Oseh Shalom

High Holy Days: Prepare for the High Holy Days with programs ranging from study, meditation, shofar blasts, a cooking class, kids events and more.  All our major religious services, classes and events will be online with one or two small, socially distanced outdoor events. Guests are welcome. Click Contact Us for access. Our office is open by appointment: 301-498-5151.  Guests must wear face masks.

High Holy Days & Festivals


Celebrate the High Holy Days Online with Oseh Shalom

Oseh Shalom celebrates the High Holy Days with awe and joy.  All services will be offered online via zoom and non-members (both locally and out of the area) are welcome to join us.  In addition to our moving, musical services, join us for meditation, shofar blasts, study, a picnic, cooking class and more!   We also have special programs geared to families.  Not a member but want to join us for the High Holy Days? Please contact us at call (301) 498-5151. All our services require a password for security. Due to COVID 19, we are not selling tickets this year to non-members but appreciate a donation to help us meet our expenses. Members should have received a packet in the mail with High Holy Day information. Contact the office if you did not.  Have spiritual or study questions? Contact Rabbi Daria or Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde  or leave them a message at the office number.

Rosh Hashanah Day 1: September 19

Join via Zoom using the HHD password

Schedule of events. Some times are approximate.

  • Opening Prayers: 9:30 am
  • Family Service 10:00 am – 10:45 am
    or
  • Torah Service, 10 am followed by Rabbi’s sermon and President’s speech
  • Shofar and Musaf, 11:00 am
  • Shmooze with Your Oseh Family, noon-12:30 pm

Reimaging Rosh Hashanah: A Virtual Experience with Shofar, Tashlich and More: 1:30 pm

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We invite you to join us for a unique Rosh Hashanah experience.  We will be tapping into the powerful theme of new beginnings that Rosh Hashanah offers, combined with opportunities for fun, movement, and reflection on intentions for our new year of 5781. Our Rosh Hashanah Experience will include the blowing of the Shofar and Tashlich*, a ritual of water, both of which will help us deepen our High Holy Days journey and set the stage for the rest of this New Year.  All ages and family constellations- singles, couples, parents, children, elders, members, and non-members – are welcome.  Come with an open mind and an open heart!  

*Tashlich, which means,”to cast off”, is the High Holy Day ritual when we gather by a stream of flowing water and toss out our “sins” to be carried away from us. We want to acknowledge that we have these sins, that they don’t have to define us, they don’t own us, and we don’t have to carry them with us forever, and that we can separate them from our true selves and free ourselves from them.  Only then can we be free to start fresh and clean and pure to face the new year with hope and good intentions and plans and goals to live up to our best selves.

This year due to COVID restrictions and concerns, on Rosh Hashanah Day 1, Tashlich will be virtual (during the Rosh Hashanah Experience).  Maryrita Wieners and Dan Glaser will lead the short Tashlich service. “Attendees” can zoom from home with a little kiddie pool, hose, or a local stream of their own, to join in this ritual. Tashlich service can be found here.

Rosh Hashanah Day 2:  
September 20, 2020 at 9:30 am

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This year we will be holding a virtual creative service for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. What does this mean?  Because we will be davening virtually over zoom, we will be shortening the service.  Instead of a “traditional” Torah service, we will be reading some key verses from the story of the binding of Isaac (the Akedah), and using poetry, alternative readings, and discussion to explore this profound and troubling story. There will also be a short drash on haftarah, with a selection of verses chanted. We will be keeping key core prayers – Mah Tovu, HaMelech, Unetaneh Tokef, the Shofar service, for example.

At the beginning of the service we will be consciously trying to create “virtual sanctuaries” – “sacred tents” – that will be linked together virtually via zoom.  To help do this, we encourage you to physically create a “sacred space” in the area you will be davening. You can do this by putting some flowers or other objects or pictures in the space, or by lighting a candle – anything to make the physical space you’ll be in a little different and special.

Rosh Hashanah Day 2: In-Person Tashlich Service at Laurel Lakes: 

Sep 20, 2:30 pm

Laurel Lakes Direction to 8300 Mulberry St. Pavilion Precise Location (even if you have GPS)
Download Tashlich Service

On Rosh Hashanah Day 2, we will have an In-Person Tashlich Gathering at Laurel Lakes for whomever wants to join us. Many people find our Tashlich rituals a powerful, meaningful,and important part of our High Holy Days. 

We will meet at Pavilion A, 8300 Mulberry Street, at 2:30 pm, where we will all be masked and physically distanced at least 6’ apart but together enough to have a connecting community ritual. People are invited to remain afterwards to picnic in family groups on their own. Bring your own stones for the Tashlich ritual.

Elul, Time to Prepare!

Hear the Shofar Blow
Join with Zoom (HHD password)

Sunday, Tuesday, Sep 15, 7 pm

The Hebrew month of Elul urges us to prepare for the High Holy Days.  The Shofar is traditionally sounded during the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days. The sound of the Shofar serves as a “wake-up call”, jarring us out of our complacency and, hopefully, forcing us to begin reflecting on the year that has passed and the new year ahead.

Making Jewish Prayer Real, Powerful and Nourishing: the High Holy Days and Beyond with Rabbis Josh and Daria, in Consultation with Dan Glaser

Oct. 19, Oct. 26, and Nov. 2, 7-8:30 pm
Join via Zoom

We touched on 3 issues (broadly):

  1. Why do we come to services and pray if we don’t know what we believe about God?
  2. What then is the intention and value of services and prayer and how do we re-frame it to be more meaningful?
  3. What do we do with the language of prayer that we might struggle with or that offends us (i.e. King, Glory, Praise, Sovereign, etc)?

The Rabbis have put together a series of classes, based around these questions and a book by one of Rabbi Josh’s mentors, Rabbi Michael Comins, who deals with these issues. Since 2 of these sessions will be before the High Holy Days, we will also touch on the meanings of the High Holy Days and how each of us can find more depth in them despite difficulties around our beliefs and some particular prayers.

These discussions will not be about whether one believes in God or not, but rather how to find in prayer and services an experience of God, Godness, Godliness, goodness, sacredness, while looking not just outside ourselves to connection with oneness and the world and community but also looking within ourselves, to our “souls” to find sacredness, wholeness, teshuva to the “right” path, and connection.

Please note that this class series does require about 15-20 pages of reading before each class in order to best set us up for success and to expand and deepen our class discussion. Pre-registration and purchase of the book Making Prayer Real, by Rabbi Mike Comins, is required. Please email Rabbi Josh (rabbi.josh18@gmail.com) to pre-register or if you have any questions.

Creating Our Own Personal Vidui Writing Prompt  with Zoom session

September 15 7:30 PM   
Join via Zoom

The Vidui, or confessional Prayer, is a key part of the High Holy Day liturgy. Creating an individual vidui,  acknowledging wrongs we may have done during the past year and expressing our hopes for the new year can be a powerful way to prepare for Rosh Hashanah.

During Elul, Maryrita Wieners will be posting tips for creating your own vidui on the Oseh Website. She will also be leading a Zoom session   on September 15th at 7:30 PM for congregants who may wish to share their own personal viduis.

First of all, I offer a suggested daily Teshuvah practice which can help your writing a personal Vidui. In the evening before bed, as a part of the Bedtime Shema, I invite you to reflect on and write what arises in you in response to these reflection questions. This can be a daily opportunity of turning and returning, of Teshuvah.

Writing your Vidui begins with identifying whom you are addressing or connecting with. You may be connecting with Presence, with your God sense, with a Fountain of Blessings, with Cosmic Goodness, with however you know what is God, or Goodness, for you. You may also be connecting with yourself, with soul, your neshamah. This is a connecting on many levels of relationship.

Who am I, as I look back on my journey since last High Holy Days. What am I grateful for? What are my blessings and growths? What are my losses and struggles? What relationships bless me, support me and give me strength, ground me? What has given, what is giving my life meaning and purpose? What has felt undone or unfinished?

What do I feel drawn to let go of? What at Tashlich will I let go of? What parts of me will I bring as I move into our New Year?

Give yourself time to be with these suggested prompts. What else rises up that you want to say? This personal Vidui will offer you guidance through the coming year.

If you choose, you can join with others to share how this practice supports your preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and how it is supporting your spiritual journey. We will gather for a one hour Zoom session on September 15 at 7:00 PM.


Elul Reflections with Brad Sachs

Elul Reflections Discussions with Brad Sachs

Wed. Sept 16, 7 pm, time to reflect as a group.
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There will also be two Zoom-based opportunities to join with congregants in a discussion of these Elul essays, and to consider sharing what you have thought and written. These group discussions, which will last no more than an hour. It is his hope that these reflections and writing prompts will help you with your own “soul searching” and reflection, as we prepare for this year’s High Holy Days.

This unique period of time gives us the opportunity to enter the High Holy Days with a “running start” as we begin the process of dedicating ourselves to the process of cheshbon ha’nefesh (“soul accounting” or “soul searching”), taking stock of the ways in which we have lived our lives during the past year, and creatively considering the ways in which we can draw closer to ourselves, to each other, to our planet, and to God in the coming year.

Each day, as part of Oseh’s communal observance of Elul, Brad will be composing a short reflection that will attempt to explore and illuminate a dimension of cheshbon ha’nefesh, followed by a writing prompt based on the reflection that is designed to deepen or expand your own spiritual growth. These reflections will be posted daily below, but if you are  interested in receiving these in your Inbox during the month of Elul, contact him at Brad Sachs and he will put you on a mailing list.Once, a wealthy disciple came to the Alter Rebbe, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and said that he had been contemplating opening an orphanage, but had since abandoned the idea.  Having mulled over the project, he came to the conclusion that he was only doing it to gain more respect in his community.

Click the link for each day’s reflection:

Elul Day 27

Our son, Matt, is a neuroscientist whose research explores the neurobiological underpinnings of musical appreciation, emotions and creativity. One particular question that has intrigued him has to do with the counter-intuitive reality that when we are sad, we often turn to sad music.

From one standpoint, this makes little sense. Mired in a despondent or doleful state of mind, one would think that we would seek out cheery, upbeat melodies and rhythms to help release us from the undertow of the doldrums—and that is, indeed, the case…at least sometimes.

But quite often, we choose to go in the opposite direction when it comes to our song selection. Matt’s research suggests that there are many reasons for this, but here are three particularly salient ones that he has identified:

Listening to sad music paradoxically helps us to summon positive emotions, perhaps because music that arises from a similar state in the composer or performer leaves us feeling less alone and more connected with others, and with the world
Listening to sad music helps us to become better acquainted with our own melancholic feelings, and by extension, become better acquainted with ourselves
Listening to sad music may prolong or deepen our feelings of sadness in a way that enables us to more successfully appreciate, metabolize and release them, such that we wind up feeling better

So why are we focusing on sadness? Because embarking on the cheshbon ha-nefesh voyage will inevitably stir up feelings of sorrow. As I concluded last night’s Reflection, “There is an encompassing sorrow that we all must encounter when we are brave enough to reckon with our shortcomings.”

In other words, a devoted and authentic effort to uncover the person we have been during the previous year is inevitably going to agitate feelings of remorse and regret, and feelings of remorse and regret cannot be experienced without being accompanied by sorrow.

Of course, in our culture, we are strongly discouraged from learning and speaking the language of sadness. We value bright, sprightly moods over darker, dismal ones, and do everything we can to alter the circumstances of our sadness, to numb, annihilate or circumvent sorrow. And yet sadness is an absolutely necessary color in the full spectrum of human emotions, and without it, we are simply not complete human beings.

I want to be clear here that I am not romanticizing sorrow, nor am I conflating sorrow with a diagnosis of clinical depression, a condition that generally blunts rather than reveals the depth of our feelings and our ability to meaningfully act on them—there is no valor or nobility associated with unnecessary suffering.

In fact, usefully descending into our dim caverns requires a certain level of mental balance and stability—otherwise, the experience and exploration of healthy, appropriate sadness may overwhelm us as we become lost in the gathering gloom of dismal emotional thoroughfares.

Poet Christopher Soto describes this beautifully in a couplet his poem, “Concerning the Necropolitical Landscape”:

Teach me how to hold the sorrow

Without losing my arms

At some level, we need to have the psychological anatomy required to contain what we are feeling, or we will become capsized by our own sensitivities.

But a clear, unclouded sense of who we truly are—which is surely one of the main objectives of cheshbon ha-nefesh—is usually best distilled and extracted not from the rhapsodic peaks of our highest self-appraisal, but from the dark and dirty murk and mash of our relentless griefs and sorrows.

Li-Young Lee, in his poem, “Changing Places in the Fire”, eloquently writes, “…being human makes the saddest music in the world.”

Rather than trying to mute that music and distract ourselves from it, we might instead choose to seek it out, to follow our spirit as it travels the deepest passages of lament, to summon the elegies that yearn to be heard. There are sacred songs that only the soul can sing, and while they are not always joyous, we can still find ways to rejoice in the fact that we are somehow still here and able to sing them.

Sadness does not have to be feared or fretted over—navigable sorrow can strengthen and deepen us if we allow ourselves to translate our tears into growth.

Today’s Questions:

When do you allow yourself to experience sorrow without feeling compelled to do something about it?

What kinds of sadness arise as you prepare to complete this year’s chesbon ha-nefesh process? How do you honor and give voice to that sadness?

Elul Day 26

It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones during the month of Elul, which is also known as The Month of Consolation. This makes intuitive sense because an essential component of cheshbon ha-nefesh is grieving—grieving not just for those whom we have lost and whom we miss, but also grieving for the kind of person whom we had hoped to be this past year but fell so far short of.

Grieving in this context is ultimately a liberating process. When we grieve, we say a painful goodbye to who we were, but we do so in the service of opening up to whom we deserve to become. Grief creates space for what is new and undiscovered, the as-yet-unimagined possibilities of our existence.

I have shared with some of you in personal correspondence that while the cheshbon ha-nefesh process is fundamentally a very private enterprise, it is also social, in the sense that it can connect us with each other. I would say the same thing about grief—an intensely private enterprise, yet somehow communal at the same time.

And I would also say that the apparatus of grief is similar to the apparatus of forgiveness that we explored back on Day 19. Like forgiveness, grief resists being valorized or domesticated in some practical way. There are no discrete stages or phases to complete such that sorrow stays safely behind us.

My clinical and personal life has repeatedly revealed to me that there are profoundly human endeavors that have no laws, no rules, no conventions, that offer up no psychological GPS to guide us cannily over their uneven topography. Grieving is one of them. It captures the essential reality that to live is to lose, and in the face of loss, we have no choice but to grieve.

When we invite ourselves to swim in the currents of grief that are always flowing, we are carried forward and backward, inward and outward, towards experiencing and expressing our most fundamental yearnings and longings. Grief takes us on a journey that can never be completed.

Here are some brief observations regarding grief that may help to illuminate this pathless pilgrimage:

When we grieve, we discover not only who we lost but who we are

Grief invites us to ask new questions of our old stories

Grief insists that little separates the pain of loss from the pain of possibility

Grief enables us to honor the past in ways that prevent it from limiting the future

We set about grieving looking for one thing…and invariably find another

Grief softens the severe decree that we have composed and imposed against ourselves

Grief teaches us to understand how we have failed at love, how love has failed us, and how these failures can still arouse and quicken love

The boulevards of grief carry us towards the only destination—Forgiveness

There is an encompassing sorrow that we all must encounter when we are brave enough to reckon with our shortcomings. But given the chance, mournful reflection can ease into moral reflection—it is in our grief that we may quietly find the dormant seeds of enduring change, and encourage them to take root and grow.

Today’s Question:

What is it like for you to mourn for the person you wish you had been this past year?

Elul Day 25

It is traditional to visit the graves of loved ones during the month of Elul, which is also known as The Month of Consolation. This makes intuitive sense because an essential component of cheshbon ha-nefesh is grieving—grieving not just for those whom we have lost and whom we miss, but also grieving for the kind of person whom we had hoped to be this past year but fell so far short of.

Grieving in this context is ultimately a liberating process. When we grieve, we say a painful goodbye to who we were, but we do so in the service of opening up to whom we deserve to become. Grief creates space for what is new and undiscovered, the as-yet-unimagined possibilities of our existence.

I have shared with some of you in personal correspondence that while the cheshbon ha-nefesh process is fundamentally a very private enterprise, it is also social, in the sense that it can connect us with each other. I would say the same thing about grief—an intensely private enterprise, yet somehow communal at the same time.

And I would also say that the apparatus of grief is similar to the apparatus of forgiveness that we explored back on Day 19. Like forgiveness, grief resists being valorized or domesticated in some practical way. There are no discrete stages or phases to complete such that sorrow stays safely behind us.

My clinical and personal life has repeatedly revealed to me that there are profoundly human endeavors that have no laws, no rules, no conventions, that offer up no psychological GPS to guide us cannily over their uneven topography. Grieving is one of them. It captures the essential reality that to live is to lose, and in the face of loss, we have no choice but to grieve.

When we invite ourselves to swim in the currents of grief that are always flowing, we are carried forward and backward, inward and outward, towards experiencing and expressing our most fundamental yearnings and longings. Grief takes us on a journey that can never be completed.

Here are some brief observations regarding grief that may help to illuminate this pathless pilgrimage:

When we grieve, we discover not only who we lost but who we are

Grief invites us to ask new questions of our old stories

Grief insists that little separates the pain of loss from the pain of possibility

Grief enables us to honor the past in ways that prevent it from limiting the future

We set about grieving looking for one thing…and invariably find another

Grief softens the severe decree that we have composed and imposed against ourselves

Grief teaches us to understand how we have failed at love, how love has failed us, and how these failures can still arouse and quicken love

The boulevards of grief carry us towards the only destination—Forgiveness

There is an encompassing sorrow that we all must encounter when we are brave enough to reckon with our shortcomings. But given the chance, mournful reflection can ease into moral reflection—it is in our grief that we may quietly find the dormant seeds of enduring change, and encourage them to take root and grow.

Today’s Question:

What is it like for you to mourn for the person you wish you had been this past year?

Elul Day 25

Claude Debussy observed that “Music is the silence between the notes.”

The Jewish tradition is a richly musical one, with melody and rhythm occupying a central and ubiquitous role throughout our history, continuing until this day.

Yuval, mentioned in Genesis 4, the son of Cain and Adah, was the “ancestor of all who played the harp and the flute”, the Biblical forebear of all musicians. Abraham and Isaac are connected with the first shofar, Miriam with the tambourine, David with the harp, Solomon with the Song of Songs—the list goes on.

The Piezetzner Rebbe wrote that, “Sometimes, a person must build ladders to climb to the heavens.  A niggun is one of these ladders.” (Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “ladder”, sulam, is also the word for a musical scale.)

But while music is the soul of our native language and speaks both to and from the heart, it cannot exist, as Debussy suggests, without silence.  In fact, while countless Jewish narratives focus on music, there are many that address the importance of silence, as well.

Hannah’s noiseless prayer became the basis for the quiet of the Amidah.  Moses was nearly mute as a result of his reach for the burning coal, yet became one of History’s greatest leaders.

King Solomon writes in Kohelet, “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.”  Job, tired of being comforted, finally explodes, “Be silent and I will teach you wisdom.” And surely along these same lines, The Mishna states, “Silence is a fence for wisdom.”

Elijah the Prophet was told to, “Go out and stand at the mountain before God, and behold, God will pass, and a great wind breaking mountains and shattering rocks before God; God will not be in the wind.  After the wind, an earthquake will follow; but God will not be in the earthquake.  And after the earthquake, a fire will pass, but God is not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice.”

How dramatically and eloquently we are being taught that the voice of God can be found in silence, not noise.  And perhaps our own, inner voice can be found using this method, as well, especially since the interior noise created by our mind often drowns out the highest-decibel noise outside of us.

Of course, it is not only our own tradition that emphasizes the wisdom of silence.  St. Francis of Assisi wrote:

What is it that stands higher than words?  Action.

What is it that stands higher than action?  Silence.

Composer John Cage, in his “Lectures on Nothing” began: “I am here and there is nothing to say.  If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment.  What we require is silence.”

The greatest musical performers, from my perspective, are equally masterful when it comes to creating their silence as they are when it comes to playing their notes.

Back on Day 13, we explored the importance of listening, which of course is intimately linked with silence.  But just as there is a difference between “hearing” and “listening”, there is also a difference between what I call “passive silence” and “living silence.”

For example, when I attend the symphony, there is a general silence in the audience prior to the beginning of the concert that is courteous, respectful and anticipatory—this is what I would call passive silence.

But then there is the extraordinary, hallowed silence in the audience when the concert has begun and we experience a rapt engagement, each musical phrase seemingly aware of itself and its own aching, impermanent beauty, leaving us feeling like we have melted inside of the music and the music has melted inside of us—this is what I would call living silence.

It is difficult to sit with silence, to calmly learn to inhabit its own unique rhythms.  There is a fearful precariousness to silence, which is why we work so hard to obstruct it, ignore it or dismantle it with our constant clamor and commotion.

But if we envision silence as something other than the absence of noise, if we allow our lives to be imbued with silence, suffused with silence, the “still, small voice” has a chance to be heard, and we can learn to become the most masterful virtuoso of all—the musician of our own silence.

Today’s Questions:

What is it like when you contemplate the possibility of silence?

 What is it like when you are silent?

 What do you fear about silence?

 We have all heard the phrase “a pregnant silence.”  In what ways can silence be “pregnant” for you, a harbinger of something important that is about to be born within you?

Elul Day 25

I hope that you all enjoyed a restful Shabbat. Just to avoid confusion, this should have gone out last night but I wasn’t able to complete it until today, so today’s Reflection is for Elul Day 24 (which is, in fact, today). Elul Day 25 will be going out later tonight.

A number of years ago, very early in my career as a psychologist, I had what I found to be an unforgettable interaction with a patient. Mr. N, in his early 40’s, had contacted me because of a range of concerns having to do with a failure to get traction in any significant area of his life.

His romantic life consisted of a sequence of 2-3 year monogamous relationships that all had eventually dissolved. Despite being bright and talented, his professional life had stagnated—he remained in middle management in a large manufacturing company, where he had toiled for over ten years, with little hope for or indication of advancement.

One additional issue was that he had been a heavy smoker for about twenty years. He had not yet run into any significant health problems as a result, but surely it would only be a matter of time before he did.

With this in mind, he entered one session coughing and wheezing, and took a seat, complaining that he had a cold that had lodged in his chest and acknowledging that every time he got sick, it seemed to take him several weeks to recover, even from a minor infection.

Although he had not consulted with me primarily regarding concerns about his physical health, I did take this opportunity to ask him if he had considered stopping smoking.

“Well, no one’s ever told me to,” was his response.

I was stunned. Twenty years of heavy smoking and no one had ever told him to stop?

“What do you mean that no one’s ever recommended that you stop smoking?” I inquired, incredulous.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of doctors tell me that smoking’s bad and everything. And so have plenty of other people. But no one’s ever told me that I should stop.”

I was still flummoxed.

“Have you ever tried to stop?”

“No.”

“Any reason why you haven’t?”

“Well, if someone had told me to stop, I might have. But, like I said, no one ever suggested it.”

Even if his story was true (and it seemed highly unlikely), I couldn’t get over the fact that he had so completely out-sourced responsibility for his health to someone other than…himself.

“Yes, smoking is deadly,” he had apparently been reasoning. “But unless I am told to stop smoking, I guess I’ll just keep it up. My health depends upon the expectations of others, not my own.”

We all know that nicotine is highly addictive, and we are probably all acquainted with or related to individuals who have struggled mightily to break the habit, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. We should never lack empathy for those who fight the fearsome battle of addiction. But I had never conversed with anyone, in or out of my office, who excused himself from making the effort to give up a maladaptive habit simply because “no one ever told me to.”

I share this story because it illuminates what a struggle it is for us to accept and/or take on responsibility. And our tradition knows this, which is why the Torah is abundant with stories that illuminate this very struggle.

Adam blames Eve for eating the apple, and Eve in turn blames the serpent. This was an evasion of personal responsibility—“It wasn’t me, it was someone else.”

Cain murders Abel and then innocently wonders, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This was an evasion of ethical responsibility—“Do I really need to be concerned about someone other than myself?”

Moses confronts Aaron about the Golden Calf, and Aaron quickly moves into excuse-formulation: “Let my lord not be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil,”. He then suggests that he had merely “hurled (the gold) into the fire and out came this calf!” This was an evasion of leadership responsibility—“Hey, I did everything I could do, but these foolish followers of mine just won’t listen.”

The Hebrew word for responsibility, achrayut, is derived from the word acher, meaning “other”. One way to understand this is that responsibility entails the capacity to respond to others (as many have proposed, “Responsibility” is essentially “Response-ability”). And also that responsibility entails declining to blame others (as my addicted patient had done) for the choices that we do or do not make.

Cheshbon ha-nefesh requires us to not only acknowledge what we have done and who we have been this past year, but to also take responsibility for what we have done and who we have been, to avoid disowning or renouncing the role that we have played in the construction of our own lives.

As Jews, we have been entrusted with the fateful responsibility to be God’s moral ambassadors into a world that is often brutal and heartless—an overwhelming responsibility, to be sure. But that larger responsibility begins with the more personal and painstaking task of taking responsibility for ourselves as individuals. This inevitably entails considerable internal conflict, and an agonizing recognition of the lapses in responsible behavior that all of us are prone to. But following through on the investigative duties of cheshbon ha-nefesh is what enables us to uphold the sense of collective responsibility that we have, for generations, been entrusted with.

Today’s Questions:

What are your most familiar ways of avoiding acknowledging responsibility, and in what dimensions of your life do your lapses in responsibility tend to take place?

Think about this in the context of personal (Adam and Eve), ethical (Cain) and leadership (Aaron) responsibility.

What keeps you from being more honest with yourself and assuming responsibility for what you do and who you are?

Elul Day 24

Performative activism, also known as “slacktivism”, is a derogatory term that refers to superficial activism motivated not so much by commitment to a cause, but primarily by a desire to be seen, recognized and applauded as someone who is committed to a cause.

The cartoon inserted above, composed by our son, Josh, humorously but unmistakably illuminates a version of contemporary performative activism, suggesting that if altruistic behavior isn’t photographically documented and posted on social media for others to see, it is simply not worth doing.

On a related note, our daughter, Jessica, recently wrote a penetrating essay for The Transformational Times, a journal published by the medical school that she attends, in which she examined the motivations that prompted her attentiveness to the death of Breonna Taylor, who, as most of you are aware, was a 27 year-old African American EMT who fatally shot in her own apartment by police officers attempting to serve a no-knock warrant.

While much of Jess’s commitment to this cause has been characterized by specific actions—attending Zoom meetings, donating to the Until Freedom organization, looking into the history of American racism—she also acknowledges in her piece that she searches Twitter and Instagram for #Breonnataylor, #Justiceforbreonnataylor, and #breonnnaslaw, and frequently re-posts on these platforms.

She writes that she recently came across an article by Zeba Blay, who noted that, “Turning Breonna Taylor into a meme, then, risks turning the conversation around what justice looks like for her into a temporary fad.”

In a similar vein, Tre Johnson, in an article entitled, “When Black People Are In Pain, White People Join Book Clubs”, writes: I’d like to think that well-meaning, invested white people are really gathering to talk about books to instruct themselves on how they can do more and do better, but it’s hard to believe that that’s really what most of them are working toward. You’ve had access to instruction about black humanity, freedom, mobility, happiness and health since we were brought here. It stretches as far back as slave songs and Phillis Wheatley poems and carries through Black Lives Matter activism. You’ve had your chance to say “This,” over and over again. Now act.

These articles, Jess noted, highlighted exactly what she was hoping to avoid. She found herself wondering if she was losing sight of her original reason for involvement—the pursuit of justice—and was now simply being casually carried along by the waves of a fashionable trend, one that would soon be replaced by a different obsession once the novelty of this one wore off.

Jess admits in her essay, “I have ventured both successfully and unsuccessfully into territories that have led to meaningful activism and those that have fed my own narcissism and ego.”

So where does that leave us?

As we discussed back in Day 9 when considering the story of the wealthy man who was hesitant to fund an orphanage because of his concern that he cared more about his reputation than the orphans, moral immacularity is not a precondition for moral action.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tells a parallel tale in “A Piece of Advice”, in which a scoundrel is transformed by a Rabbi’s advice that he worry less about authenticity and more about actual behavior: “What should a Jew do if he is not a pious man?…Let him play the pious man. The Almighty does not require good intentions. The deed is what counts. It is what you do that matters…for your Father in Heaven, His Holy Name, blessed be He, knows the intention and the intention behind the intention, and it is this that is the main thing.”

Yet to further complexify matters, Maimonides writes that Tzedakah consists of more than giving money to the poor. Done properly, tzedakah requires donors to contribute their compassion and empathy along with their philanthropic subsidy: “Whoever gives tzedakah to the poor with a sour expression and in a surly manner, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces, loses his merit. One should instead give cheerfully and joyfully, and empathize with him in his sorrow.”

My guess is that all of us find ourselves located somewhere in a Venn diagram composed of spheres that might be labeled in some of the following ways: “doing nothing”, “doing something, but not doing much”, “doing something but doing it mostly to be lauded for doing so”, “doing something but doing it resentfully”, “doing very little but doing it cheerfully”, “doing something out of genuine, unadulterated commitment”—the list could go on and on.

We are not expected to be one of the 36 righteous Lamed Vavniks who, according to Jewish mystical tradition, are placed here among us to greet the Shechinah. But we are certainly not relieved of the expectation that we pursue what is right and just, either.

Perhaps one of the first steps to take at this time of year is to use our cheshbon ha-nefesh process to examine the ways in which we have, and have not, pursued what is right and just, and to also examine the ways in which we might amplify our pursuit of righteousness and justice in the coming year.

There is an admonitory adage from 12-Step programs that warns, “Hang around a barbershop long enough, and you’re going to wind up getting a haircut.” In other words, if you’re prone to alcoholic behavior and you choose to frequent bars, your sobriety is likely to be short-lived.

Perhaps we could use that same admonition in a positive sense, however. If we “hang around the barbershops” that consist of contact with thoughtful, inspirational leaders, thinkers, writers, and activists, perhaps we can raise the odds that our commitment to meaningful causes will coalesce into an effective, enduring and unwavering one, even if it remains imperfect and clumsily emerges from a welter of conflicting impulses.

Today’s Questions:

What steps have you taken to spur social justice in this past year? What has motivated you to do so?

What additional steps could you continue taking to promote social justice in the coming year? What has kept you from taking those steps thus far?

Elul Day 22

Performative activism, also known as “slacktivism”, is a derogatory term that refers to superficial activism motivated not so much by commitment to a cause, but primarily by a desire to be seen, recognized and applauded as someone who is committed to a cause.

The cartoon inserted above, composed by our son, Josh, humorously but unmistakably illuminates a version of contemporary performative activism, suggesting that if altruistic behavior isn’t photographically documented and posted on social media for others to see, it is simply not worth doing.

On a related note, our daughter, Jessica, recently wrote a penetrating essay for The Transformational Times, a journal published by the medical school that she attends, in which she examined the motivations that prompted her attentiveness to the death of Breonna Taylor, who, as most of you are aware, was a 27 year-old African American EMT who fatally shot in her own apartment by police officers attempting to serve a no-knock warrant.

While much of Jess’s commitment to this cause has been characterized by specific actions—attending Zoom meetings, donating to the Until Freedom organization, looking into the history of American racism—she also acknowledges in her piece that she searches Twitter and Instagram for #Breonnataylor, #Justiceforbreonnataylor, and #breonnnaslaw, and frequently re-posts on these platforms.

She writes that she recently came across an article by Zeba Blay, who noted that, “Turning Breonna Taylor into a meme, then, risks turning the conversation around what justice looks like for her into a temporary fad.”

In a similar vein, Tre Johnson, in an article entitled, “When Black People Are In Pain, White People Join Book Clubs”, writes: I’d like to think that well-meaning, invested white people are really gathering to talk about books to instruct themselves on how they can do more and do better, but it’s hard to believe that that’s really what most of them are working toward. You’ve had access to instruction about black humanity, freedom, mobility, happiness and health since we were brought here. It stretches as far back as slave songs and Phillis Wheatley poems and carries through Black Lives Matter activism. You’ve had your chance to say “This,” over and over again. Now act.

These articles, Jess noted, highlighted exactly what she was hoping to avoid. She found herself wondering if she was losing sight of her original reason for involvement—the pursuit of justice—and was now simply being casually carried along by the waves of a fashionable trend, one that would soon be replaced by a different obsession once the novelty of this one wore off.

Jess admits in her essay, “I have ventured both successfully and unsuccessfully into territories that have led to meaningful activism and those that have fed my own narcissism and ego.”

So where does that leave us?

As we discussed back in Day 9 when considering the story of the wealthy man who was hesitant to fund an orphanage because of his concern that he cared more about his reputation than the orphans, moral immacularity is not a precondition for moral action.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s tells a parallel tale in “A Piece of Advice”, in which a scoundrel is transformed by a Rabbi’s advice that he worry less about authenticity and more about actual behavior: “What should a Jew do if he is not a pious man?…Let him play the pious man. The Almighty does not require good intentions. The deed is what counts. It is what you do that matters…for your Father in Heaven, His Holy Name, blessed be He, knows the intention and the intention behind the intention, and it is this that is the main thing.”

Yet to further complexify matters, Maimonides writes that Tzedakah consists of more than giving money to the poor. Done properly, tzedakah requires donors to contribute their compassion and empathy along with their philanthropic subsidy: “Whoever gives tzedakah to the poor with a sour expression and in a surly manner, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces, loses his merit. One should instead give cheerfully and joyfully, and empathize with him in his sorrow.”

My guess is that all of us find ourselves located somewhere in a Venn diagram composed of spheres that might be labeled in some of the following ways: “doing nothing”, “doing something, but not doing much”, “doing something but doing it mostly to be lauded for doing so”, “doing something but doing it resentfully”, “doing very little but doing it cheerfully”, “doing something out of genuine, unadulterated commitment”—the list could go on and on.

We are not expected to be one of the 36 righteous Lamed Vavniks who, according to Jewish mystical tradition, are placed here among us to greet the Shechinah. But we are certainly not relieved of the expectation that we pursue what is right and just, either.

Perhaps one of the first steps to take at this time of year is to use our cheshbon ha-nefesh process to examine the ways in which we have, and have not, pursued what is right and just, and to also examine the ways in which we might amplify our pursuit of righteousness and justice in the coming year.

There is an admonitory adage from 12-Step programs that warns, “Hang around a barbershop long enough, and you’re going to wind up getting a haircut.” In other words, if you’re prone to alcoholic behavior and you choose to frequent bars, your sobriety is likely to be short-lived.

Perhaps we could use that same admonition in a positive sense, however. If we “hang around the barbershops” that consist of contact with thoughtful, inspirational leaders, thinkers, writers, and activists, perhaps we can raise the odds that our commitment to meaningful causes will coalesce into an effective, enduring and unwavering one, even if it remains imperfect and clumsily emerges from a welter of conflicting impulses.

Today’s Questions:

What steps have you taken to spur social justice in this past year? What has motivated you to do so?

What additional steps could you continue taking to promote social justice in the coming year? What has kept you from taking those steps thus far?

Elul Day 21

I wrote of Walt Whitman in a previous Reflection (Day 5), and another poem of his, “A Child Said, What is the Grass?”, recently came to mind, as well. It is a meditation (not surprisingly) on grass, and here is one stanza that particularly stands out for me:

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners,

That we may see

And remark, and say Whose?”

What strikes me as I read this is Whitman’s suggestion that God is attempting to seduce us, using the flirtatious “dropped-handkerchief” ritual that was probably more common in the mid-1800’s than in the early 2020’s. (Also interesting to note is that God, at least in the mid-1800’s, was stereotypically seen as male, and yet the handkerchief-drop tends to be much more associated with females. Perhaps the “good, gray poet” is slyly inviting his readers to develop a little more flexibility when it comes to our understanding of gender identity.)

I remember as a small child dropping a tiny Japanese paper flower into a glass of water and watching in astonishment as the petals swelled with fluid and slowly swirled open into beautiful blossoms. Perhaps this image has accompanied me for so long because it is a reminder that when we are able to sustain our attention to small matters, unexpected marvels may reveal themselves to us.

As Whitman proposes, God may be trying to seduce us, but to be seduced, of course, one must be aware—it is quite difficult to woo someone who is oblivious. We all struggle so hard to integrate the Divine into our mundane, material lives, but surely it would be a little easier to do so if we simply attended to the world a little more patiently, a little more quietly.

Who knows what other seeds would flower if we steadily irrigated them with our attention and contemplation? Who knows what other dimensions of being would blossom into beauty were we to gently steer our consciousness in their direction?

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that, “We can never sneer at the stars, mock at the dawn, or scoff at the totality of being.” Yet how often do we find ourselves ignoring the extraordinary wonder of the world as it is—or for that matter, how often do we allow ourselves to just wonder?

Whitman concludes his poem with an extraordinary couplet that links his minute, precise focus on grass with a magnificent meditation on the grander cycles of life and death that we are an inextricable part of:

All goes onward and outward…and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

For me, the following verses from “Eternity”, written by our former Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, capture the same sense of hope, mystery and beauty embedded “in the grass” that Whitman evoked:

What is the soul allowed to keep? Every

Birth, every small gift, every ache? I know

I have knelt just here, torn apart by loss. Lazed

On this grass, counting joys like trees: cypress

Blue fir, dogwood, cherry. Ageless, constant,

Growing down into earth and up into history.

Cheshbon ha-nefesh should not be confined to the laborious business of correcting our many flaws, important as that business is. It also means excavating the unique signature of our soul—discovering the magnificent wings that we have had with us all along, and learning how to finally spread them so that we can soar upwards through the highest stations of our soul’s heaven, ever closer to eternity.

Today’s Questions:

How often do you allow yourself to wonder?

What keeps you from gazing more attentively at the world and inviting it to reveal its beauty to you?

Are you willing to be seduced by what surrounds you?

Elul Day 20

A shnorrer (Yiddish term for a beggar, free-loader, manipulative sponger) succeeds in getting a rich man to give him some money. Later, the wealthy man sees the shnorrer sitting in a very expensive restaurant eating lox. He goes into the restaurant and yells at the shnorrer for buying such expensive food.

The shnorrer responds, “When I don’t have money, I can’t eat lox. When I do have money, I shouldn’t eat lox. So when am I allowed to have lox?”

For me, this joke captures the ambivalence and confusion with which Jews contemplate abundance and consumption.

The Jewish vision of a rich, full life involves celebrating, enjoying and partaking of the world’s plenitude and prosperity: “I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle—and thus you shall eat your fill.” (Deut. 11:14-15).

Even when we are asked to temporarily deprive ourselves, such as when we fast on Yom Kippur, the goal is not self-punishment but self-edification and the elevation of the soul—another form of richness.

Other Biblically-based limitations are placed on us, as well, when it comes to abundance and consumption. 10% of our income is to be donated to Tzedakah, for example, and “whatever grows of its own accord is to be distributed among the needy.”

The Rabbinic literature also places significant emphasis on gratitude, reminding us that we receive the world as God’s gift to us, calling upon us to thank God for what we have been given, starting with the gift of life itself. “Who is wealthy?” the Rabbis rhetorically ask. “One who is happy with one’s lot”.

Furthermore, our gratitude for what we savor and utilize is to be accompanied by a mindful attentiveness to what it is that we need, rather than what we want. We are not asked to completely eschew material and sensual pleasures, but we are required to seek balance when appreciating them, and to avoid unrestrained consumption. We sanctify the physical acts of eating, drinking and sex because they are opportunities to create psychological, spiritual and physical well-being, not because they are invitations or demands for narcissistic self-indulgence.

Another perspective on abundance and consumption is put forth in The Talmud, which refers to bal taschit, or “do not destroy”, an edict which is expanded into a general prohibition against destroying or wasting any resource that is potentially useful, or necessary to save life. “Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal taschit (Kiddushin 32a).”

Many contemporary writers have suggested that a commitment to bal taschit in its original context might spur Jews to greater environmental activism in general, such as when it comes to addressing climate change or wilderness area preservation, and, on a more personal level, more robust conservation, recycling and composting efforts at home.

Our tradition has historically and consistently spoken with a prophetic voice that has great relevance to many of the ecological issues that we face as a society, with clear guidance for how we are to conduct ourselves when it comes to deriving benefit from the resources that we are blessed with while still promoting and maintaining environmental harmony.

Rabbi Eliezer Diamond writes that, “The Torah’s intention is to prevent the possibility of untimely destruction and rather to encourage creation to exist as fully as possible…we have sacrificed the natural for the commercial and found that tradeoff wanting; is it not time to strike a more fruitful balance within God’s world?”

Poet Wendell Berry seems to have this same understanding in mind as he concludes his poem “Sabbaths—1979, IV”:

Ruin is in place here:
The dead leaves rotting on the ground,
The live leaves in the air
Are gathered in a single dance
That turns them round and round.
The fox cub trots his almost pathless path
As silent as his absence.
These passings resurrect
A joy without defect,
The life that steps and sings in ways of death.

Much of our work on cheshbon ha-nefesh thus far has been focusing on fulfilling our responsibilities to each other, to our community, and to God. But at least some of our self-examination during the month of Elul should be devoted to fulfilling our responsibilities to the planet that has been bequeathed to us, and determining how we can be better, kinder and more prudent inhabitants of the world in which we live.

Today’s Questions:

Do you feel “wealthy” in the sense of “being happy with your lot” or are you consumed by an envy of what others have, or by complaint and disappointment regarding what you lack?

Referring back to Rabbi Diamond’s observation, in what ways have you “sacrificed the natural for the commercial”, and how might you strike a more “fruitful balance within God’s world”?

What are some of the ways in which you can commit to an ethos of Bal Taschit during the coming year?

Elul Day 19

Forgiveness: “To stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone for an offence, flaw or mistake.” (The New Oxford English Dictionary, 1998)

Forgiveness is such a profoundly important part of the cheshbon ha-nefesh process—giving forgiveness, asking for forgiveness, receiving forgiveness and exploring the possibility of forgiveness of self. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “Forgiveness is the key to action and freedom,” and “By being aimed at someone, not something, forgiveness becomes an act of love.”

But, as we were acknowledging in yesterday’s Reflection, forgiveness, like love, is yet another kaleidoscopic concept that is impossible to nail down with any precision.

We certainly are well-acquainted with its advantages—every culture is guided by the psycho-spiritual light thrown by the glittering North Star of forgiveness:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. Buddha

To understand all is to forgive all. Mme. De Stael

Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears. Marcus Aurelius

To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it. Confucius

Father, forgive them for they know now what they do.” Luke, 23:34

Forgiveness is the answer to the child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean again. Dag Hammarskjold

He who seeks revenge should dig two graves. Chinese Proverb

The ineffable joy of forgiving and being forgiven forms an ecstasy that might well arouse the envy of the gods. Elbert Hubbard

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you. Lewis Smedes

Of course, appealing as it may be to be on the giving or receiving end of forgiveness, we know that when we have been hurt, or are hurting, forgiveness is hard, that it is a psychological destination that can only be approached, never fully arrived at. Forgiveness resists being codified, domesticated or manualized such that we can steadily and irreversibly march our way through “stages” or “phases”, triumphantly crossing the Forgiveness Finish line, with anger and resentment safely and forever behind us. The possibility of anointing ourselves as morally superior because we have deigned to forgive someone is a dangerously seductive one.

And like any other virtue, forgiveness is complicated and risky, requiring a careful cartography of the province that lies somewhere between, “Always try to forgive” and “Never try to forgive.”

We all struggle with whether or not to forgive someone who has wronged or injured us, and whether or not to forgive ourselves for the wrongs and injuries that we have perpetrated, intentionally or inadvertently.

And of course we all struggle with whether forgiving is the same as forgetting, or absolving, or capitulating, or some other related emotional activity that might actually end up working to our own, and/or to our society’s, disadvantage.

For example, when it comes to a confrontation with pure evil, can it really be said that forgiveness is relevant and worth pursuing, that it is still, fundamentally and beatifically, “a gift that we give to ourselves”? How many battered women have returned to their husbands for additional (and possibly fatal) abuse because they were encouraged to save their marriage and find it in their hearts to love and forgive their spouse?

And what about when it comes to monstrously large-scale inhumanity, such as the Holocaust? Cynthia Ozick said of a supposedly repentant Nazi murderer, “Let him go to hell.” Elie Wiesel intoned, in his prayer at Auschwitz, “God of forgiveness, do not forgive those who created this place. God of mercy, have no mercy on those who killed here Jewish children.” While imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, Simon Wiesenthal was brought to the deathbed of a member of the SS, who wanted to confess to, and obtain exoneration from, a Jew before he passed. In the face of this excruciating dilemma, Wiesenthal, famously, said nothing.

Is it advisable for us to always attempt to transcend moral outrage and indignation in the face of unspeakable horror? Should the upbeat belief in forgiveness as the panacea to heal all individual, relational and societal ills completely vanquish the legitimacy of resentment and the passion for protest, revenge, getting even, or, at least, vindication? Does the unyielding pursuit of forgiveness somehow support ethical failures and create a world in which those who commit the most heinous atrocities—personal or communal—have every right to eventually expect to be pardoned or acquitted?

These are obviously questions that yield no easy answers. But I believe they deserve some attention as we explore the concept of forgiveness during Elul.

It is obviously not healthy to saturate ourselves with anger and marinate in our resentment, no matter how justifiable it is. But struggling—and perhaps failing—to forgive does not mean that we are psychologically or spiritually deficient, either.

Forgiveness requires us to blink into the harsh light that breaks through when we are deeply wronged, or have deeply wronged others. It reminds us that we are all vulnerable to inflicting and receiving pain. Depreciating that reality by forcing ourselves into a state of hasty, cheapened, or counterfeit forgiveness may be one of the self-delusions that we would be wise to confront as we progress through our personal cheshbon ha-nefesh.

Today’s Questions:

Who do you need to forgive and what are the obstacles to forgiving him/her?

Who would you like to be forgiven by, and what obstacles seem to be in the way?

What has it been like for you when you have asked forgiveness?

Elul Day 18

I mentioned in a previous Reflection that the root word “Elul” is often molded into various acronymic forms, and that perhaps the most well-known is Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, which can be translated as “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” from Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs.

It is impossible to contemplate a meaningful cheshbon ha-nefesh process without taking into consideration the concept of love. From my perspective, it is the love of others—parent, child, spouse, extended family member, friend, colleague, teacher, mentor or even stranger—that empowers us to examine ourselves without self-delusion, and to forgive ourselves and others for our past wrongs. Self-love (in the best sense of the phrase), rather than self-hatred, is the primary, and most dynamic, catalyst for spiritual repair and the realization of our most meaningful aspirations.

We might consider that it is our loving partnership with God that propels our journey, as well. Substituting “God” for “beloved” in the quote from Shir Hashirim, it can be read as if we are reaching out to God and valiantly trying to love God by emulating divine compassion, and God in return, responds, telling us that we continue to be God’s love object.

Of course, because the word “love” means so many different things to so many people, I am not going to attempt to pin it down with language at this particular time. But I do want to emphasize that some would say that the genius of Moses as a spiritual leader was not only that he called upon the People of Israel to love God (as opposed to just obey, worship or fear God) but that he also conceived of our God as a Being who wants our love.

Scholars note that, in the Hebrew Bible, God only uses the word “love” five times. Interestingly, the first time is in the context of death, when in Genesis he instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (“Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love…”).

God refers to love again in Exodus when discussing how to manage a Hebrew slave who does not want to be freed (“But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, and my wife and children’…”).

In Leviticus, “love” is used twice more by God, in both the renowned, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and the equally renowned “you shall love (the stranger) as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In each of these four instances, God is referring to love between human beings. Only in going over The Ten Commandments (in Exodus) does God mention the enterprise of human beings loving God (“…but showing kindness to the thousandth generation to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”)

Philosopher Jerome Segal notes that this “is not a command, or even a direct request for love. Rather it is a statement by God about himself, about how he responds to love…God, in his own way, is making a plea for love.”

What a revolutionary concept this is—not only do we need to love God, and not only do we need God’s love, but God needs our love. We read about the omnipotent, omniscient Lord of the Universe—“I am that I am!”—but hiding behind the buttoned-up Biblical curtain is this somehow more “human”, less perfect God who is alternately compassionate, frustrated, perplexed, enraged, punitive, insecure, and somehow vulnerable…as we all are when we love deeply and are desirous of an identical intensity of love in return, a love that will never be fully requited.

A contemporary Jewish female theologian once plaintively sung:

I’d like to know that your love

Is a love I can be sure of

So tell me now and I won’t ask again

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Love is surely impossible to define but one thing we know about love is that you have to attend to it, day after day, if it is going to survive. That is why we wistfully wonder whether love will still exist “tomorrow”—it all depends on how earnestly, how diligently, we will continue to fulfill its many demands and duties.

If I had to characterize in just a few words the content of every therapy session that I have ever conducted, I would suggest that each clinical conversation has been about love—and our desperate fear of its loss, its departure, its absence.

Cheshbon ha-nefesh is an act of, and a healing through, love—love for and from others, love for and from ourselves, love for and from God. It is not intended to be a searing indictment of our woeful inadequacies, but a forgiving voyage through the inner regions of our warm imperfections that carries us from dread and despair towards dreams and blessings, always arriving, forever sailing away.

Today’s Questions:

What are the emotional currents that have been carrying you through your cheshbon ha-nefesh process? Love? Disappointment? Fear? Anger? Others?

Can you imagine that this process can result not only in a stronger, healthier self-love, but also a stronger, healthier love of others?

Elul Day 17

Shavuah tov, Chevre, hoping that you all enjoyed a restorative Shabbat,

Many of you may remember that my dear mother-in-law, Selma Meckler z’l, always accompanied us to services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur until her passing (we just commemorated her third Yahrzeit last week, so, as a result, she is on my mind more than usual).

Selma was fondly known as a woman who conveyed a certain blunt, filterless candor, and it was this quality that invariably led her to annually stage-whisper to me, at some point during Yom Kippur, “Exactly how many Amidah’s are we going to have to say today?” after struggling to her feet with a sigh.

Who among us has not felt the same way when it comes to Jewish prayer and ritual?

“Another Kaddish already? Well, at least it’s the short one…”
“Again with all of the lifting and the wrapping?”
“Change the tune to Lecha Dodi as often as you want—just please don’t make us sing all the verses.”

No matter how devout or observant we may be, repetition always threatens to degenerate into bloodless routine. It can be a tremendous challenge to sidestep monotony and maintain interest in workaday words and actions—for most of us, life seems to feel more exacting than exciting.

On the other hand, repetition can also be a source of both pleasure and power. When it comes to pleasure, we all know what it is like to listen to a favorite song over and over again, or to re-read a beloved story or poem every few years. And when it comes to power, we all know that if we want to remember something, we repeat it to ourselves, sometimes insistently.

T’shuvah, the act of Returning that we are called upon to pursue year after year, and that is ignited and inaugurated by our cheshbon ha-nefesh process, is an act of repetition, as well. Beginning with Elul, we hesitantly circle back to the past year and struggle to disconsolately apprehend how we have once again betrayed ourselves and others, how we have once again abandoned ourselves and others, how we have once again hurt ourselves and others.

Repetition does not have to dull us or drain us because repetition is the primary tool of remembrance—it steadily supplies us with a way to remember who we are, who we have been, and who we strive to be…and perhaps it also provides us with a way to remember God, and to be remembered by God.

I am now more than four decades into my marriage with Selma’s only daughter, Karen. Based upon what I have learned with her, and from so many of the enduring partnerships of our friends and family, I would offer the following three observations when it comes to relational routine:

Repetition can be as important and fulfilling as discovery
Two people can eagerly look forward to re-learning what they already know and take pleasure in this
If it matters, partners can collaboratively invent ways of doing the same things over and over again such that love feels simultaneously both the same and different, both foreign and familiar—or they can at least try to do so, and then laugh together at their utter inability to accomplish this.

Poet Robert Pinsky, in “From Poem with Refrains”, writes:

What is a myth but something that seems to happen

Always for the first time over and over again?

In this context, perhaps the repetitive acts that we are mythically embarking upon this month can, just like our most important acts of intimacy, once again feel like they are happening for the first time—at least once or twice.

Today’s Question:

What patterns of repetition that currently exist in your life are you struggling to change?

From your perspective, does change consist of ending the repetitive cycle, and/or does change consist of finding new meanings or discoveries through continuing the repetitive cycle?

What are the most valuable repetitions in your life right now, and what gives them their value?

Elul Day 16

It is not unusual for my child and adolescent patients to ask me, at some point during treatment, “Am I your favorite patient?” And that question is not confined to my youthful caseload—many adults whom I am counseling have made the same inquiry, as well.

So much personal history lies behind that question, but at the most fundamental level, it does reveal one of the most enduring realities of human nature, which is that it is not enough for us to be loved—we all want to be preferred.

The Book of Genesis tells one story after another about intensely-fought battles to determine who will be favored—from Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau, from Sarah and Hagar to Rachel and Leah. Perhaps that explains why the Bible is still the most widely-read book in the world—its narratives universally describe the most painful conflicts of individuals and the most profound struggles of humanity.

Of course, the desire to be preferred is tricky business. There are advantages and disadvantages to being hand-picked and singled out—we see that quite clearly in the story of Joseph, another saga from Genesis.

But desire, itself, is tricky business, as well. Just underneath the trapdoor of our rational mind roils a snake-pit of appetites and aspirations, itches and urges—some quite unsavory—that growl with voracity and aggression.

Attempts to bludgeon, numb or dissolve desire are not only misguided, they are destined to fail—desire is built into us and, at its finest and purest, is the impetus that drives us towards our finest individual and relational achievements, including, most importantly, intimacy. As French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote, “Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need.”

More realistic is learning how to shape, modulate and channel one’s desires by harnessing them with thought and spirit. That is where Judaism departs from more the conventional platform of “self-help”. The objective of our study, prayer and contemplation is not to satisfy some as-yet unmet craving—since our wants are boundless and will never be fully satisfied—but to enlarge our perspective beyond our wants and towards the pursuit of wholeness and holiness.

In one of her novels, Cynthia Ozick referred to a character who was exhausted by “desire for desire,” a phrase that exquisitely captures the impossibility of ever gratifying desire, how perpetual wanting can so quickly become an obstacle to our flourishing because we are simply fueling the inexhaustible engine of wanting.

But in an essay, she also writes that, “To desire what one can be is purpose in life. There are no exterior forces. There are only interior forces. Who squanders talent praises death.”

Her distinction seems useful to me. There is the desire to fulfill our insatiable thirsts and hungers, which only creates permanently intensifying thirsts and hungers. And then there is the desire to raise our sights and stretch ourselves as far as we can in the direction of what is good and right, which creates something more important—a path that leads us away from who we have been at our weakest and towards who we can become at our best.

In his poem, “After the Winds”, Robert Hass vividly illuminates this same distinction:

Desire that hollows us out and hollows us out,

That kills us and kills us and raises us up and

Raises us up.

Elul gives us the opportunity to locate ourselves in the recognizably human world in which desire can both confine us and elevate us, and to give some consideration to how to release ourselves from the former in our noble pursuit of the latter.

Today’s Questions:

When does desire show up in your life? What do you find yourself desiring?

When you do experience desire, is it for something that exists outside of you (perhaps a material acquisition) or something inside of you (perhaps an urge to cultivate a virtue)?

What comes to mind when you attempt to quell a desire that will not serve you, and/or will not serve others?

What comes to mind when you attempt to amplify a desire that will serve you, and/or will serve others?

Elul Day 15

Just this morning, a patient of mine was commenting on the abundance of online activities related to the Yamim Noraim that are available, leading her to wryly conclude that, “Now starting with Elul, I can basically High Holy Day myself to death.”

She went on to comment that she generally finds the 10 Days of Repentance to be challenging enough as she annually laments, for a week and a half, the many ways in which she has fallen short as a mother, a daughter, a sister, and an individual who “continues to work a job that I hate year after year, so what does that say about me and my inability to change?”

Thus for her, the spiritual cornucopia of (in her words again) “new ways to  extend how many days I get to feel bad about myself,” is certainly a mixed bag.

I know this individual well enough to be aware that she was partially being facetious.  But I also know her well enough to be aware that the cheshbon ha-nefesh process, for her, was not necessarily a source of personal relief, reconciliation and return, as it is intended to be, but instead could easily become a month-long marathon of self-degradation and disgrace.

Over the years, scholars have played with the word “Elul” as an acronym.  Perhaps the most well-known Elul-based acronym is Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, which can be translated as “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” from Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs.

Another acronym that I have come across is inah le’yado vesamti lach (…deliver into his hand, I shall establish for you…) from the Book of Exodus (12:13), which speaks of authorizing the nine “Cities of Refuge”.  These were locales to which individuals who had committed accidental crimes could flee in order to be given the opportunity to create a new home and commence a new life.

So perhaps we might envision Elul not so much as a month of lacerating, unrelenting self-criticism, but more so as a month of refuge—a chronological sanctuary to which we can decamp, not as an escape, but in the service of recovering from what we regret and bemoan about ourselves so that we can begin the forthcoming year with a fresh start.

While I was reflecting upon the word “refuge”, I came across Rabbi Samuel Chiel’s exegesis that the verse “I seek refuge in You, O Lord:  may I never be disappointed” can also be translated as, “In Thee, O Lord, have I taken refuge—let me never be ashamed.”

In this context, perhaps we are being told that while we have been given a moral conscience and are strongly encouraged to use it, we also deserve to be protected from humiliation—self-imposed or imposed by others—when it comes to acknowledging our unavoidable flaws and frailties.

Elul’s “time of refuge” invites to believe that carefully examining what is broken about us does not have to result in a dispirited referendum on our immutable defectiveness, but in a pulsing affirmation of our potential to learn, to grow and to heal.

Today’s Questions:

 Now that we are about halfway through Elul, what has the cheshbon ha-nefesh process been stirring in you? 

Do you feel as if it is energizing you or depleting you?  Encouraging you or discouraging you?  Inspiring you or de-motivating you? 

Has Elul felt like a month of refuge, or are you feeling more like a refugee from yourself?

Elul Day 14

Rabbi Eliyahu Dressler, wrote that “…every human being has the faculty of determining in his own heart where the real truth lies.”

We may indeed have that faculty, but when it comes to self-appraisal, most of us have a somewhat casual—if not estranged—relationship with that elusive “authentic self.”

Like it or not, we tend to spend our lives combining truth and falsehood in whatever clumsy way enables us to live with ourselves. We all are dedicated to creating a mythological identity that we can somehow believe in, one that is usually a layered composite of disparate realities, some of which exist, some of which don’t.

The late Israeli novelist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld once observed, “If you read many collections of testimony written about the Holocaust, you will immediately see that they are actually repressions, meant to put events in proper chronological order. They are neither introspection nor anything resembling introspection, but rather the careful weaving together of many external facts in order to veil the inner truth.”

One need not have endured the Holocaust, or to have been traumatized at all, to fall prey to the same tendency to “veil the inner truth”. One reason for this is that what we call “truth”, as Appelfeld noted above, is not the same as “facts”.

Our personal truth is far more complicated, and includes what is real and not real, what is authentic and inauthentic. Our personal truth is an intricately embroidered tale that we hitch a ride on, a fable that both reduces and conceals our individual complexity while simultaneously revealing it. Our personal truth is, most importantly, meaningful—and we are the ones who must devote ourselves to figuring out what it means.

Elul gives us a chance to chronicle the previous year from as many different perspectives as possible, in as open-minded a way as possible, focusing less on certitude and accuracy and more on the oft-ignored parts of our narrative that clamor for attention and deserve to be shared.

We all lie to ourselves in one form or another—distortions, misrepresentations, exaggerations, diminishments, and sometimes outright falsities. But while our personal perjury is sometimes intended to protect or deceive us, it is also paradoxically intended to expose our inner truth a little more fully—if we simply give it a chance to speak, and if we are able to listen without (much) judgment.

A core element of cheshbon ha-nefesh is remembering that truth is not simple, and that the soul that we are trying to “account for” is a very precarious construction—holy, to be sure, but not quite as stable or irreducible as we might like to imagine. Which may be exactly what accounts for its holiness.

Today’s Questions:

Tell a story that took place this previous year about an event or an interaction that made you uncomfortable and that still troubles you.

Now tell the story from a different perspective, such that the story troubles you either more or less.

Now tell the story from the perspective of someone else—perhaps the person you had the uncomfortable interaction with, or (if this was not an inter-personal event) someone who might have been observing you from the outside.

What is it like to view yourself more kaleidoscopically than you typically do?

Elul Day 13

The root word Sh-M-A occurs 92 times in the book of Deuteronomy alone, most enduringly in “Shema Yisrael…”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has noted that the opening phrase of Parashat Ekev (Deut. 7:12), which includes one of these Sh-M-A-based verbs, “Tish-me’un”, has been translated in numerous ways, including some of the following:

If only you would listen to these laws…
If you hearken to these precepts…
If you pay attention to these laws…
If you heed these ordinances…
Because you hear these judgments…

He adds that Sh-M-A can also be used to connote “to understand”, such as in the story of the Tower of Babel, when God says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand (yishme’u) each other (Gen. 11:7).

And while the Hebrew Bible contains 613 commandments, he comments, there is no single word that literally means “to obey”. The verb used by the Torah in place of “to obey” is—you guessed it—Sh-M-A.

All of this suggests that the most frequent translation of the Sh-M-A root into English—to listen—is unavoidably restricted, capturing only one facet of the experience of “listening”.

Rabbi Sacks’s gloss on this is that “blind obedience is not a virtue in Judaism…God wants us to understand the laws…he wants us to reflect…to internalize, and to respond. He wants us to become a listening people.” In Judaism, he goes on, “We do not see God; we hear God.”

It would be impossible to over-estimate the importance of listening in Judaism—and in life, itself. Isn’t that what all of us really want, at our most soulful level—to be fully, attentively listened to, to be understood?

Yet, as we know, our frantic contemporary existence is built solidly, and seemingly intractably, upon the foundation of talking, not listening. I certainly do not have to go into any detail when it comes to the ways in which our culture emphasizes noise over quiet, making it frightfully difficult to hear the “still, small voices” that can only resonate in the sacred chamber created by interior and exterior silence.

Nevertheless, the Jewish tradition stubbornly continues to privilege hearing over all of the other senses. One midrash avers, “There are 248 major body parts, but it’s through the ear that they all live…as it says, “listen and you will be alive.” And the most famous Jewish imperative of all, of course, is not “Israel, look!” but “Israel, listen!”

When God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and asked him what he would like to be given, Solomon replied, lev shome’a, the “listening heart” that he knew would be required to judge with wisdom, discernment and compassion.

Returning to Rabbi Sacks for a moment, when asked why God would summon Moses, a man who literally did not speak well—“I am slow of speech and tongue” (Ex. 4:10)—to lead the Jewish People, he replied, “Perhaps because one who cannot speak learns how to listen.”

Using the month of Elul to begin softening the inner babble and the outer blare intimates the quiet grace that is the soil within which the deepest form of listening can take root.

Today’s Questions:

When have you encountered an individual with a “listening heart” and how has it felt to be truly listened to?

What changes in your life would you need to make in an effort to cultivate your own “listening heart”?

What are the “noises” in your life that would you need to mute or soften in order to listen better?

Elul Day 12

Perhaps my favorite Talmudic epigram is, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

These words capture for me the hopelessly subjective lens of preconception through which we view our behavior, and the behavior of others.

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, taught that everything that we see is essentially a reflection of who we are. We convince ourselves that we are perceiving the true nature of others, but, in reality, when we assess their strengths and liabilities, we are staring into a mirror.

This possibility—counterintuitive as it may feel—can actually assist us with our cheshbon ha-nefesh process because, as we have been discussing, we all are constrained by an internal myopia that makes it difficult for us to accurately identify our flaws.

But life affords us countless opportunities to interact with individuals who reveal the same flaws that we struggle with, albeit sometimes in a slightly different form. Our initial response in these situations, of course, is to instantly criticize and demean them for exhibiting the character defects that flash unmistakably in front of us like insistent neon.

With some grace and tolerance, however—directed towards both the aggravating “others” as well as towards ourselves—it may dawn on us that we are so reactive to those defects simply because they remind us of our own. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi writes about inviting to an imaginary mental table all of the people who have hurt, offended, upset, or disappointed him and realizing that they are trying to teach him lessons that he might have learned from his own behavior, had he had the courage to examine himself as squarely as he was examining them.

Country musician Margot Price sings, “My weaknesses are stronger than me.” But we might say that the fundamental weakness that we are all prone to is the difficulty we have pinpointing our own weaknesses. And we can’t strengthen or correct our faults and failings until we find a way to probe them, to patiently tease them to the surface to be understood.

When we thoughtfully engage in the endless and unpredictable dialogue with those who trouble, provoke and torment us, the punishing voices of anger and shame that we send inward and outward are softened, and the merciful melody of forgiveness—music that is so often forbidden—can finally begin to be heard.

Today’s Questions:

When someone behaves in a way that makes you unhappy or uncomfortable, how difficult is it to imagine that this behavior is embodied in you?

When you view someone in a positive light, can you imagine that that individual is echoing something positive about you?

In your mind, what distinguishes “viewing someone in a positive light” from the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy? Is it possible that the two are related?

Elul Day 11

Like many of our colleagues who work in health services, Karen and I have been relying exclusively on tele-health since COVID-19 arrived. But while all of us are grateful for the networked technology that allows for ongoing clinical work (and social contact) in the face of stay-at-home orders, we all remain intuitively aware that there is simply no substitute for physical presence.

For me, engaging in virtual psychotherapy sometimes feels akin to floating in a sensory-deprivation tank, disoriented by the absence of sensory and perceptual indicators that help me to decode and decipher my patients’ emotional states. “It is hard to read the room,” I have often mused to myself during a remote consultation, “when not everybody is in the room.”

As the possibility of resuming face-to-face contact increases, I have recently begun asking my patients which form of consultation they would prefer as we move forward—continued virtual contact, or office-based sessions with both of us wearing masks. Despite the numerous disadvantages of virtual versus actual contact, the vast majority of them have stated, with a range of justifications, a clear preference for tele-health.

Some typical comments on their part include:

“I would rather that you see my whole face and I see your whole face, even if we are stuck behind computer screens.”

“Talking to someone who is cloaked by a mask would remind me of some things I don’t want to be reminded of.”

“I need to know what you’re thinking when I’m talking, and I can’t tell what you’re thinking if all I can see is your eyes.”

These observations reveal how much we rely upon observing someone’s full countenance when it comes to determining how to relate to them.

And in this regard, it is interesting that we tend to think of our “face” as the outer layer of our being, and, at times, a mask of sorts, a way to hide the inner layers of our being. We learn how to settle our face into a certain visage which may not be symmetrical with what we are feeling—summoning a counterfeit smile even when things are not going well for us, trying to manipulate others with manufactured tears or a synthetically sorrowful expression that may have nothing to do with genuine sadness or contrition.

Or, our “resting face” may assemble itself into a steadily contemptuous pout or an unwavering grimace that is completely contrary to who we are and how we feel. A line from a story by Yiyun Lee tenderly conveys this: “Behind the cold mask, there was a heart as damaged as theirs.”

Yet the Hebrew word for face—panim—has the same etymological root as the word—pnim—meaning “interior.” In Ecclesiastes (8:1) it is written that, “The wisdom of the person shines in the face.” This suggests that, at least according to our tradition, the external mirrors the internal.

These days, we live much of our masked—physically and necessarily, as a result of the pandemic, but also psychologically, and not quite so necessarily. Elul is an opportunity to experiment with removing the vestigial veils that we have been hiding behind. While we originally donned them in order to protect ourselves and become less vulnerable, we may actually feel less alone and better sheltered when we unveil our true face, the face that, as Buddhist sage Hui-Neng describes as the one “you had before even your parents were born.”

Perhaps it is with this image in mind that Robert Hass concludes his poem, “Shame: An Aria” with these words:

….before she turns to you
The face she wants you to see and the rest
That she hopes, when she can’t keep it hidden, you can somehow love
And which, if you could love yourself, you would

Today’s Questions:
To what extent does your facial expression divulge to others what is inside of you?

When do you notice a mismatch between how you appear and what you are feeling, and what accounts for the incongruity?

What personal mask is most difficult for you to release?

During these months of recommended mask-wearing, what have you found yourself missing when it comes to reading the faces of others, and what do you find yourself noticing that you might not have otherwise noticed if you had full visual access to their face?

Elul Day 10

Aware that the Yamim Noraim are about to arrive, a Rabbi rushes up to the ark, looks skyward, and cries, “Lord, Lord, I am nothing!”  Seeing this, the Cantor rushes up to the ark, looks skyward, and cries, “Lord, Lord, I am nothing!” Seeing this, the custodian rushes up to the ark, looks skyward, and cries, “Lord, Lord, I am nothing.”

At which point the Rabbi leans over to the Cantor and whispers, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”

There is no literature that captures the ludicrous hypocrisy of human nature quite like Jewish story-telling.  Our tradition seems to intuitively understand that just below the surface of our supposedly calm, rational mind lies  a busy traffic in contradictions, as our desperately conflicting impulses rudely collide with each other like driverless bumper cars.  Humility is a quality that regularly provides us with a window into that chaotic traffic.

In “Duties of the Heart”, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda writes, “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.”

But while we all know that trying to be humble is one of the primary traits for us to work on, how do we define it, how do we approach it, and how do we cultivate it? The answer to these questions?  I have no idea…but it’s worth tormenting ourselves for a few moments with some bumper car-like exploration.

From a neuro-psychological standpoint, one might suggest that it is impossible to state, “I am paying attention,” and truly mean it, because the act of announcing that one is paying attention by definition means that one has shifted one’s attention to the announcement that one is paying attention.

Likewise, from a psycho-spiritual standpoint, one might suggest that it is equally impossible to state, “I am humble,” because the very act of declaring one’s humility occludes humility. The “I” commencing that testimony can become so incandescent that the state of humility that we may genuinely be struggling towards can no longer be seen.

Humility, as we saw in the opening tale, can be nothing more than a pretense, an extravagant and paradoxical source of pride and arrogance.  Humble bragging (“I wish I wasn’t such a perfectionist”) and false modesty (“I am  humbled by your words of praise”) are not only off-putting, they are indicators of a losing battle (although a battle, nonetheless) with self-awareness.

But humility can also slide all too easily into its cousin-word—humiliation—revealing and accelerating the deleterious process of self-denigration.  When completely unchecked, humility can induce feelings of worthlessness and become a place we visit in an effort to retreat from feeling entirely alive.  With this in mind, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook wrote that while humility is associated with “spiritual perfection, when (it) effects depression it is defective.”

Contemplating answers to our questions about how to propagate humility obviously depends upon finding a balance between the antipodes within ourselves, narcissism at one extreme and self-debasement on the other.

For now, the best place to start might just be observing yourself, and taking note of when you verge towards one extreme or the other, as we all do.

As part of our cheshbon ha-nefesh effort this month, perhaps we can try to be humble enough to realize that humility can blind us to ourselves, but so can its absence.

I hope that you all enjoyed a restful and restorative Shabbat.

Today’s Questions:

What comes to mind when you think about the words “humble” and “humility”?  What positive and negative associations do these words carry for you?
When have you encountered what you consider to be true humility in another person?  What feelings did that individual’s humility induce in you?

Elul Day 9


The Rebbe lifted his eyes and told him firmly to go ahead with the orphanage, reasoning that, “While perhaps you may not mean this sincerely, the poor young orphans who will eat hot meals and sleep in comfortable beds will certainly do so sincerely.”

The Talmud tell us that every one of us is taught the Torah before we are born.  Its meaning is etched into the intrauterine circuitry of our mind, but upon birth, we become unable to immediately recall it.  Following through on this belief, life can be seen as our ongoing struggle to retrieve and reclaim what we were already instructed by God before we physically entered the world.  We study Torah, take classes, or go to shul not so much to learn something as much as to be reminded of something.

An intuitive sensitivity for our original, omniscient state may be why we all seek a form of moral purity, despite the fact that none of us will ever achieve that state of unwavering, immutable clarity—it is our desire to return to that preconscious state of flawless Being.

In the orphanage story, the Rebbe understands that his disciple’s motivations are not entirely “kosher”—“While perhaps you may not mean this sincerely…”  Yet the Rebbe also understands that there is still value to motivations that have a higher purpose (yetzer tov) even if they are partially spurred by energy that is not entirely rooted in ethical rectitude (yetzer ha’ra).

Moral immaculacy is not a pre-requisite for moral action.  The desire to open the orphanage can be seen as a vivid “remembrance” of one of the Torah tutorials that he learned prior to birth.  While that memory is now contaminated to some extent by “lower”, baser impulses (such as a hunger for acknowledgment and a desire to be well thought of), these, too, are inescapable constituents of human identity.  One way or another, the disciple has clearly not forgotten the original lesson in virtue and it still flickers stubbornly in his soul.

The Rebbe’s response to him is akin to a small puff of air that gently expands the flicker into a flame, one that can compassionately warm the lives of others.

In her poem, “Sheep”, Jane Hirshfield writes, 

…a self in exile is still a self,
As a bell unstruck for years
Is still a bell

We invariably will find ourselves exiled from the holiest nucleus of our character, but Elul is a time when we can consult the maps, steer hard, and begin our return home from that exile, ringing and resonating with our truest, purest pitch.

Today’s Questions:

If there was a fundamental lesson that you can imagine having learned before you were even born, what would it be?  When do you notice that lesson revealing itself to you?

In what ways has your perceived absence of moral (or some other form of) purity kept you from doing something that others would have benefited from? 

Elul Day 8

According to the Hebrew Bible, the Great Flood waters began subsiding, and the mountain tops began appearing, on the first day of the month of Av.  At that point, Noah sends forth a raven, which circled back and forth between land and Ark.  He then sends forth a dove, which flies out but returns.  Following this, on the 18th of Elul, he again releases the dove, which returns with an olive branch in its beak.

And after another seven days, he once more dispatches the dove, which this time does not return, ostensibly because the ground has dried to the extent that the bird has found the organic materials necessary to begin the process of nesting, and creating new life.

Eventually, 57 days after removing the Ark’s covering and witnessing the drying land, Noah and his family and its animal occupants left the Ark, as it was clear that habitable areas and vegetation were now available for all species to once again become fruitful and thrive.

Putting aside for a moment the many confusing chronological, theological and biological questions that arise when reading the story of Noah, I would like to focus for this moment on the fact that tradition holds that, as noted above, it was during the month of Elul that the devastating residual effects of The Flood began to dissipate.

We might envision the sequential bird flights that Noah sets into motion—a bird flying out and returning without bringing anything back, a bird flying out and returning with an olive branch, and a bird flying out and not returning at all—as representative of the ongoing process of cheshbon ha-nefesh this month.

Our initial efforts to account for ourselves during the past year may be like the first bird’s voyage, appearing to entail nothing more than an unproductive flitting back and forth between past and present, returning to “home base” with nothing to offer and nothing having changed.

Our next set of efforts to account for ourselves during the past year may be like the second bird’s voyage, returning from the past but with a sign of hope and compassion that deserves to be carefully studied and considered in the present.

And our succeeding efforts to account for ourselves during the past year may be like the third bird’s voyage—returning from the past not with the goal of  staying in the present but with the purpose of soaring into the future and laying the foundation for the promise of rebirth and renewal in the forthcoming year.  For when we take the risk of searching out and looking into the past, we always find the future.

Elul offers us the spiritual climate in which the enterprise of Teshuvah can once again be born (and borne).  The torrential internal rains have ceased for now, the interior flood waters are slowly abating, and we can deliver ourselves from the captivity of the Ark-of-the-previous-year and begin taking off for unexplored territories in order to determine which of them might be survivable, habitable—or maybe even optimal.

True Teshuvah does not mean escaping our past behavior, denying our past behavior, or even repairing our past behavior—it entails transforming our past behavior, figuring out how to alchemize the previous year’s sins and transgressions, weaknesses and liabilities, into instructional, growth-promoting assets that fuel our growth as human beings.

Today’s Questions:

 Thus far in your personal cheshbon ha-nefesh process, are you more like the first bird, the second bird, or the third bird?

 In what ways do you hope that delving into the past year help you to be different and better in the new year?

Elul Day 7

The desire to actually see someone is not hard to understand, particularly during COVID-19, when one of the most significant public health recommendations is to avoid physical closeness and rely upon virtual contact, even with people who are dear to us.

Sinai:  “I beg you, show me your glory.” (Exodus 33:18).

God responds, “You cannot see My face, for no (one) can see Me and live…(but) I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by, and I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back.”

So many questions come to mind as I consider this encounter, but some particularly vexing ones revolve around the following theme:

 Why does God reject Moses’s request? 

  •  Isn’t God continually frustrated by this stubborn tribe (“How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?”) and their unwillingness to recognize Divine Presence? 
  • Why wouldn’t God relish any opportunity to finally be “seen” by Children of Israel, and definitively put to rest any doubts regarding Adonai’s existence?

One way to explain this enigma might be found in the words of Carl Jung:  “To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them the light.”

Not everything that is seen directly is necessarily seen well, and not everything that is seen well is necessarily well-understood.  Sometimes, we have the best view when we are looking aslant, obliquely rather than directly, or when we pay attention (as Jung noted above) to the shadows that light throws rather than to the light itself.

In fact, from a bio-physical standpoint, we don’t really “see” light at all, we can only witness where light docks, the unique pattern of reflection and absorption that inheres in the atomic structure of what our eyes discern.

Perhaps because the possibility of Moses regarding God in the conventional optical sense is eliminated by God, we are being invited to behold God in ways that depend on lightlessness rather than illumination, to summon a spiritual version of the unique “night-vision” that nocturnal or crepuscular animals rely upon to survive.

Isaiah (59:9) wrote, “We reach for light, yet all we grasp is darkness.”  However, it is worth reminding ourselves that the luminous intertwining of light and darkness is what makes us truly human.  We can use the month of Elul to stumble through our unlit shadows such that our true radiance reveals itself, and we become most open to seeing what is yearning to be seen.

Today’s Questions:

 When have you seen or discovered something important about yourself without intentionally looking for it?

 What might you learn from developing your internal “night vision” and exploring your personal shadows with more depth?

Elul Day 6

           The word Elul, in Aramaic, means to “scout” or to “search”.  As we have been discussing, cheshbon hanefesh—a “scouting out” or a “searching into” our heart, mind and soul—is one of our primary responsibilities during the month of Elul.

            This etymology brings to mind the Biblical story of the Sin of the Spies, in which Moses sends 12 emissaries on a mission to “scout out” Canaan.  10 of the 12 spies become victims of a plague and die in the wilderness.  The transgression for which they are punished in this way is described as being rooted in the decisive conclusion that they arrived at as a result of their surveillance, not as a result of the surveillance itself:  “We cannot conquer this land, it is too powerful for us,” was the fear-based judgment that all but Joshua and Caleb returned to Moses with.

           As Rabbi Simon Jacobson explains, “…they and we have no right to question whether the mission can be accomplished; our job is to figure how to do it, not whether we can or not.”

            During Elul, we, too, are sent on a scouting mission, but with the goal of investigating our private, interior land.  A piercing examination of this world—the bewildering and complicated matrix of urges, ambitions, desires and impulses that account for the choices we make—is a daunting endeavor, one that most of us find ways to assiduously avoid. 

We intuitively understand that looking carefully at ourselves will mean seeing some things we may not want to see.  And it is natural to feel faint-hearted when it comes to considering the possibility, or perhaps even the need, to change what needs to be changed—failure and defeat may seem inevitable.  How many of us have avoided consultations with various professionals (medical, dental, psychological, financial) because we were afraid of what we might learn, what worrisome condition we might be in, what difficult decisions might confront us?

       One way to make this initiative a little less fearsome and intimidating is conceptualizing the cheshbon hanefesh process not as a harsh scrutiny or hostile assessment of who we are, but as a form of personal Teshuvah—a return to who we are, accompanied by the vision of who we might become.

            There is a custom in some shuls to announce, on each day of Elul, Shuvu Bonim Shovivim—”Return, my children, return.”  When we liberate ourselves from the illusion of who we think we are, and realistically examine our lives with clarity and without (much) denial, we arrive at the gates of our personal Promised Land—our authentic selves—and allow ourselves to partake of the bountiful flow of spiritual Milk and Honey.

 Today’s Questions:

What makes you afraid of cheshbon hanefesh, a scouting out of your interior world?

Select a change for the better that you have recently contemplated but have struggled to enact—what are the fears that have kept you from embarking on that change?

Elul Day 5

Chevre,

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is one of the most astonishing and beloved poems in any language.  One of the many ways in which I find it to be so compelling is that while the title literally sounds “self-centered” and solipsistic, its opening three lines immediately send it in a very direction:

 I celebrate myself

And what I shall assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,

From the very start, Whitman is making a powerful poetic (and political) statement.  If all of the atoms that comprise human beings are commonly held, then the supposed differences between us—based on gender, race, degree of privilege, religion—are simply evanescent and immaterial.

I also am struck by his use of the word “assume”, which can mean “to suppose” but can also be used in different ways, such as when we take something on (“assuming” power or “assuming” debt).  So if “what I shall assume, you shall assume”, then perhaps what one requires, we all require, and what one owes, we all owe.

The arrival of COVID-19 has revealed in countless ways the staggering inequities in our society, the gaping chasms that lie between the have’s and the have-not’s.  A more Whitmanesque approach to the pandemic might have enabled us to collaborate and care for each other more effectively, since we would all be essentially affected in the same way, whether we were infected or not, whether we lost our job or not, whether we were working on the front lines or not.  As noted later on in “Song of Myself”:

 I will be even with you, and you shall be even with me…

Atoms do not “belong” to anyone, Whitman insists, and the boundary lines that we are taught to adhere to are perhaps not quite as real as we might have been instructed to believe.

Judaism is certainly a religion that is built on divisions and duality.  We recognize and sanctify separations—kosher from non-kosher, Shabbat from the rest of the week, heaven from earth.  Yet the moral foundation of Judaism insists that we convey compassion to every individual, especially the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the diseased, and others who are in need or lie outside of the mainstream of society.

Such compassion requires us to transcend differences, to lower barriers, and to become more porous and permeable to the pain of others so that we can feel it, as well, which prompts us to act in more robust ways to alleviate it.  A crucial component of the Elul journey is striving to dissolve the artificial boundaries bordering our own heart so that we begin to hear the faint, aching whispers that echo in someone else’s heart.

Today’s Questions:

 To what extent do you notice yourself becoming preoccupied with what you, as an individual, want and need?

 What happens when you attempt to overcome your habitual enclosure of Self and enlarge it to invite in the lived experience of others?

Elul Day 4

Chevre,

One of the most thought-provoking phrases from the Book of Genesis is when God tells Abraham to, “Leave your land, your birthplace, the house of your parents and go to the land that I will show you.”  Generations of scholars have wondered why Abraham’s point of departure is described three times, and in three specific and separate ways, and the point of destination is mentioned only once.

One way to understand this is that a true and genuine departure—one that summons and liberates within us the perseverance, maneuverability and directionality to progress forward rather than to regress, or to digress into hopelessly repetitive circles—requires a comprehensive and in-depth examination of how we came to think, feel and act in the way that we do. In other words, we need to know with as much clarity and precision as possible where we come from in order to know where to go—and how to get there.

In that sense, we can approach the three descriptions of Abraham’s departure point in the following way:

  • To leave “your land” means understanding how the larger forces in your life—your culture, your society, your community, your religion—have influenced how you think, feel and act 
  • To leave “the house of your parents” means understanding how your family-of-origin has influenced how you think, feel and act

 To leave “your birthplace” means understanding how your own interior psychological landscape (which of course is at least partially an internalized version of “your land” and “the house of your parents”) influences how you think, feel and act

 The journey of self-discovery that Elul encourages us to embark upon does not require us to attempt to neutralize, relinquish or jettison these three levels of influence—that is simply an impossible endeavor.

But it does require us to explore with kavanah—with intention—how the ways in which we have habitually been thinking, feeling and acting are profoundly affected by these forces.  This can then become a step in the direction of determining which of these forces promote, and which of them impede, our personal growth and spiritual development.

The American writer James Baldwin, marginalized in profound ways as a result of his race, class and sexual preference, once observed, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Elul encourages us to venture with perspective and free will towards the uncharted land of the upcoming new year by giving us one final chance to map out the uneven topography of the previous one.

Today’s Question:

 Select a thought, feeling or behavior that you have experienced recently that you are uncomfortable or unhappy with.

 Consider (and consider writing about) the genesis of this thought/feeling/behavior in the three contexts that were noted above:

 How it is/was influenced by larger cultural forces

  1. How it is/was influenced by family forces
  2. How it is/was influenced by internal, self-oriented forces

Shavuah tov,

Brad

Elul Day 3

I hope that everyone has enjoyed a restful and restorative Shabbat…

One of the most formidable challenges that I regularly face as a clinician takes place when couples consult with me because infidelity has infiltrated their relationship.  It is impossible to over-estimate the depth of emotional suffering that ensues when hard-won trust has been violated and sacred intimacy has been betrayed.

Many relationships do not survive this gaping tear in their relational fabric, and eventually choose to dissolve the remaining threads that strain to hold them together.  Yet other couples, displaying what I find to be a Herculean level of courage, compassion and care, are somehow able to find ways to repair trust and to reconnect after this kind of painful rupture, many times even growing closer and stronger as a result.

At this point, you might justifiably be wondering, “What does adultery have to do with Elul?”  And I would suggest in response that Elul is the extraordinary story of a betrayal, and the subsequent and ongoing journey towards reconciliation and forgiveness, between two very complicated lovers—the Jewish people and their God.

Try looking at it this way (even in the purely mythological sense).  God helps to emancipate the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt, and, in return for their manumission, the Israelites accept the commandment that they believe in God and forego the worship of other gods. We celebrate their/our encounter with God on Mt. Sinai as Shavuot, and it was at that point that Moses went up to the mountain for 40 days to receive the teachings of the Torah.

39 days after what some might consider to be the most momentous and revelatory event in religious history, Moses comes down to see that the Israelites have broken God’s trust in them by idolatrously building the Golden Calf, which begins the “Three Weeks of Affliction”, culminating with Tishah b’Av, the most fraught and agonizing day in the Jewish calendar.

Seeing the Golden Calf, Moses furiously shatters the tablets that he received from God and returns to the mountain top for 40 days to pray for divine forgiveness.  We commemorate these days as the “Seven Weeks of Consolation” (starting with the Shabbat following Tishah b’Av), which include the remainder of the month of Av and the entire month of Elul.

At the conclusion of Av, Moses returned to the people bearing a second set of tablets of the Ten Commandments, with God having “listened to me this time, agreeing not to destroy you” (Exodus 34: 1-4), but without a divine pardon for the Golden Calf transgression.

On the first day of Elul, Moses went up to the mountain for the third time and remained for yet another 40 days, cajoling and begging, praying to and pleading with God, and on the 10th of Tishrei (which we know as Yom Kippur), 120 days after first ascending Mt. Sinai, God finally granted the Jewish people forgiveness.

So, in this sense, the Elul narrative can be understood as a description of the arc of every meaningful relationship, encompassing the perpetual cycle of disappointment, reconciliation and renewal that inescapably characterizes healthy and enduring intimacy.

And that is why we see Elul as a month of hope, a time to be reminded of the importance, and the possibility, of authentic regret and sincere remorse that are necessary stepping stones on the path towards forgiveness, healing and redemption, and the accompanying recognition of the divine spark that resides in all of us.

Today’s Questions:

 Looking back at the previous year, think about the relationships you have engaged in within which you have broken a promise or violated trust—relationships between you and another person, between you and God, between you and members of our society, between you and our planet, between you and yourself.

 What might you do to begin the process of fulfilling that broken promise or repairing the trust that has been ruptured?

Elul Day 2

Shabbat shalom, Chevre,

The Torah refers to Elul as Acharis Shanah, the end of the year.  Rabbi Leibele Eiger observed that, “God creates beginnings but it is man who creates endings.”

With this thought in mind, it is our responsibility (regardless of gender identification!) as we approach the completion of 5780 to “finish the job right”, because it is usually at the finish line where we reveal our true potential and our deepest desire.  Many a heart-broken sports fan has witnessed favorite teams or athletes take the lead in a contest or a season early on and hold onto until the very end, only to be suddenly overtaken with seconds remaining, and then confronted with a stunning and irreversible loss.  And similarly, we are so often inspired by those who have fallen behind but who never relent, who determinedly summon every fiber of their courage and conviction to overcome the odds and triumph at the last moment.

The month of Elul provides us with the opportunity to make up for whatever ground we may have lost, and wrap up the work of the closing year with diligence and attentiveness so that we can properly start the new year with energy and awareness, so that we experience an internal “victory” despite (and sometimes because of) the defeats that we have stoically withstood during the previous months.

Of course, patiently staying present as we encounter endings is a challenge, because most of us prefer to look ahead and move on, thinking about what is coming next rather than what we are leaving behind.  But if we don’t end a venture consciously, carefully assessing what did and did not go well, it will be more difficult to voyage forth with energy and creativity, and we will also run the risk of repeating the stubbornly maladaptive patterns that may have been  holding us back.

Every experience, no matter how negative, must be fully “owned” and then carefully put to rest if we are going to deliberately and inventively move on with our lives.  It certainly takes initiative and ambition to know how to start a project, but it takes courage and intelligence to know how to end it—and how to end it on a good note.

Locating and sounding that “good note” is one of the most important duties, and one of the most growth-promoting outcomes, of Elul.  It’s not necessarily about finding a happy ending, but more so about discovering the kind of ending that offers the promise of a new beginning.

Today’s Questions:

What are the challenges entailed with consciously completing the previous year and fully owning your successes and failures?

What makes you prone to bypassing a conscious completion and turning your attention too quickly ahead rather than more thoughtfully behind?

Elul Day 1

Chevre,

Tonight begins Rosh Chodesh Elul, the 12TH and final month in the Jewish calendar.  The month of Elul leads up to Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, so Elul both chronologically and spiritually connects the past with the future.

This unique period of time gives us the opportunity to enter the High Holy Days with a “running start” as we begin the process of dedicating ourselves to the process of cheshbon hanefesh (“soul accounting” or “soul searching”), taking stock of the ways in which we have lived our lives during the past year, and creatively considering the ways in which we can draw closer to ourselves, to each other, to our planet, and to God in the coming year.

Those of us who have been to symphony halls to watch piano concertos performed are used to seeing the soloist dramatically take the stage, bow to applause, and then immediately commence playing the featured selection with the orchestra.

But up until the mid-20th century, there was a very different “choreography” prior to the performance.  Most pianists would enter and spend some time doing scales and playing warm-up pieces before readying themselves for their collaboration with the orchestra.

Similarly, many of us are used to simply “taking the stage” on Rosh Hashanah and beginning the 10 Days of Repentance in shul at that moment.  The spiritual practice of daily prayer, reflection, and meditation through the month of Elul, however, provides us with a gentler, more patient and thoughtful passage-way into the Yamim Noraim, raising the likelihood that our journey into and through the Holy Days is rich with illumination, inspiration and a sense of purpose.

I am looking forward to helping to facilitate our congregational journey during this unusual and disquieting time, and to witnessing our collective capacity to grow and evolve as we travel together.

Today’s Questions:

What prompted you to decide to join Oseh’s Elul project this year?

What do you hope to gain as a result of participating?

Below are additional links to external High Holy Day programs.

  • Please check the Reconstructing Judaism website for additional High Holy Day resources at www.reconstructingjudaism.org and ritualwell.org
  • Throughout the month of Elul, join Rabbi Daria, Rabbi Josh and Howard County Rabbis and leaders will share brief  daily video reflections in preparation for the High Holy Days via www.jewishhowardcounty.org/highholidays
  • The Shofar Project leads four weeks of daily practice, inspirational learning and live meditation all focused around Psalm 27 and connecting to our inner refuge as we approach the Days of Awe. See Schedule
  • Mussar Program – six zoom sessions – See Schedule
  • My Jewish Learning, JTA’s partner site, offers free online programs.  See Schedule