ELUL THOUGHTS FROM RABBI ANNA AND RABBI RACHEL
The Hebrew month of Elul is the month that leads up to Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year. It is traditionally a time of contemplation, of reflection, of forgiveness (both seeking and offering), of preparation for the High Holy Days.
For Elul 5782, Rabbis Anna and Rachel would like to offer some quotes, reflections, resources and thoughts, for each day of the month, to lead us up to Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.
DAY ONE – Sunday, August 28th / Elul 1st – Be Kind to Animals
The Mishnah (Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1) talks of four different New Years in the Jewish calendar: Nisan 1st is the New Year of Kings; Elul 1st is the new year for the tithing of cattle; Tishrei 1st is the agricultural New Year, or the New Year of the Years; and Shevat 15th is the New Year of the Trees. Over time, Rosh Chodesh Elul, Elul 1st, has come to be considered ‘the New Year for the Animals’.
Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim is an important value in Judaism. It literally means ‘the suffering of living beings’, which is something that we are enjoined to work to avoid. From the beginning of the book of Genesis, when human beings are instructed to be stewards of the earth and its creatures (1:26), to the instruction in Exodus 23:5 to help the beast of our enemy in order to reduce its suffering, to the Talmudic dictum (Gittin 62a) that we are to feed our animals before we feed ourselves, Jewish teaching tells us that we must do all we can to prevent cruelty to animals, and indeed do all we can to care for them.
Proverbs 12:10 tells us, ‘the righteous are concerned for the life of their beasts’ and Abraham Lincoln famously commented, ‘I care not for a person’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it’.
This year, perhaps we can ask ourselves the question: ‘What can I do to better an animal’s life?’ Here are a couple of websites about Elul and taking care of the animals:
DAY TWO – Monday, August 29th / Elul 2nd – Sing hymns to the darkness with openness and love.
It is an Ashkenazi tradition to recite Psalm 27 in the morning and evening every day from the 1st of Elul until Simchat Torah (51 days). This tradition seems to have started in the 18th century around 1745. The comforting poetry of Psalm 27 is meant to carry us through the challenging but rejuvenating process of ‘cheshbon hanefesh’, accounting for our soul, that we do during this time of year. Holding us in our vulnerability but, like a loving friend, challenging us to face up to the work being asked of us in this season. The practice is meant to draw us closer to God, or whatever sense of spirituality we may engage with. Could we each add the practice of reciting psalm 27 into our day this Elul as a way of easing our mind, bodies and souls into the High Holy Day season?
Here is a modern translation by Rabbi Yael Levy from Mishkan Chicago,
Here is a setting of the psalm written and sung by Chava Mirel
DAY THREE – Tuesday, August 30th / Elul 3rd – Missing the Mark, lost in translation
Even with the very best translator at work, sometimes when a word is translated, it takes on a slightly new meaning. In Hebrew we use four words that in English we translate as ‘sin’. When we think of sin, we often think of big crimes such as murder, or possibly, breaking Jewish laws that in our Liberal tradition we make informed decisions about so may have made a concious decision not to follow in a traditional way anyway, for example the laws of Kashrut. Using the word ‘sin’ in English can limit our understanding of what the High Holy Days are asking us to asses. Instead, let’s look at the Hebrew words used during this time. (Taken from page 164 of Machzor Ruach Chadash by Louis Jacobs).
- פֶּשַׁע – pesha, meaning rebellion. When a person puts themselves as the soul judge and has no external standards of right or wrong. Whatever is good to them goes no matter what Jewish law or Civil law has to say.
- עָווֹן – avon, meaning to be ‘crooked’, something that seems to be an inherent or developed trait in a character that seems to impell a person to do wrong.
- עַבֵרָה – averah, ‘to pass over’. Averah is the opposite of Mitzvah, the good dead. It comes from the root that means to pass over the line of what is right and is considered a transgression against God’s law.
- חֵטְא – cheyt, ‘to miss the mark’. This is the most common term for sin used in our High Holy Day liturgy. The word Chet is the same term used when an archer misses the target. It is a word that represents those moments in life when we unwittingly just get it a bit wrong.
The first three definitions of sin may not be relatable to everyone whereas that fourth definition, missing the mark is something that we all do and makes all of us human. In recognition of that, every year we’re given the opportunity to look back and consider those places where we just got it that bit wrong, and allow ourselves to make amends, draw a line under it and start a fresh for the New Year.
DAY FOUR – Wednesday, August 31st / Elul 4th – Love Means Knowing How to Say ‘I’m Sorry’
The Rabbis of old noted that the first letters of the well-known four-word phrase from Song of Songs 6:3, ani l’dodi v’dodi li, ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’, spelt the word, Elul (aleph-lamed-vav-lamed).
Jewish teaching would disagree with the line in the film Love Story, ‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’, and say ‘Love means knowing how to say, “I’m sorry”’ – and knowing how to accept those words, ‘I’m sorry’, from another.
The month of Elul is a wonderful opportunity for us to seek to reconcile our relationships, so that we can lighten any burden we may carry in that regard, as we go into the New Year.
DAY FIVE – Thursday, September 1st / Elul 5th – Making amends
Mishna Yoma 8:9 teaches us that repentance on Yom Kippur does not attone for any sins we have committed with another person, unless that has been solved with the person initially. We are encouraged to use the month of Elul and of course, the ten days between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur to make amends with anyone we may have hurt over the course of the year. In Maimonides’ halachic work, Mishneh Torah, Teshuva 2:9 he explains that a person must try to make amends with a the person they hurt three times. First the person must right any wrong (eg. give back borrowed money if that is the problem), then beg for forgiveness. If the burt person chooses not to forgive, according to Maimonides, the person must come with a committee of three friends to implore for forgiveness again, if the hurt person still will not forgive, the person must bring a second or even third committee of friends but if there is no forgiveness after that, the sin is then upon the hurt person who will not forgive. These texts teach us that it is upon us to make right the misdemeandors we’ve had with other people and sitting and praying in shul will not rebuild those relationships. At the same time, we learn that there is only so much we can do to try and make amends whilst it may be sad, sometimes where forgiveness is not given, when suitable means have been taken to seek it, we are told it may be time to move on to allow both people to heal.
DAY SIX – Friday, September 2nd / Elul 6th – How to Keep on the Right Path
In Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) 2:1, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi comments: ‘Keep three things before your mind’s eye, and you will not come into the clutches of sin: Know what is above you: a seeing eye; a hearing ear; and all your actions inscribed in a book’.
What is Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi saying here? His words are clearly not meant to be taken literally. However, if we always act as if we are being observed (and – we might imagine – by a force greater than us, that is benevolent, compassionate, and wants us to be the best we can be), that can help keep us on the right path.
DAY SEVEN – Saturday, September 3rd / Elul 7th – A time of joy.
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: There were no days of joy in Israel greater than Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur” (Mishnah, Ta’anit, Chapter 4). It is often surprising to hear that this time of year, which is often considered so heavy, can be thought of as a time of joy. Walk into any book shop and you’ll be able to buy gratitude journals and mindfulness guides by the bucket load. These books are recommended as a way to help us stay in the moment and have been proven to increase feelings of contentment and happiness for those who use them. While they may seem like a practice of the 21st century, Judaism (and other cultures) have been doing such practices for centuries. The words of prayer we’re instructed to wake up to “modeh ani l’fanecha” – I am grateful to you, the daily blessings in our morning liturgy, and this opportunity we have during the High Holy Days to take stock of all we have in our lives, the chance to analyse what brings us joy and what we might not want to take with us into the New Year. Famous home organiser Mari Condo tells us not to keep anything that doesn’t bring us joy. The soul searching, cheshbon hanefesh of this season allows us to tap into our personal joys and what brings us meaning in our lives so that we can try and rid ourselves of everything else.
DAY EIGHT – Sunday, September 4th / Elul 8th – T’shuvah – Repentance
Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol once said: ‘There are five verses in the Bible which constitute the essence of Judaism. These verses begin in Hebrew with one of these letters, taf – shin – vav – bet – heh, which spell t’shuvah, the Hebrew word for ‘repentance’. By exploring the meaning of these five verses, perhaps we can come to a greater understanding of what t’shuvah means for us. The verses are:
|ת||‘You shall be whole-hearted with the Eternal your God.’||Deuteronomy 18:13|
|ש||‘I have kept the Eternal One beside me always.’||Psalm 16:8|
|ו||‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’||Leviticus 19:18|
|ב||‘In all your ways, acknowledge God.’||Proverbs 3:6|
|ה||‘Walk humbly with your God.’||Micah 6:8|
DAY NINE – Monday, September 5th / Elul 9th – This too shall pass.
While there does not seem to be any reference to it in early Jewish literature, the phrase, גם זה יעבור meaning this too shall pass was attributed to King Solomon by some sources and is found in Persian folk law from the 13th century. The story goes that King Solomon was asked to find a ring that could make a happy person sad and a sad person happy. Everyone thought the task was impossible until King Solomon produces a ring with the words “gam ze ya’avor” – this too shall pass, on it. A reminder in moments of great sadness that the feeling is not permanent and in moments of great happiness we must savour the moment as that too shall pass. Rather than thinking of it as a phrase that makes a happy person sad or a sad person happy, maybe “this too shall pass” can be words of comfort and love and a reminder of the impermanence of everything for better and for worse.
DAY TEN – Tuesday, September 6th / Elul 10th – The Sound of the Shofar
It is traditional for the Shofar to be sounded on every day of Elul, except Shabbat and the day before Rosh Ha-Shanah. The great scholar, Saadia Gaon (882-942), gave ten reasons for the sounding of the Shofar during the High Holy Day season. Each is to remind us of an important idea or event:
- Rosh Ha-Shanah is also celebrated as the beginning of creation. We mark the celebration by proclaiming the sovereignty of God – God as Ruler of the whole universe.
- The Shofar serves as a reminder to turn to God; to stir the people to repentance.
- The Shofar reminds the people of the revelation at Mount Sinai.
- The Shofar reminds us of the words of the prophets.
- The Shofar reminds us of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, since the armies of this destruction sounded trumpet blasts as a battle cry.
- The blasts of the Shofar cause the human heart to tremble. (Amos 3:6)
- The Shofar reminds us of Isaac’s sacrifice, since a ram was substituted for Isaac as an offering to God.
- The Shofar reminds us of the Day of Judgement (Yom Ha-Din).
- The Shofar will herald the coming of the Messianic Age and the redemption of Israel.
- The Shofar reminds us of the resurrection of the dead and the eternal life that awaits the righteous.
Do any of these ten reasons resonate with you? In what way? Can they be helpful in preparing ourselves for the upcoming High Holy Days?
DAY ELEVEN – Wednesday, September 7th / Elul 11th – A loud awakening
Every year, at this time of year, many people return to Alan Lew’s book ‘This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.’ This book takes the reader on a spiritual journey from Tisha b’av right through to the closing gates at the end of Yom Kippur. It acts as a mentor and guide for the journey our souls go on during the High Holy Day Process. Here is an extract from Rosh Chodesh Elul:
‘Suddenly you are awakened by a strange noise, a noise that fills the full field of your consciousness and then splits into several jagged strands, shattering that field, shaking you awake. The rams horn, the shofar, the same instrument that will sound one hundred times on Rosh Hashanah, the same sound that filled the world when the Torah was spoken into being on Mount Sinai, is being blown to call you to wakefulness. You awake to confusion. Where are you? Who are you?
Then you remember. In exactly one month, one revolution of the moon, you will stand before God. What will God see on that day? What will you see? This encounter can carry you significantly closer to the truth of your life. Standing in the light of God, you can see a great deal more than you ordinarily might, but only to the degree that you are already awake, only in proportion to the time and energy you have devoted to preparing for this encounter… The horn blows to usher in Elul, and it is blown every morning of the month of Elul as well, lest we forget and slip back, lest we surrender to the entropic pull of mindlessness… (page 64 – 65).
(You can buy a copy of the book here.)
DAY TWELVE – Thursday, September 8th / Elul 12th – Two Truths in My Pocket
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa taught, ‘Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be, “I am but dust and ashes” and the other, “For my sake the world was created”’.
I love what this saying teaches about humility. If we get above ourselves, we take out the first, and if we are too down on ourselves, we take out the second.
Life, as Dr. Seuss once commented, ‘is a great balancing act’ (Oh, The Places You’ll Go!). Finding the balance between humility and pride can be a fine line to walk, but our tradition encourages us to seek that balance. It is good to know our own worth – though that can put us in danger of becoming arrogant and full of pride – and humility does not mean that we have to imagine that we are less worthy than we really are. Pride, arrogance and self-satisfaction leave little opportunity for growth and improvement. True humility gives us room to grow, to learn, to gain wisdom, to develop courage and dignity, to gain and to give respect and love. ‘The effect of humility,’ we read in Proverbs 22:4, ‘is awe of the Eternal One, wealth, honour and life’.
DAY THIRTEEN – Friday, September 9th / Elul 13th
A well known folk tale tells how an old man used to draw water from the well and carry it back to the Temple in Jerusalem every day. He’d carry two buckets slung on a pole across his shoulder. While one of his buckets was in perfect condition, the second had holes in it and would leak all the way up to the temple, leaving it half empty at the top.
The leaky bucket was sad that it was imperfect and water was leaking from its sides. One day, on the way to the well, the leaky bucket plucked up enough courage and spoke to the man saying:
“I am sorry that I am imperfect and could not keep the water from sprinkling through the holes on my sides.”
The man smiled slightly and nodded his head knowingly, and silently in acknowledgement.
When at the well, he drew the water and filled up the two buckets as usual.
On the way back to the temple, the man said to the leaky bucket, who was very quiet.
“Look to the side of the road where the perfect bucket passed over. It is barren. Not even a blade of grass grows here.”
Pointing to the blooming flowers on the other side of the road, the man said to the leaky bucket,
“See these beautiful flowers? These are here only because of the water you sprinkled on them everyday. They owe their existence to you, and we are able to enjoy these beautiful flowers, only because of you.”
We learn from this story that it is our whole selves and not just our shiny bits that are what make us who we are and what bring beauty to this world. Just as the Israelites were told to keep both the broken and complete tablets in the mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert and just as Chinese pottery is mended with gold. As Leonard Cohen said in his famous son, Anthem,
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Let’s remember that, and be gentle to our whole selves as we take stock this year.
DAY FOURTEEN – Saturday, September 10th / Elul 14th – I SEE YOU
Have you seen the film Avatar? The story is set in the mid-22nd century, and people from Earth, having decimated their own reserves of the precious mineral, unobtanium, have gone to the planet Pandora to mine it there. This activity threatens the indigenous Na’vi tribe, a blue-skinned, humanoid species (in Hebrew, incidentally, Navi means prophet). On Pandora, the Na’vi live in harmony with nature, and they worship, or celebrate, a biological unity of their planet and all its life-forms, called Eywa (itself a jumbled form of the ineffable Hebrew name of God, the Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh that we call Adonai), and the Na’vi are specially focused on great trees that are the most sacred centres of their lives.
For many reasons, I find this film meaningful and deeply spiritual, and have seen it more than once. One aspect of it that particularly struck me, each time I saw it, was the greeting that the Na’vi people make to each other when they meet. ‘I see you’, they say. ‘I see you.’ In those three simple words, there is an acknowledgement of the other, a real ‘seeing’, a moment of understanding and empathy, a ‘knowing’.
If we were to do that in our encounters with our loved ones, what difference would it make, do you think?
DAY FIFTEEN – Sunday, September 11th / Elul 15th – IS IT TOO LATE TO APOLOGISE?
A few years ago I stumbled upon a book called ‘Why won’t you apologize’ a book about the art of apology and how bad most people are at it. Harriett Lerner, a Clinical Psychologist and author of the book breaks down the dos and don’ts of a good apology and how to approach conversations where we hope the other will right the wrongs they have done to us. At this time of year where we’re encouraged to analyse our relationships and make amends Lerner’s book offers crucial food for thought and advise on how to go about those conversations. She gives insight as to where so many of us mess up our apologies. Here are Lerner’s ‘5 ways to ruin an apology’;
- Following up your apology with a ‘but’. A ‘but’ in an apology can undo the sincerity of what you are apologising for, invalidate the person’s experience and cause hurt once again.
- ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’. Apologising for a person’s feelings is not apologising for your actions that caused them to feel that way.
- The mystified apology – ‘look what you’re making him do’. A child snatches a toy and the other child starts tantrum and hitting their head against the floor – ‘look what you’re making them do’ the apology is not for the toy snatching but for the actions of the other child.
- Intrusive apology – eg. apologising to a victim in order to aleviate your own guilt but they may be threatened by your reappearence in their life.
- An apology that demands forgiveness.
How do we grapple with our apologies at this time of year? A proper apology can heal relationships while a poor apology, even when our hearts are in the right place, can have the opposite effect.
DAY SIXTEEN – Monday, September 12th / Elul 16th – IF NOT HIGHER…
One of my favourite Jewish short stories is ‘If Not Higher’, by I. L. Peretz. In brief, this is the story… Every year as Rosh Ha-Shanah approached, the Rabbi of Nemirov would disappear. Where could he have gone? The villagers assumed that he must go up to heaven. There is much to do before the High Holy Days. A stranger appears, a cynic, determined to find out where the Rabbi goes. He laughs at the suggestion that the Rabbi goes up to heaven. He hides under the Rabbi’s bed and follows him. Very early in the morning, the Rabbi changes into the clothes of a peasant, steals out of the village, takes out an axe and chops down a tree, which he cuts into logs and then into sticks. He goes to a small, broken-down shack, and knocks on the door. It is the home of a poor, sick Jewish woman. He arranges the wood, lights the fire, makes sure the room is warm, and recites his prayers.
The story goes that the cynical stranger became a disciple of the Rabbi of Nemirov and, whenever a fellow disciple commented on how the Rabbi ascends to heaven at that time of year, he laughed no more. On the contrary, he added, very quietly, ‘If not higher’.
Study and prayer are important, but it’s what they move you to do that’s holy. It is our actions, rather than our beliefs, that hold utmost importance in Judaism.
DAY SEVENTEEN – Tuesday, September 13th / Elul 17th
In Genesis 32 we read the story of Jacob’s name change. He’s on route to meet Esau, the brother who he tricked. He’s nervous and does not know how the meeting will go. The text reads that a man fought with Jacob until it is nearly day break. As the sun begins to rise the man tells Jacob to let him go. Jacob replies, ‘not until you bless me’. So the man renames him Israel – one who wrestles with God. as he had wrestled with God and human beings and prevailed. From there we get the Israelites, the descendants of Israel but there’s another way of reading it. In their teaching about the shema student rabbi Jericho Vincent translates the first line of the shema in the following way,
Shema yisrael – listen God wrestlers.
Not only are the Israelites, are we, descendents of Jacob by name but it can also be read as a description, or maybe an invitation. Jews, Israelite,s are God wrestlers. We unpack every word of our texts, question our teachings, grapple with understandings of God and spirituality and wrestle with connection and meaning throughout our engagement with community. Each time we hear Israel in our liturgy, let it be an invitation to continue our wrestling with whatever it is challenges us until dawn break.
DAY EIGHTEEN – Wednesday, September 14th / Elul 18th – THE STAGES OF T’SHUVAH, REPENTANCE
The Hebrew word t’shuvah is derived from the Hebrew root shuv, ‘to turn’ – the implication being to turn to God, to turn to the best in ourselves. T’shuvah is an integral element of Judaism, and the fact that God accepts repentance is considered to be one of God’s greatest gifts to humankind.
In his Mishneh Torah, ‘Laws of Repentance’, the great mediaeval scholar, Maimonides argued that the essence of repentance involves three stages: acknowledging the transgression; feeling contrite because of it; and resolution not to repeat it.
You could say that there are five stages of t’shuvah, five ‘Rs’ of repentance: Recognition, Remorse, Rejection, Restitution and Resolution.
Recognition: recognise that we have done something wrong, acknowledge and accept responsibility through confession and the following four ‘R’ stages.
Remorse: feel regret because of our actions.
Rejection: reject the action for which we need to seek t’shuvah.
Restitution: seek forgiveness and, where possible, make restitution.
Resolution: resolve not to repeat our misdeed. True repentance for a wrongdoing means that we do not repeat it when the opportunity arises.
We cannot undo the past, but we can change the direction of our future. We can do that by trying not to repeat our mistakes. As our tradition teaches us, ‘the gates of repentance are always open’.
DAY NINETEEN – Thursday, September 15th / Elul 19th – THE REST IS COMMENTARY
We may all have learned that the golden rule in Judaism is ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ but this is contested in a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ben Azzai that is found in Sifra Kedusha and the Jerusalem Talmud;
Rabbi Akiva says that ‘love your neighbour’ is the guiding principle of Torah, whereas Rabbi Ben Azzai argues saying that infact the guiding principle of Torah is that aall humanity is descendant from Adam and Eve and made in God’s image.
The argument lies in how universal the Torah’s teaching stretches. If the guiding principle is love your neighbour, then one could argue their neighbour to be just the people who surround them. In many societies, and particularly when the Talmud was written, peoples’ neighbours would have been the similar to them whereas Ben Azzai’s approach is more universal. All humans are descendants of Adam and Eve and even more so, all humanity is created in God’s image. If we understand Ben Azzai’s principle to be the guiding precept of Torah, then Torah in a nutshell teaches that all of humanity holds within them divinity and we should treat everyone we encounter as such. The rest is commentary.
DAY TWENTY– Friday, September 16th / Elul 20th – A FEW HOLDS
Hold on to your hand when you are about
to do an unkind act.
Hold on to your tongue when you are just
ready to speak harshly.
Hold on to your heart when evil persons
invite you to join their ranks.
Hold on to your temper when you are
excited or angry, or others are
angry with you.
Hold on to the truth, for it will serve
you well, and do you good throughout
Hold on to your virtue – it is above all
price to you in all times and places.
Hold on to your character, for it is
and ever will be your best wealth.
DAY TWENTY-ONE – Saturday, September 17th / Elul 21st – Beyond the Words
Over the course of the coming festivals we say so many words. Prayers repeated over and over again until the words almost become mantras, go beyond meaning. 13th century Persian poet, Rumi writes;
The Soul of Prayer:
Jalalu’l -din was asked, ‘is there any way to God nearer than the ritual prayer?’ ‘No,’ he replied; ‘but prayer does not consist in forms alone. Formal prayer has a beginning and an end, like all forms and bodies and everything that partakes of speech and sound; but the soul is unconditioned and infinite: it has neither beginning nor end. The prophets have shown the true nature of prayer…Prayer is the drowning and unconsciousness of the soul so that all these forms remain without. At that time there is no room even for Gabriel, who is pure spirit. One may say that the one who prays in this fashion is exempt from all religious obligations, since they are deprived of reason. Absorption in the Divine Unity is the soul of prayer.’
Whilst our machzor offers us structure, there is no right or wrong or formulaic way to pray because the language of the soul is beyond form. Ritual is important but it’s finite and formulaic prayer is also finite. As we sit in the many words of prayer over the course of the High Holy Days, we’re given a strange but necessary tension between trying to structure and make sense of our prayers as opposed to recognising that prayer is infinite and spontaneous and has no form because ultimately the words and ritual are an attempt to connect to divine unity.
DAY TWENTY-TWO – Sunday, September 18th / Elul 22nd – THE HUMAN INCLINATION
We learn in Genesis 1:27, that human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God’. How do we reconcile that concept with the less than noble behaviour demonstrated by some of our ancestors – and by some human beings throughout history, and in the world today?
A little later in the Torah, after the flood, God, vowing never again to destroy the world because of the actions of human beings, acknowledges that yetzer ha-adam ra mi’n’urav, ‘the inclination of the human mind is evil from his youth’ (Gen. 8:21).
From those two concepts (the image of God, and what appears to be the reverse) comes one of the essential ideas of Judaism – that all human beings have two inclinations – yetzer ha-tov, ‘the “good” inclination’, and yetzer ha-ra, ‘the “evil” inclination’. The aim of the teachings of Judaism is to strive to find some balance between the two, and to ensure that the scales are weighted on the side of the ‘good’ inclination.
I have always felt rather uncomfortable with the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with regard to our inclinations. They are at once definitive and judgemental. The rabbis of old acknowledged that human beings need the yetzer ha-ra – it is what gives us drive and ambition, what leads us to work, build houses and have families. The object is not to eliminate the yetzer ha-ra, it is to tame it, to ‘restrain the blaze in the hour of desire and let it flow into the hours of prayer and service’ (to quote a Chassidic saying).
It might be more helpful and understandable to consider the yetzer ha-tov as the selfless inclination and the yetzer ha-ra as the selfish one. We need both, in order to reach our potential for being good and whole human beings. How often have you heard the phrase, ‘you can’t look after others if you don’t look after yourself’? Rabbi Akiva famously said, im ein ani li mi li, u’kh’she’ani l’atzmi mah ani, e’im lo akhshav, eimatai, ‘if I am not for myself, who am I? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’ (Pirkei Avot 1:14)
So, what does Judaism expect of us? As beings created b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God’, we can try to discern the divine image in ourselves – and in others. We can try to recognise in others the same needs, fears, dreams, hopes and emotions that we experience ourselves. We can endeavour to treat others with the compassion and understanding that is required to follow that great principle formulated by Rabbi Hillel, when he summed up the teachings of the Torah in just eleven words: ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to others’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
DAY TWENTY-THREE – Monday, September 19th / Elul 23rd – Making Space
Hayyim Vital was a disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria who tried to understand the problem of things being able to be created from an all-embracing God. If God is all-embracing then how could there be a God that created things external to themself? (Laenen, 2001, p.167) Hayyim Vital explains Luria’s solution to this with the concept of Tzimtzem.
… When it arose in the Ayn Sof’s simple will to create worlds and produce emanations to bring to light the perfection of the divine acts, names and designations – which is the purpose of the creation of the worlds… the Ayn Sof then concentrated, tzimtzem, itself in the central point in the actual centre of that light,,, it concentrated the light and removed it on all sides from around the central point. Then there was an empty space, a complete vacuum from that actual central point…’
Before the world was created instead of there being nothing there, as people often teach, Vital describes that all existence was filled by an infinite light, not a literal light but the energy of Ayn Sof: the all-encompassing God that no words in language can appropriately describe. In order for there to be space for creation to take place, the energy of Ayn Sof withdrew, leaving an empty vacuum. When reading this text I could not help but think of Yom Kippur and the yearly gift we are given: to remove our minds and bodies from the energy of the outside world in order to create a deeper understanding of ourselves and a closer relationship with God and our communities. The power of the Ayn Sof was too great for the four worlds – hane’etzalim, hanivar’im, hayetzerim and bena’asim – to be created. But by withdrawing from the space, Ayn Sof both gave space for those worlds to be created and spread energy throughout all of them. When we withdraw ourselves from the living world on Yom Kippur and refrain from normal day to day activity including eating, washing and working, we give space for our minds to reflect and for some of the energy of Ayn Sof to be present to give us the strength and motivation to be judged and be ready start afresh for the new year ahead.
DAY TWENTY-FOUR – Tuesday, September 20th / Elul 24th – 48 HOURS…
One of the items on my ‘bucket list’ was to visit Pompeii, and I was thrilled to finally go there. I spent a day in Pompeii, and half a day climbing up Mount Vesuvius, all the way up to the crater with its wisps of steam and sulphur smells. The size and state of preservation of Pompeii was amazing – you could feel the impression of a whole town – and it left me in awe of the power of the eruption that devastated such a huge area of land.
Soon after that trip, I read Robert Harris’s bestseller, Pompeii. The story begins two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in the year 79 CE, and describes the devastation through the eyes of Attilius, the engineer in charge of the aqueducts and provision of water to the city.
There were clear signs of volcanic activity leading up to the eruption, but no one had the knowledge to read the signs accurately and so attempt the evacuation of Pompeii and the surrounding countryside. Without warning, Mother Nature unleashed her most violent and dramatic fury on the area, causing, as we know, widespread destruction and loss of life.
There is no spoiler alert when we read the book, because we know what happens in the end. In fact, the power of the novel lies, in large part, in the fact that we know what is about to happen, while the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum remain blissfully unaware. Had they been warned that, in 48 hours, they would face inevitable death, I wonder how they would have reacted. What they would have chosen to do in the last two days of their lives? If, God forbid, we were to face a similar situation, what would we do? How would we react?
DAY TWENTY–FIVE – Wednesday, September 21st / Elul 25th – Souls collide
Maimonides outlines three stages of dying. In the first stage, a person dies but their soul survives outside of the body. At the end of days, the body will be resurrected and the soul reunited with its body. Then, after a long life in the Messianic age, they will have their second death. In the final stage, the soul ‘basks in the presence of the shekinah’, and there lasts for all eternity. As well as this teaching, our morning and evening liturgy is inspired by Talmudic ideas of what happens to our souls while we sleep. In the evening we recite the words of Hashkiveinu, ‘Let us lie down, O Adonai our God in peace and let us rise up [to life], O our Sovereign, to life. Spread over us Your canopy of peace.’ Then in the morning, we awake and say the words of ‘modeh ani’ thanking God for the return of our souls, followed by Elohai n’shema shnatata bi – God, the soul you have given me is pure. This liturgical pattern reflects conversations of the Rabbis in Talmud Brakot 57b where it is taught then when we sleep, we experience a 60th of death. It is taught that during our sleep our souls ascend to heaven, to be rejuvenated and to be returned to us in the morning. With Maimonides’ teaching in mind, could that mean that every night we can imagine that not only do our souls get to bask in the light of the shechina (the presence of God/spirituality that can be felt by humans) but also that in that ascent, we can imagine that we also get to connect with the souls of those loved ones who are no longer with us?
DAY TWENTY-SIX – Thursday, September 22nd / Elul 26th – RELIGION? WHAT FOR?
It is sad that religion so often gets a bad name. We hear too often of the most evil acts being committed in the name of religion. Mostly, it is when so-called ‘religious’ followers use – or abuse – religion as a tool to advance their own perverted aims – often political aims – that religion gets such a bad name. It is not religion that is at fault: like a knife in the hand of a murderer or a surgeon, it is how it is used and applied that makes all the difference. We should never lose sight of the countless unseen acts of goodness and kindness that are ‘committed in the name of religion’. They, sadly, do not generally make the news.
What does the word ‘religion’ mean? Interestingly, there is some dispute about its origin. In ‘The Etymology of Religion’, Professor Sarah F. Hoyt of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, posits at least three origins: the first derives from the Latin relegere, ‘to read again’, the second, also from the Latin religare, ‘to tie, bind’, and the third from the Old English reck, ‘to heed, have a care’. Each of these three possibilities clearly has some merit. In time, the word came to mean a recognition and loyalty owed to a higher, unseen power.
How would we define religion? I would say it is a way of discerning an ultimate order in the universe and in our lives, and a means by which to work out our role and place in that order, and derive from it goodness, joy, comfort, meaning and purpose. At its heart, religion is about creating a structure of meaning in our lives, and engaging in the struggle for a better world. It is about wrestling with the enigma of our existence.
The Jewish yearly calendar is brilliant in that regard, giving us many moments to explore what Judaism means to us, and how it can give meaning to our lives. The month of Elul and, of course, the High Holy Days, are golden opportunities to do just that.
DAY TWENTY-SEVEN – Friday, September 23rd / Elul 27th – ON CONNECTION
The blurb on the back of poet and author Kae Tempest’s book ‘On Connection’ says, ‘connection is the first step towards any act of acknowledgement, accountability or responsibility. It offers, whether fleeting or long-lasting, a closeness to all others. It is jubilant. Ecstatic. Without fear.’
Tempest’s deeply honest short book makes a case for the role of creativity, in the broadest sense of the word in human connection and furthermore, the reason why that connection is essential to the human condition, and has been so lacking in modern times. They write, ‘creativity encourages connection. And connection to true, uncomfortable self allows us to take responsibility for our impact on other people, rather than going blindly through life in a disconnected buzz of one day into the next, taking what we can from every encounter with no further thought possible than my survival, my kids’ survival…’ Kae recognises that creativity is just one way of reaching these levels of connection and notes that anyone who has ever meditated, prayed or studied the stars (…) has also tapped into such connection.
The High Holy Days offer us a time to release ourselves from the day-to-day drudgery of life. The prayers in the machzor, whether taken literally, or as poetry, or ignored to leave space for meditation, or used as repetitive mantras, allow us to go beyond the words on the page and find a place of connection with ourselves, with each other and with the universe. To return to Kae Tempest’s words, they say, ‘I must know myself outside of what I produce because who I am has nothing to do with what I am capable of generating, what I fail at or what I achieve. Everybody fails. Life itself is a failure: eventually, it ends. That doesn’t make it any less powerful.’ The High Holy Days give us this rare opportunity to take a snapshot away from the focus on what we can produce and allows us to get to know ourselves again on a deeper level.
DAY TWENTY-EIGHT – Saturday, September 24th / Elul 28th – ON FORGIVENESS
Eminent psychologist Dr. David Kupfer has researched the effect of forgiveness on people’s physical and emotional well-being. He writes, ‘Forgiveness is the path from hurt to healing, from anger to peace. Why forgive people who have truly hurt you and treated you unfairly? Because forgiving them will make you healthy and happy. Letting go of resentment is good for your heart, both emotionally and physiologically… Centuries ago, the Buddha said, “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.”
‘What is forgiveness? It is giving up hurt and anger that you may be entitled to have and hold. Forgiveness does not imply denying that you were mistreated, or forgetting your pain. It does not mean that you condone being hurt, or that you will stick around to let yourself get hurt by the same boss or friend that just finished hurting you. It just means that you have committed yourself to learning without unnecessary suffering. One definition, written by Jack Kornfeld, is that “forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past”.’ (See http://www.davidkupferphd.com/forgive.htm)
Forgiveness can be so very hard, and resentment sometimes so very difficult to let go. But we damage ourselves when we hold on to past hurts. Forgiveness is the path to healing ourselves, and empowering ourselves.
DAY TWENTY-NINE – Sunday, September 25th / Elul 29th – EVERY LIFE IS LIKE AN ENTIRE WORLD
After we hear the final Shofar blast on Rosh Ha-Shanah we read the text ‘hayom harat olam’. Although our translation reads ‘today is the birthday of the world’ it actually means ‘today the world is being created.’ There are disagreements in Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 10b as to when the world was actually created but Midrash Vayikra Rabbah goes further, breaking the day down hour by hour;
It was taught in the name of Rabbi Elazar: on the 25th of Elul the world was created… We thus find to say: on Rosh Hashanah, at the first hour, God thought [to create humans]…at the third hour, God gathered the dust [used to create Adam]; at the fourth hour, God moulded this dirt [to the shape of Adam]…at the seventh hour, God blew into his soul. At the eighth hour, God brought [Adam and Eve] into the Garden of Eden. At the ninth hour, God commended them concerning the fruit of the tree of good and evil. At the tenth hour, [Adam and Eve] violated God’s command [and ate from the prohibited fruit. At the eleventh hour, Adam was judged. At the twelfth hour, Adam was pardoned. Said the Holy One, blessed be God to Adam: this is a sign for your children–just like you come before me in judgment and I have given you a pardon, so too will your children come before Me in judgment and I will give them a pardon.
In just one day, the day of Rosh Hashanah, the first humans went through a full process of birth, formation, rebellion, judgement, repentance and redemption. On this midrash Rabbi Mark Greenspan writes,
Imagine thinking of our lives in this way. Each moment has infinite potential. Just as every life is like an entire world, every moment is like an eternity.
This midrash and its interpretation empower us to take control, to take each day as it comes and to take our own part in the world that still, today is being created.