Friday, September 30, 2016

27 Elul/28 Elul 5776

In respect for Shabbat and the many of us who choose to give our email a rest as well as ourselves, we are offering two Elul Thoughts--one for today and one for Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom!

Us and the World
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.

28 Elul/October 1

As we travel through the days of Elul, it is possible that we will encounter painful memories of ourselves and our actions; regrets, mistakes, things we wish we didn’t say… A common response to pain and trouble is that time heals all wounds. The Jewish response is that by itself, time only serves to put more space between our past selves and our current selves. In other words, Time dulls all our wounds. But time does not heal anything! Healing takes effort, concentration, intent and desire. It takes a commitment to acts of t’shuvah. It takes this month of Elul.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

26 Elul 5776

This I confess to myself:
I have taken my transgressions with me, carrying them year-by-year into my hours and days, my lapses of conscience and indiscretion with words, my petty judgments and my vanity, clinging to grief and fear, anger and shame, clinging to excuses and to old habits. I’ve felt the light of heaven, signs and wonders in my own life, and still will not surrender to holiness and light.

God of redemption, with Your loving and guiding hand, repentance in prayer is easy. Repentance inside, leaving my faults and offenses behind, is a struggle. In Your wisdom You have given me this choice: To live today as I lived yesterday, or to set my life free to love You, to love Your people, and to love myself.

God of Forgiveness, help me to leave my transgressions behind, to hear Your voice, to accept Your guidance, and to see the miracles in each new day. Blessed are You, God of Justice and Mercy, You set Your people on the road to t’shuva.
(Alden Solovy)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

25 Elul 5776

The moment that Israel takes shofars and blows the tekiah, God rises from the throne of judgment and takes a seat on the throne of mercy.” (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana, 23:3)

It is said that each person is their own harshest critic. Just as sounding the shofar moves God from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy, Elul offers us the chance to move away from critical, self abasement to candid, empathetic self assessment. As we prepare for the holidays, be kind to yourself. If God sits on the throne of mercy, why shouldn’t you as well?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

24 Elul 5776

During Elul, I often find it difficult to clear my mind and earnestly introspect. The noise of life and suffocation of routine often make it hard to find some “me time.” I like to use music to break free from the daily hustle and bustle and prepare personally for the High Holy Days.

Since the High Holy Day experience features many wind instruments, I made this playlist - Jazz for Elul - of instrumental Jazz that also features wind instruments. I encourage you to find 30 minutes to sit and listen to music in solitude, whether instrumental Jazz or something you prefer more, to clear your mind, reflect on areas you fell short on this year and focus on a few character traits you want to improve during the coming year.

Percussionist Art Blakey says, “Jazz washes away the dust off of everyday life.” I hope Elul provides you the opportunity to wash the dust off your personal introspection through music and you enter the High Holy Days invigorated and inspired to better yourself.

Monday, September 26, 2016

23 Elul 5776

My Perfections and Imperfections in the Mirror
It is impossible to see yourself as others do.
It is not because we are incapable of seeing things, but rather, when it comes to ourselves, we understand what we are seeing differently than everyone else.
We make this mistake even when we think that we are objectively looking in a mirror.  We make this mistake all the more so when we stare into the ever-present mirror of what people are saying about us on social media or behind our back. We misunderstand how we appear on that video or how we come across in that email.
When we look a group photo, we start searching for ourselves first. When we walk by a mirror, we make sure our hair is straight or we don't have something in our teeth, yet fail to notice how horrible that piece of clothing we love actually looks on us. When someone posts a review of something we have created, or responds to something we have written, we dissect it, looking for the kernel of truth that will finally help us see ourselves as others do.
No one understands your self-narrative.  No one truly gets what it is like to be you. That kernel of truth you are seeking is not there, no matter how hard you look in the mirror.
Yet, in this season of self-reflection, despite our inability to truly see ourselves, it is comforting to know that we are neither as bad nor as good as we think we are.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

22 Elul 5776

“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” - Yogi Berra

When we engage in Chesbon HaNefesh and take stock of our lives, it becomes clear that there are many moments when we fall short of perfection.  The reality is, that’s to be expected.  There is no expectation of perfection in our lives.  Imperfection is “built into the system.”  Even our world isn’t perfect.  At the completion of the Creation story just before the first Shabbat, God sits back, looks at everything that had been created, and declares it “Tov me’od – very good.”  Not perfect; very good.  The world doesn’t come closer to perfection until we share in the creative process.  That’s why, for example, we offer a blessing over the bread at a meal, “Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz… who brings forth bread from the earth.”  Bread doesn’t come out of the earth directly.  It is only formed in the creative partnership between the Divine and humanity through our efforts, our time and our patience.
Reflecting on our lives is a tool for helping us try to get a little closer to perfect in the New Year, even if we can never fully achieve perfection.  But just as finishing the work of Creation strengthens our partnership with the Divine, taking time to perfect ourselves at the dawn of a New Year we may also find ourselves closer to God.

Friday, September 23, 2016

20 Elul/21 Elul 5776

In respect for Shabbat and the many of us who choose to give our email a rest as well as ourselves, we are offering two Elul Thoughts--one for today and one for Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom!

20 Elul/September 23
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 apathy. Recalling and recounting our sins 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)

21 Elul/September 24

We need voices of doubt, wonder and faith to counteract voices of fear, division and despair. The Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light that graces many sanctuaries throughout the world, is a reminder that there is something greater in this universe than all of us combined. But the true brightness of that light is not in gazing upon it ourselves but in seeing its glimmer reflected in the eyes of a loved one and friend. That is when we realize that the light burns first from within. May we be each light to another… and banish the darkness.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

19 Elul 5776

We all balance between the desire for familiarity and the yearning to change. Part of the art of life is to keep what is precious and to grow into what is daring and new. As we move toward the start of a new year through the twilight of the old, may we strive to more carefully find the balance between the comfortable and the exciting.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

18 Elul 5776

The Service of the Kohen Gadol

In a folk tale adapted from, "The Dybbuk," Jewish people, places, holidays, and language are all deemed holier than all others. It describes the holy of holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest, Yom Kippur, and the name of God as the holiest among these categories, and then describes the combination of these four things:

...Once during the year, at a certain hour, these four supreme sanctities of the world were joined with one another. That was the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would enter the holy of holies and there utter the name of God....
Every spot where a person lifts eyes to heaven is a holy of holies. Everyone, having been created in the Divine image and likeness, is a high priest. Every day of a person's life is the Day of Atonement, and every word a person speaks with sincerity is the Holy Name of God.
(from "Yom Kippur Readings" edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, 2005)

This is our task during the month of Elul. To make every moment, every word we utter, every place we step a moment of holiness.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

17 Elul 5776

Many of us have experienced a fair share of pain and loss this year; still others have had much more. Difficulties, shadows and sorrow can be the frame that permits us to appreciate beauty and blessing. In the words of Rabbi Aharon of Apt: Darkness is the throne upon which light sits. As we reflect during these days of Elul upon our victories, may we also consider those low points along the journey, even as we infuse them with meaning and significance to better light our way forward.

Monday, September 19, 2016

16 Elul 5776

In the Talmud, Rava taught that when we are led in Judgment in the next world, we will be asked these questions:
·       Did you conduct your business honestly?
·       Did you set a time for study?
·       Did you leave a legacy for future generations?
·       Did you have hope in your heart?
·       Did you enjoy this world?
·       Were you the best you could be?
As we confront our mortality throughout the Days of Awe, these questions offer a focal point for reflection and meditation.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

15 Elul 5776

"No one goes there nowadays, it's too crowded." - Yogi Berra
The story is told of a small mountain village in Europe many years ago.  In this village there was a nobleman with no children.  He was concerned about the legacy he would leave behind.  He spent a great deal of time contemplating his dilemma and, at last, decided to build the community a synagogue.  As this was his gift to the community, he spent many hours and a great sum of money working with the contractors, the designers and the builders to create the most magnificent synagogue anyone had ever seen. However, he sought no one's input or guidance.  He determined that no one would see the plans for the building until it was completed.
The project took a long time, much longer than anyone had planned.  At long last, the construction was finished.  The townspeople were excited and curious about what they would find upon entering their new synagogue.  When they came into the building for the first time, they marveled at the magnificence.  There were rooms of every shape and size, suitable for worship services, classes, meetings, parties, gatherings, and every other conceivable function.  And no one could ever remember so beautiful a sanctuary anywhere in the world!
As they looked around, however, someone noticed a seemingly obvious flaw in the design.  One of the townspeople asked, "Where are the lamps?"  Everyone looked around and, sure enough, nowhere in the entire building was a light or a lamp to be found.
The proud nobleman simply pointed out brackets that were strategically placed all along the walls throughout the synagogue. He then brought the people in close to him. He gave each family a lamp As he did so, he explained, "Whenever you come to the synagogue, I want you to bring your lamp, and light it.  When we are all here together, our synagogue will shine brightly.  But when you are not here, the lamp will remind you that some part of our building will be dark.  I have built for you the structure, but YOU must bring the light."

Friday, September 16, 2016

13/14 Elul 5776

In respect for Shabbat and the many of us who choose to give our email a rest as well as ourselves, we are offering two Elul Thoughts--one for today and one for Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom!

13 Elul/September 16

To be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God…. We must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. We cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in other countries or in our own cities and towns. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.
(Elie Wiesel)

14 Elul/September 17

Attitude is a skill – By Seth Godin

You can learn math. French. Bowling.
You can learn Javascript, too.
But you can also learn to be more empathetic, passionate, focused, consistent, persistent and twenty-seven other attitudes.
If you can learn to be better at something, it's a skill.
And if it's a skill, it's yours if you want it.
Which is great news, isn't it?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

12 Elul 5776

It’s time to get ready for the High Holidays.

There’s a story of a young rabbi that is furiously preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He goes to see his boss, the senior rabbi, feeling accomplished and proud - he has assigned all of the honors and finished his sermons (a task this rabbi would be quite envious of!) But the senior rabbi scoffs at him: The service is the same as it was last year. When I told you to put the holidays in order,
I was not speaking about the mechanics of the service. I was speaking about you. What will you do to put yourself in order?

What will we do to put ourselves in order?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

11 Elul 5776

In this new year, may your joy increase, your anger diminish, your faithfulness endure and the highest wishes of your heart be fulfilled.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

10 Elul 5776

Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons

My family and I subscribe to PJ Library, which is a wonderful resource for people who have kids and people who like to tell stories. Every month we get a children’s book from them, at no cost to us, thanks to the generosity of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation as well as private donors from around the world. (Check out for more info and to sign up!)

We recently received a book called, “Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons.” As sad as I was to learn it was not about a rabbi who aged backwards, I was interested to note that the lesson in this children’s book was a very good one for rabbis. In a nutshell, “Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons” tells the tale of a beloved rabbi whose congregants give him a beautiful holiday vest on Rosh Hashanah, and at each holiday they feed him and feed him and feed him. After his buttons pop off of his vest, he decides that instead of only eating to celebrate holidays, he would find physical activities to celebrate with his congregants. Because he does this, his vest starts to sag and he needs a new one for his new, slender body by next Rosh Hashanah.

On the High Holy Days we are often focused on cheshbon hanefesh, “self-improvement”: usually in the form of making spiritual and behavioral improvements. It is a Jewish value (shmirat haguf) to take care of our bodies, too. How can we work on improving ourselves physically this year as well as spiritually? By making healthful food choices, going to the gym, walking instead of driving when possible, taking the stairs, drinking lots of water and many other positive choices can help us make our bodies and our souls fit for the New Year.

Monday, September 12, 2016

9 Elul 5776

Weaving Something Beautiful out of Your Life

When I was a kid at camp, we learned how to make yarn.  We washed the raw wool.  We combed and straightened the wool fibers.  We then learned how to handle the spindle, bringing the fibers together.  The end results were not always pretty, but sure enough, it was yarn.  

There is a lot to be learned from the experience of creating yarn.  So much of our life is like raw wool.  It is dirty and tangled and matted.  It picks up shmutz along the way.  We need to take the time to wash ourselves.  And yet, while we might be clean, we are still a tangled mess.  We need to take the time to straighten ourselves; get everything we do to go in the same direction.  Finally, it is not just the bringing together of the elements of our life (the wool fibers) to create something (yarn), but then combining that yarn with other yarn to create something beautiful, or practical, or elegant.   Our lives are stronger, richer and more textured when they are combined with other lives.  Ecclesiastes (4:12) teaches “a three-ply cord is not easily broken.”

This year, how have you come together with others to create something beautiful?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

8 Elul 5776

Elul follows the difficult month of Av. On the 9th of Av, Jews fast and mourn, commemorating the destruction of The Temple in Jerusalem. The reading of Lamentations suggests that God is angry at the Jewish people for losing faith and for not living according to the Torah. But, there is always hope. The end of Lamentations reminds us that we can always return to God. Elul reminds us that after destruction and pain, there is hope and renewal. Similarly, in our personal lives, there is always an opportunity for growth, healing and holiness. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

6/7 Elul 5776

In respect for Shabbat and the many of us who choose to give our email a rest as well as ourselves, we are offering two Elul Thoughts--one for today and one for Shabbat.
Shabbat Shalom!
6 Elul/September 9
This is the season of healing:
Of healing our hearts and minds, of healing the moments we share with each other and the moments we share with ourselves. 

This is the season of memory:
Of remembering our parents and grandparents, the love of generations, the holiness of our ancestors. 

This is the season of stillness, the season of silence and quiet:
Of deep breaths, Of open eyes, Of compassion and consolation.

This is the season of healing:
The season of grief turning to wonder, of loss turning toward hope, the season that binds this year to the next, the season that frees this year from the next, the season that heralds the redemption of spirit and our return to God’s Holy Word.
(Alden Solovy)
7 Elul/September 10
When I was young and my friends and I would walk fearlessly around our neighborhood… and the world felt safe and kind. I believe almost all people, despite their mixed emotions and passions, want to live in such a world and with time, patience and faith, can achieve it.

We need not know the people to our right and to our left to know that we are walking the same path in the same direction. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

5 Elul, 5776

It’s Not You, God, It’s Me

I listened to my first podcast recently.

It happens to be the creation of one of our Elul Thoughts contributors, Rabbi Eric Linder, and his colleague Reverend Craig Topple, and it is called God in the Grit. In it, they discuss theology and life from the point of view of two spiritual leaders of different faiths. Toward the end of their first episode, Reverend Craig says, “When someone tells you what they think about God, it tells you less about God than it tells you about them.”

This struck a chord for me. As someone who speaks often about God, I will often remind people that in a room of 25 people, there are at least 25 different views on who or what God is. We cannot expect someone else to have all of our same tastes, so why should we believe they would share our theology? How we connect to God is deeply personal, and

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, may we learn to accept others when our opinions differ, as we would want our own opinions to be accepted.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

4 Elul, 5776

Personal Reflection

A rabbi 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.”

We can and should ask ourselves on a regular basis:
·       Who am I?
·       Where am I going?
·       How am I going to get there?
Even though the answers may change, asking the questions regularly serve to affirm the path that we are on or can motivate us to choose a different path if we cannot take pride in our answers.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

3 Elul 5776

Dr. Paul Kalinithi writes in his memoir When Breath Becomes Air, that “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” (An asymptote, if you don’t remember from middle school Geometry, is a line that continually approaches a given curve but never meets it.)

Judaism inspires us to strive for perfection while understanding that we are inherently imperfect beings. Elul provides us a structure to look inward in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As you go through the month, try to target an asymptote toward which you strive for the coming year. Think about that asymptote during the High Holy Days and draw connections to it through our liturgy.

Monday, September 5, 2016

2 Elul 5776

2 Elul/September 5

Elul, written in Hebrew Alef, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, is often explained as an acronym for the phrase Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li - I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.

The Zohar teaches that we enter Elul achor el achor - back to back - in our relationships. But by the end of Elul we are panim el panim - face to face. During the month of Elul, it is our responsibility to turn towards our loved ones in empathy and compassion.

Soul singer Leon Bridges sings:
“What can I do? What can I do?
To get back to your heart
I'd swim the Mississippi river
If you would give me another start”

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur offer us a fresh start, as long as we are willing to put in the work during Elul. Wishing you strength, patience and empathy on your swim.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

1 Elul 5776

The Hebrew month of Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. As such, it is considered a month of spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days. Special meditations are added to the daily service for some, known as S’lichot, or penitentiary prayers. (*The Saturday before Rosh Hashanah is also known as S’lichot, and it is used as a night of contemplation and study.) For several years, a group of Reform rabbis has collaborated on a series of Elul Thoughts, shared with our congregations in a daily email, and accompanied by a daily Tweet. We are happy to share them with you.

This year’s Elul Thoughts include contributions from Rabbi Brad Levenberg of Temple Sinai in Atlanta, GA; Rabbinical Student Alex Kress of HUC-JIR Los Angeles; Rabbi Eric Linder of Congregation Children of Israel in Athens, GA; Rabbi Daniel Treiser of Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater, FL; Rabbi Alan Litwak of Temple Sinai in North Miami Beach, FL; Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX; and Rabbi David N. Young of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, CA. You can follow any of us on Facebook or Twitter.

If you have missed any of these daily emails or want to go back and remember something from earlier in Elul, feel free to read them all at

1 Elul/September 4

Today we are celebrating Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first of the month of Elul. Elul is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In many ways, this month is as important as our High Holidays themselves. During these 30 days, we are meant to engage in introspection and t’shuvah.

This makes me think of the Summer Olympics (happening as I write this). The athletes compete for medals and accolades, and sometimes the competition is as short as just a few seconds (I’m thinking of Usain Bolt’s 100 meter run.) But we know that the real work of the athletes did not happen in Rio. The real work took place during years of intense training and discipline.
As we move through the 30 days of Elul, I hope that each of us is able to do the personal “training” necessary to ensure that the High Holidays are a meaningful coda to the work that we’ve done.