Monday, August 13, 2018

Tishrei 1, 5779--Rosh Hashanah

On behalf of all of us who participated in Elul Thoughts 5778, 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 5778 to 5779, we want to thank those of you who have been reading our Elul Thoughts, especially if you have been reading them for seven 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 (prayer) of the High Holy Days, which begins tonight. 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 congregations.
Thank you, and Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi Benjamin David, Adath Emanu-El, Mount Laurel, NJ
Rabbi Brad Levenberg, Temple Sinai, Atlanta, GA
Cantorial Soloist Jenna Sagan, Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Fountain Valley, CA
Rabbi Nico Socolovsky, Temple Beth Tikvah, Fullerton, CA
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, Congregation Beth Israel, Colleyville, TX

Elul 29, 5778

Rabbi David N. Young

“...only that you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before Your God” (Micah 6:8).

This is one of the most powerful verses in our Hebrew Bible. It is frequently quoted, it appears on synagogue interiors and exteriors, it was on the outside of the UAHC (now URJ) headquarters in Manhattan when they resided on 5th Avenue. In the Talmud, 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 (Makkot 23b-24a). I use it at the bottom of my emails as part of my signature, as do many of my colleagues. I often teach that it is the Jewish superhero mantra.

The deeper meaning of the Hebrew mishpat and chesed (justice and mercy) are polar opposites. Mishpat is about meting out punishment to sinners. When someone does something wrong, mishpat dictates what they should do or have done to them to make reparations. Chesed is about extending kindness to others. When someone makes a mistake, it is our chesed that allows us to look past the mistake, accept that they are human, and move on without reminding the other of their missing the mark.

It is nearly impossible to render perfect mishpat with perfect chesed. The two are incompatible. It is extremely challenging to punish and forgive at the same time. Only god seems to have the ability to do both simultaneously, which is perhaps why the third statement closes the quote. We should do our best to balance justice and mercy, but never forget that the One Who Balances All is truly the keeper of punishment and mercy. That should humble us before God, even as we strive to follow this superhero creed and do God’s work in the world.

Elul 27 and 28, 5778

On Fridays, we give you a double portion of our Elul Thoughts so that we can all take a rest from our electronics on Shabbat. Enjoy!

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

As the story comes from the Rabbis: One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The man replied, “Seventy years.”

Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”

The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” (BT Tana’ait 23a)

But there is more to the story. It is not enough to simply plant the trees. We must also teach our children how to respect them, care for them, and nurture them. If not, the trees will not grow and bloom, and there will be no one left who knows how to plant the next generation of trees. Al achat kama v’kama, how much so when it comes to improving the world.

Rabbi Eric Linder

Did you know that Havdallah follows Yom Kippur, even if Yom Kippur is not on Shabbat?

In fact, the Havdallah liturgy is the exact same as it would be on any Saturday evening. The only difference is that we may sing the words a bit faster on Yom Kippur as our minds are turned to smells of the break fast that are coming from the social hall …

But its significance is not to be overlooked. Yom Kippur is so important and solemn that it requires a separation before we go back to normal life. This separation helps us to mark this moment in our lives, as hopefully we will look back at this moment next year and see the results of our prayers and our actions.

Elul 26, 5778

Rabbi Alex Kress

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson teaches, “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly in the world, then it is you yourself that needs repair.”

Life oscillates and often we meditate/reflect/pray in an effort to repair ourselves, to become aware of our shortcomings, or to fill holes in our hearts. But the end goal of this meditation/reflection/prayer is not to become whole simply for our own sake. Our goal is to become whole so that we can fix the piece of the world that the universe/God left for us to complete. As you meditate/reflect/pray this Elul on yourself and our world, think about this question: What is the piece of the world that the universe/God left for you to complete?

Va’Tih’hee alav, ruach elohim. (Numbers 24:2)
God's Presence Came Upon Him

These words come to us in a fantastic story in the Torah. A Moabite King sends out a non-Israelite prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites.  Balaam sets out with his talking donkey, and when he finally comes upon the Israelites, God’s Presence suffuses his spirit, and instead of a curse, Balaam opens his mouth and words we are familiar with come pouring out: MAH TOVU OHALECHA YAAKOV, MISHKENOTECHA YISRAEL - How great are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places Israel.

The founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov, teaches us that, "Your tents” means your external appearance must be that of Jacob, a lower level, while "your dwelling places" – your interior – must be of the level of Israel.

Our job during Elul is to elevate our individual essence to the divine level of Israel while relegating our vanities to the lower level of Jacob. In allowing God to suffuse our spirits with positivity, generosity, and love, we shed the blinding fog of ego and emit a pure, bright light onto an often dark world.

Elul 25, 5778

Jenna Sagan
During the month of Elul the Shofar is traditionally blown daily as a reminder – a wake-up call – to prepare oneself for the holiest of days. Yet how are we to reflectively and repentantly approach the coming holidays when so much of our world seems in painful disarray? In an Elul overshadowed by dark clouds of pain and injustice, the blowing of the Shofar should ring out like a siren, compelling us to face these times with urgency and earnestness.

It’s a sad habit of history that those who devote their lives to fighting injustice so rarely get to experience the fruition of their labors. Like Moses on the Mountaintop, many have seen the Promised Land only to have been denied entrance. In difficult times one wonders whether the Promised Land can even be glimpsed, let alone reached. When injustice appears insurmountable, merely envisioning a better world seems impossible. Yet it is the very act of envisioning which allows light to penetrate the darkness of injustice, and lead us out from our own wilderness of inaction.

Envisioning a better world means thinking about injustice and oppression within our communities and beyond. Such activity is not passive. It is an exercise in developing within our heart, an authentic empathy with others; an empathy which transcends liturgical exhortations and prompts us to impact the real world. Thus prepared, we enter the High Holidays not merely as solitary penitents but also as individuals who will cross through the gates, ready to collectively build a better future.

Elul 24, 5778

Rabbi Bradley Levenberg

This past spring I found myself traveling to California for our annual gathering of Reform rabbis and listening to Leonard Cohen on the five-hour flight. I came across the song Anthem, one of the more recent songs by Cohen, which contains the following lyric:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
These lyrics remind me of the famous quote from Pirke Avot: “You are not obliged to finish the task; neither are you free to neglect it.”

In a world with so much that needs fixing, it can feel overwhelming. But what we do, how we contribute, need not be perfect or complete. Each of us simply needs to do something, to contribute in some real and tangible way to causes that make our world more just. As we ready our souls for the coming year, may we also ready our eyes to see injustice all around us, may we ready our hands and our feet to fix the wrongs we witness, and may we realize that we need not perfect the world…all we need to do is work toward making it a little better.

Elul 23, 5778

Rabbi David N. Young

My wife recently was diagnosed with breast cancer, and about six weeks ago (from the time of emailing this thought), she underwent a double mastectomy to treat it and to prevent further occurrences. Needless to say, the surgery was a big deal, and took some time to heal. Since she is a cantor in one community and I am a rabbi in another, we were inundated with requests to help. I am usually more private than my wife when it comes to personal matters, so my inclination was to roll up my sleeves and do all of the work by myself. Of course, I knew I needed to accept the help, lest I violate the rabbinic teaching, al tifrosh min hatzibur, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4).

People brought us food, came over and visited, took the dog on walks, sat with her while I went shopping or to the gym, sent games, books (both for reading and for coloring), sweets, and so much love that we were totally overwhelmed. At one point when someone asked what they could do to help, we asked them to come over and help us eat leftovers!

This is what it means to no separate from the community. It is to accept an outpouring of love and attention that we can feel all the way down to our soul. It is to be a part of something that is so much greater than a collection of families with similar interests. The Jewish community is a unit, referred to as kehillah kedoshah, a holy community. When we allow ourselves to be blessed as a part of this community, we certainly feel its holiness.

Elul 22, 5778

Rabbi Eric Linder

The month of Elul is similar to the period of time between Passover and Shavuot. Those 49 days are known as the “Counting of the Omer.” Our Torah tells us to count the weeks starting from Passover. On the 7th week, we celebrate Shavuot (which literally means “weeks.”

During the Counting of the Omer, our tradition teaches that each of us is supposed to reflect on seven different characteristics that we share with God. We strengthen these characteristics, and in so doing, merit the giving of Torah for ourselves.

Similarly during this month of Elul, we prepare ourselves so that we can fully absorb and appreciate the message(s) of the High Holidays. Judaism sets aside these special time periods so that we can work on ourselves, our relationships, our theology, and our holiness.

Elul 20 and 21, 5778

On Fridays, we give you a double portion of our Elul Thoughts so that we can all take a rest from our electronics on Shabbat. Enjoy!

Rabbi David N. Young

A relatively well-known folktale from Poland tells of a poor man who goes to complain to the rabbi about how crowded his tiny house is with him, his wife, and their children. The rabbis tells him to bring in the chickens, then the goats, then the cow. As the house gets more and more crowded, the man cannot figure out what to do, so he goes to the rabbi one last time, who tells him to take all the animals out of the house. Finally the man is relieved at the relative peace and quiet, and all the newfound space, and he is thrilled to be in his (now spacious) home with his wife and children.

Whether it is guests, family, pets, or items, we all have a lot of junk in our lives. We have to find a lot of space for a lot of things, and we often feel crowded in our own homes. While I do not recommend bringing farm animals into the house, Elul is a great time of year to do some physical cleansing in addition to the spiritual cleansing we do this month.

As the weekend approaches, take some time to make space for your family in the physical sense. Put on some grubby clothes, crank up your favorite work music, gather the family together, and prepare your shared space for the new year. You’ll be glad you did it, and the relaxing you will be able to do in a clean home may be just what you need to put your mind in order, too.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker


A Chasidic Tale: As Rosh Hashanah was approaching, Satan gathered his assistants together to talk about the most effective method of destroying the meaning of people’s lives. You know, just your regular business meeting.
One said, “Tell them there is no God.” Another suggested, “Tell them there is no judgment for sin and they need not worry.” A third proposed, “Tell them their sins are so great they will never be forgiven.”
“No,” Satan replied, “none of these things will matter to them. I think we should simply tell them,There is plenty of time.’”
When I first heard the end of the story, I was confused. What’s so bad about having a lot of time. But then I thought about it more and I got it. Just like in Harry Chapin’s great song, “Cats in the Cradle,” there always seems to be more time. “We’ll get together then” is the refrain, until we realize that time has passed us by. This is especially true regarding our family. On the one hand, our relationships with our family are the most important relationship we have, and yet we also take them for granted far too often.
During this month Elul, shine a light on Satan’s deception and don’t assume we have all the time in the world. It’s not enough to reflect. Make calls, make plans, prioritize time with family. Live a better life by spending time with the most important people in your life.

Elul 19, 5778

Rabbi Nico Sokolovsky

At The Gates of a “WONDER -FULL” year

The great leader of nineteenth-century German Orthodoxy, Samson Raphael Hirsch, surprised his disciples one day when he insisted on traveling to Switzerland. “When I stand before the Almighty,” he explained, “I will be asked many questions.… But what will I say when … and I’m sure to be asked: ‘Why didn’t you see my Alps?’” Jewish Wisdom, page 230

The world is out there and it is a positive commandment to discover it. Therefore you should be very careful of placing yourself in the Cage of – I have no regrets, I am done, I am set in my ways, Nothing can surprise me anymore. I have seen everything!

Abraham Joshua Heschel says:

As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder (Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, p. 46).

Elul 18, 5778

Rabbi Eric Linder

Yom Kippur is a profoundly personal holiday. And yet, we recite a communal vidui (confession.) Our machzor calls it an “alphabet of woe,” as we go through various sins and mistakes that we’ve made, starting with the letter A and going through Z.

Not each of us have commented all of those offenses. God forbid! But there is power in knowing that as a community, as a society, and as a country, we have. Our recitation of vidui takes seriously the idea that although specific individuals may not be guilty of certain trespasses,  are all responsible.

Elul 17, 5778

Rabbi Alan E. Litwak

Taking A Selfie

Call me a dinosaur, but I do not understand the obsession with “selfies” - those quick photos taken on cellular phones that get sent to friends and family via text, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook.  They hardly qualify for art and they have a shelf-life of somewhere between one and two nanoseconds.

At the rate most people take selfies, it takes no time to accumulate a highlight reel of their life, that is put on display in a little glass box for all to see.  The problem is that highlight reel is not reality; it rarely captures the in-between time when real – and often hard – life happens. Similarly, the practice of cropping off half of one’s face seems to be a metaphor for denying one’s full identity.

Elul provides an opportunity to take a different kind of “selfie.”  Instead of a snapshot of self-gratification, it is long deep look of self-reflection.  Elul asks us to take our selfie-stick and zoom out to see what is around us. No need to post anywhere but in our soul’s view.

Elul 13 and 14, 5778

On Fridays, we give you a double portion of our Elul Thoughts so that we can all take a rest from our electronics on Shabbat. Enjoy!

Rabbi Bradley Levenberg

I do so love these slower days of summer. I love this time not only because with schools on break, driving seems much less hectic, but because it is one time when so many of us are united in simultaneously dreaming of next year and reflecting upon the year that has gone by.

This spirit of reflection finds grounding in the holiday celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I reflect upon the similarities between these holy days: both days in which we begin the observance by kindling light, both holidays that find the greatest expression when commemorated with family and friends. Both holidays present unique customs meant to highlight themes of togetherness, of belief and identity; both holy days struggle with over-simplification (“Happy New Year” and “I hope you have an easy fast!”) that threaten the central idea core to the commemoration.

As we celebrate somehow separately and yet still together, may this prayer, adapted from the writings of L. Annie Foerster, offer guidance and inspiration:
Light of Life,
We gather from many traditions and many ways of life to speak with one strong voice – to give thanks and to worship together. Let our prayer be heard, for aren’t we all one family with the same wants and needs? Help us to strive for a healthy planet; to work toward peaceful, loving relationships with all of humankind; to achieve our vision of seeing all people fed in body and nourished in soul, sheltered from the rain and free from unnecessary fears.

Let our prayers be heard, for aren’t we all one family with the same joys and sorrows? Hear our praise of love and beauty; harken to our songs of celebration. Let our efforts be forever intertwined, for aren’t we all one family, gathered together, grateful for the warmth and recognition we find in one another’s hearts and faces?

Let this be our prayer, and our thanks, and our love: Blessed be the joy in our gathering, whether physically together or bound by hopes and dreams for a brighter tomorrow. Blessed indeed be the joy in our gathering. Amen.

Rabbi Eric Linder
I’ve never liked the translation of *T’shuvah* as repentance.

Sure, repentance, making amends, and apologizing are important during our High Holiday season. They are essential. But the concept of *T’shuvah* goes far beyond the boundaries of making amends.

The root of the word means, *To turn.* There’s an idea that when we perform *T’shuvah,* we turn toward God. But we also turn toward the best parts of ourselves, which may as of yet be undiscovered.

I hope that all of us have the courage and strength to perform acts of *T’shuvah* in all of its forms.