrows
In distress I called on Adonai, who answered me and brought me relief.
Psalm 118:5  
This Psalm reminds me of blowing the shofar as we do every morning during the month of Elul.  A literal translation of this verse could be, “From the narrow place I called to God; God answered me with great wideness.”
A shofar starts with a narrow place, a tiny mouthpiece through which we blow as much air as we can muster.  It isn’t easy, but when done properly we can produce a chilling melody from the end, the wide expanse that channels the sound to our ears.
When we call out to God in our distress during the High Holy Days, we often feel  squeezed, stuck, and unable to move.  When God brings us comfort we feel great relief, as if we are in a wide expanse, and free.  When we hear the shofar’s loud, bleating note ringing in our ears, we know that the time approaches when we will call out to Adonai and hopefully be granted relief.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Elul 15/August 30

This spring I was at the brit milah of my third nephew, and his birth reminds me of some of our Elul themes. As Elul begins, we are given the opportunity to look back and seriously consider how we would like to live our lives.  Like a newborn baby, we are full of potential.  The High Holy Days are a time to tap in to our potential and create the best version of ourselves for the coming year.  Elul provides for us a full month of preparation for the Days of Awe.  We cannot expect to go to synagogue once or twice a year and immediately feel renewed.  Just like we give a newborn milk or formula before solid foods, we take time to prepare before our feast of the spirit over the High Holy Days. Thinking about the new arrival in my family gives Elul even greater significance this year.  
My nephew has his whole life ahead of him. His personality, interests, likes and dislikes have yet to manifest. He is a completely clean slate. While we cannot claim the same, we do have the ability to cleanse in preparation for the month ahead. Elul gives us the opportunity to look back at our life and decide how we want to renew for the year to come.
May we all find the strength to use Elul to realize our fullest potential.  May the month ahead bring us into a year of conquering the changes we wish to make in ourselves.

Elul 12/August 27

Prayers and Shoes
Rabbi Elana Perry wrote: In one of her more well-known works, contemporary poet Ruth Forman writes:
"I wear prayers like shoes.
Pull 'em on quiet each morning
to take me through the uncertain day...
They were my mama's gift to walk me through life.
She wore strong ones..."
The shoes we wear on our feet shape the steps by which we approach each day, each task or each event.  Putting on shoes each day shows purpose and a willingness to encounter the future. The same can be said of our daily prayers and intentions, if we are mindful about harnessing the power of our personal conversations with ourselves and with God. Imagine if all of us walked around on prayers each day.  What would be your personal prayer?  What words would help to carry you through the uncertain times?  What kind of expression - quiet meditation, or bellowing song - would bring you comfort and strength?

Elul 11/August 26

The Key to Opening the Gates
In a teaching by the Ramban, Nachmanides, the shofar is not the alarm clock of Maimonides. It is not meant to startle or to scare; the call to teshuvah, the call to repentance, the call to enter the High Holy Days is an intimate invitation. Reflecting on the Torah reading before Rosh HaShanah, the same one Reform Jews will read on Yom Kippur, Nachmanides wonders what the word nitzavim means; Ramban teaches that it means that “You stand and are invited before God to stand in God’s covenant.” It is physical and metaphysical, personal and communal.
Throughout the holy days, we repeat a verse from Psalms, so redolent of this time and experience Pitchu li, sha’arei tzedek—open for me the gates of righteousness, and I will enter them, thanking God. Open for me—an asking, a plea. An invitation from us to God; these days then become God’s invitation back to us.
The gates, of course, are a unifying image of the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days. Gates of prayer, gates of repentance, gates of righteousness all open—and remain open through Neilah, the final service of the 10 days. We beg God to open them; perhaps God begs us to walk through.
My colleague, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, writes the following:
Instead—and here I refer back to these beautiful words of the Ramban—we need to sense that we are invited by the Holy Blessed One into something big and deep and mysterious, something that requires time, something that requires presence. That’s what today means. God needs us to be present in order for God to be present. If we are absent, God will be absent too. But if all of us bring ourselves, our full selves, to our experience, and if we open ourselves to listen and allow ourselves to be moved, we may yet hear the still small voice.
We stand still, and we stand together.

Elul 10/August 25

Being Thankful
One must consider all of the good that the Blessed Creator has done from birth to
today, and be thankful for all of this good.  One [must also know all the times] when
Mitzvot have not been done.  And one must weight the punishment for the sin against the
sweetness of the transgression, and the reward of the good against the suffering in this
world, as our sages have said, “Reckon the loss of a mitzvah against its reward, and the
reward of a transgression against its loss” (Pirkei Avot 2:1).
From Orchot Hatzadikim, an anonymous 16th Century text
Life is about balance.  We all have things about which we are thankful, and about which
we are sorry.  The key is to try to keep the ratio of thankful to sorry in favor of the
thankful side.  The way to make this happen is by doing things for others.  When we
perform gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness, we are setting the scale more and
more in favor of thankfulness.  When we give of ourselves we get something back as
well.  It makes us feel great to help others.  That wonderful feeling is the sensation of the
scale tipping toward the side of Mitzvot.