It’s Elul: You Have Permission to Change

This weekend we begin the Jewish month of Elul and officially begin the High Holiday season. The holidays themselves are “late” this year in accordance with the Gregorian calendar (they, of course, fall the same time each year on the Hebrew calendar), but no matter when they fall, we get a month warning with the onset of Elul.

With the onset of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, we are meant to formally begin our spiritual preparation. It is customary to blow the shofar each morning of the month as to announce the coming holidays and, just as it does on the day of Rosh Hashanah itself, it is meant to “wake us up” to the spiritual work we are meant to do at this time of year.

And that work, of course, is teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance” but the etymology is from the word “turn.” We turn from our past bad behaviors and turn towards good ones. The work of the High Holidays is not just about atoning for past wrongs, making amends, asking for and granting forgiveness, it is about personal turning, about creating a new vision of ourselves, about making new commitments and doing what it takes to meet them.

In short, the work of the High Holidays is change. And change, as we know, is very difficult.

I came across an interesting article recently about change and the difficulty surrounding it. It spoke about research that indicated one of the things that can help with making personal change is feeling one has the permission to do so. As the author writes,

Seeking approval and external validation is part of the human experience, but when it comes to making a big life change, they can be hard to find. People expect you to stay how you are, to maintain the status quo, to stay the course. And if you get bogged down looking for that affirmation to make a change, you may never make it.

So if we feel we have another’s permission to make the change, then we are more apt to do it. Interestingly, this permission can be very simple. A recent study found that people were happier after making a major life decision if their choice was validated by a coin toss (whether or not the coin toss motivated their decision in the first place.)

The author concludes:

This week, take one major change you’re wanting to make and figure out if the only thing stopping you is waiting for permission. Be brutally honest with yourself. Force yourself to identify what’s standing between you and making that change.

He then grants the reader permission to make that change.

As we enter into the month of Elul, into the season of change, we may very likely find that the only things stopping us from making important change in our life is the affirmation or permission from another. Yet we would do well to remember that we already have that permission–we grant it to each other.

The litugy of the High Holidays is strikingly in the plural. When we come together at the synagogue during the holidays and we proceed to recite the vidui, the confessional liturgy, we rise and say “for the sin we have done before You…” many times, each followed by an enumeration of a transgression.

One way of understanding this is that while we each individually acknowledge our own wrongs, we do so in the context of community. So when we say “we” we do so to allow the individual in community the privacy and discretion to speak their transgressions aloud without standing out.

We also use the plural to acknowledge that while individually we have done some of the wrongs, collectively we have done all of the wrongs, and that the guilt of the individual and the guilt of the collective (and the subsequent atonement) are not always that separate.

But now we can understand the liturgy anew: when we say “we,” we are affirming that “we” want to change. And when we say “we” want to change, we are granting both ourselves and our neighbors the permission to do so. We are saying: we are all in this together, we are all seeking to better ourselves, so let’s support one another in our individual work. We are opening up to the possibility of change, and by affirming it is possible in ourselves, we recognize how it is possible in others. I can change, you can change. We can change.

We give each other permission. And it might just be that permission that allows us to turn the way we wish to turn and give us the strength to do the spiritual work of these most important days.

So as we enter Elul, let us give each other the permission to make the change we wish to make. And then, now that you have our permission, make the change.

“What Do You Have to Declare?”

Anyone who has gone through customs coming from an international trip has had to respond to the following question, “What do you have to declare?” Our government levies taxes and tariffs on particular goods, and tries to keep certain goods out of the country, so the question is meant to elicit an honest response on the part of one entering the country. We must declare the goods that we are bringing back.

My most humorous customs story (well, I don’t have that many) comes from when I was returning from Israel following my year of living there during rabbinical school. I was on my own—Yohanna and Ozi had returned two weeks earlier—and I was tasked with packing up our last things, cleaning the apartment and transporting back to the US the two cats we had adopted.

The process to get these cats ready for travel to the US is a story in and of itself, requiring trips to the vet and other bureaucratic hoops to jump through, including a visit to a “government vet” who sat in a sparsely decorated office in a Mandate-era building who barely looked at my two animals before stamping the requisite papers.customs form

All documents in hand the flight to the US was uneventful, and when the flight attendants passed out the customs forms we were to fill out on board to get us ready to go through customs I dutifully checked off the question about “agricultural items,” since I felt it was the closest language to covering these two living creatures we got from the streets of Jerusalem. (At the time, the form has changed since then.) Handing off my form when it was my turn at the customs agent, he looked it over and asked, “what agricultural items are you bringing in?”

“These two cats,” I replied.

“But you don’t have any fruits or vegetables?”

“No, just the cats.”

“Ok. Welcome home.”

And that was that. I could have been bringing in the most diseased animals onto American soil, but as long it wasn’t an apple, I guess it was ok. (And I never had to show all the paperwork I acquired.) But, I dutifully told the truth and made my declaration.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains another declaration. In the reading, Moses is describing a ritual that is to take place once the Israelites are settled in the land. When they are settled to the point of growing crops, and they have enough crops to bring to the Temple for donation, they are to enact the following ritual as recounted in Deuteronomy 26:

When you enter the land that God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where God will choose to establish God’s name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say, “I acknowledge this day before God that I have entered the land that was sworn to our ancestors to assign us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of God. You shall then recite as follows before God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the God of our ancestors, who heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O God, have given me.” You shall leave it before God and bow low before God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you and your household.

Here then is another “declaration.” (This time of true agricultural products!) One is to honestly assess the first fruits of the harvest and bring them to the Temple as a sign of gratitude. The declaration includes brief retelling of history, of the hardship that it took to get to the point of being able to bring the first fruits. It is only after the ritual that one is able to enjoy the bounty.

We are now preparing to make our own declaration. As the High Holidays come upon us, we are going to need to do our own admission. We must come to terms with the ways we have come up short and have failed ourselves and others, we make firm commitments to improve ourselves in the future. As the month of Elul is drawing to a close, our first task—just as we fill out those customs forms before the plane touches down—is to do an honest assessment of what we need to declare so we will be ready when the holidays come.

And this declaration, like the one in Deuteronomy, requires an honest accounting, an understanding of where we have been and an expression of gratitude for all that we have been able to accomplish. It is only after this that we will be ready for the year ahead.

So, as the High Holidays are almost here: ”What do you have to declare?”

“Welcome Home” to Elul: A View from Camp

I’m spending this week at Jewish summer camp. I have returned this year to URJ Camp Kalsman in Arlington, WA to serve a week as faculty–a week filled with leading services, teaching and engaging with kids during activities. Camp Kalsman is one of the two main summer camps that kids from my congregation attend–Camp Solomon Schechter being the other–and it is nice to go to support them and our greater Jewish community.

But I go for other reasons as well. I find it personally fulfilling to be at camp. I connect with other clergy and educators in the area who are also serving on faculty, I do things that I don’t normally do in my congregational job and I learn about new programs, songs and stories. A recent article about why you should send your rabbi to summer camp pretty much sums it up.

When you come to Camp Kalsman, whether you are a first time guest or returnee, you are greeted with “Welcome home.” That greeting instills a spirit of openness and community–camp is a place you belong, camp is a place that is familiar, camp is a place to which you return. Camp is a place that welcomes you with open arms and support.

 I feel that way at camp. It is also somewhat of a retreat for me to be here. While I’m not totally off the grid and “out of the office”–I do respond to email and am reachable by phone in case of emergency (and close enough if I need to return)–it is a good opportunity to get away to be able to do some reading and thinking. And as I am spending my faculty week now in August during the last week of camp, the time is giving me good time to think about and plan for the High Holidays.

This week at camp overlapped with Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the new month of Elul. And since Elul is the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, it is therefore a time to prepare for the important spiritual work of the High Holidays. During the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the beginning of the new year and the Day of Atonement, we are called upon to self-reflect, do heshbon hanefesh (an accounting of the soul), identify the times we went astray, and make commitments to do better in the future. It is a time to focus on making amends with those we have hurt. This is hard work, and so our tradition teaches that we begin not on Rosh Hashanah, but on Rosh Chodesh Elul.

During Shabbat at camp, we read from and studied parashat Re’eh. The portion opens with the words, “See, I put before you blessing and curse.” Within the context of the Torah, it is an admonition from Moses to the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land. But it is also important words for us to hear. As we read and studied this (I had the opportunity to lead Torah study with the 7-8 graders) Moses is stressing the fact, though we are bound to the covenant, we do have free will. We have the power to choose between blessing and curse. But with free will comes the consequences–we must live with the results of our actions. As the text goes on: if you choose blessing, things will go well with you, and if you choose curse, things will not. We understand that we make our choices and must deal with the results.

The work of Elul is to examine the choices we have made, the results we created, and how that has impacted our lives and relationships. And while difficult and daunting, it is empowering to know that our tradition gives us the means, the opportunity and the support to do this work. The work challenges us, but it is comforting that that we have the ability to do it.

Elul has come upon us again. Welcome home to Elul. For Elul is a time that is familiar, Elul is a time to which we return. Elul is a time that welcomes us with open arms and support.

Pass the Ice Water, It’s Elul

If you are tied into social media, you are probably aware of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It is a viral phenomenon in which people challenge each other to dump a bucket of ice water on their head, in the name of raising awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal degenerative disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Its origins are unclear. According to what I could glean from Wikipedia, there were a series of videos of cold water challenges to raise money for charities, then at some point it got picked up and attached to ALS. It then continued to spread as celebrities, politicians and others got in on the act. The basic idea is this: one is challenged to either dump a bucket of ice water on one’s head or donate money to charity. Once one goes through with it and makes a public video, they can challenge others to do it as well and, in a version, those challenged have 24 hours to follow through.

While at one point it seemed that the water dumping was supposed to be a way of getting out of giving a donation, the challenge has changed and now it is to dump water and give money—it is a way of raising awareness and funds. And it has been very successful: The ALS Association raised over $40 million in July and August alone, which is almost double what it raised in all of last year.

And yes, I got in on the act. I was challenged to do it by Rabbi Cheski Edelman, our local Chabad rabbi. And I enlisted my boys to help me get a bit creative:

The Ice Bucket Challenge is not without its detractors. Some see it as a lazy form of engagement that doesn’t really engage one in the work for social change. Others see it as drawing attention away from other worthwhile causes. Some have more deeper issues with the challenge: that ALS research uses animal testing, or ALS research involves stem cell research, or that doing it in California is problematic because of the drought. Still others kvetch that while raising the money is good what we really need is government support and research grants.

I can’t deny that privately raised funds should go to augment publicly funded research and not replace it. And I recognize that there are philosophical and even theological reasons for shunning an ice water bath. But the criticisms that it is a lazy form of social action leave me cold.

The criticism strikes me as perhaps driven by envy. One of the interesting things about the internet and social media is that we never know what is going to go viral and what is not. (Like an actual virus, how it will spread, who will catch it, are difficult questions for which to anticipate answers.) The Ice Bucket Challenge happened to start out as a small thing, then happened to get connected to ALS, then happened to go viral. And because it went viral fundraising for ALS became tremendously successful. Sure there are other worthy causes. But in this case the stars aligned a particular way, and the result is that millions of dollars were raised for a disease that often goes overlooked. The ice bucket challenge may not have created world peace, but it did a world of good.

What struck me about the Ice Bucket Challenge is the fact that what was going viral in this case was not a silly cat video, or a dance craze, but an act of tzedakah. Yes it was funny and fun, but ultimately it was a mitzvah—a sacred obligation and good deed—being passed along from person to person. A text in the ancient Jewish collection Pirke Avot, “Teachings of our Ancestors,” teaches mitzvah goreret mitzvah, or “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah,” i.e., engaging in one mitzvah conditions a person to engage in another, and then another. In this case, because of the challenge’s public nature, it’s not just the one person doing a mitzvah who is conditioned to do another, but one person conditions another person to do a mitzvah. The mitzvot grow exponentially. With the Ice Bucket Challenge, tzedakah grows exponentially.

This week we have just entered the month of Elul. Elul is the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, and so ushers in the High Holiday season. Once we reach Elul, we begin to do the spiritual work of the High Holidays: looking inward, noting where we have been on our journeys, and noting where we want to go. We acknowledge the missteps we took, we make amends when necessary and we make commitments to do better in the future. This is the work of teshuvah (repentance) that we are called upon to do at this season.

We do not do this work alone. Yes, we have our own individual atonement to make. But we are all doing this work at the same time, and so are joined together in common cause as a community of reflection.

So we can take a cue from the Ice Bucket Challenge. During the High Holiday season we publically declare our intention to improve ourselves and our world. One good deed can inspire others to do likewise. An act of teshuvah can also inspire another to do likewise. Teshuvah grows exponentially. No water required.

The Amalek in Us

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, we are given a long list of commandments, many dealing with issues of economic justice and ethical behavior. The portion ends with the vehement exhortation about Amalek:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt–how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

In the narrative of the Torah, Moses is speaking these words as part of his long charge to the Israelites preparing to enter into the land, a speech which is most of the book of Deuteronomy. The reference is to an episode originally recounted in Exodus 17. In that telling, the Amalekites attack the Israelites as they are marching through the desert. Moses charges Joshua to assemble an army to defend the people against Amalek, meanwhile Moses, Aaron and Hur ascend the top of a hill. During the battle, whenever Moses raised his hand, the Torah relates, the Israelites prevailed, and every time he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. When Moses got tired, Aaron and Hur put stones under his arms so his hands would be uplifted, and the Israelites won the battle.

The text goes on to say however that God charges Moses to write a document saying that the memory of Amalek is to be blotted out for all time.

The story in Exodus does not indicate why the strong condemnation of Amalek, especially since the Israelites won the battle. Indeed the identity of Amalek seems incidental to the narrative which focuses on the bit about Moses raising his arms. Rabbinic midrash understands this story to mean not that there was something magical about Moses raising or lowering his arms, but that when his arms were raised the Israelites looked up and were reminded of what it was they were fighting for and of the divine spirit which was in their midst, and when the arms were lowered they forgot all this and lost morale.

Deuteronomy comes to fill in the gap and teach about why Amalek was so strongly condemned–when he attacked, he attacked from the rear, and thus preyed on those you might expect would be at the back of a long march: the aged, the infirm, the young. Amalek thus went after the weakest part of the Israelite community and for this specifically he is ascribed a particular level of cruelty, and is seen as unique among those who attacked the Israelites. And Amalek is sometimes understood to be the paradigmatic enemy of the Jews and is a figure that has reverberated throughout history, from Haman to Hitler.

What if, though, we don’t look outside to find Amalek, but we look inside?

In this season of Elul, we are called upon to do the work of introspection. We must look within ourselves to identify where it is we need to improve, where it is we need to fix what is broken. We all, by virtue of being human, have those things we need to work on. Some of them will be superficial and easy. Others will be deep down and more difficult.

In going after the Israelites, Amalek took the easy route; he went after the proverbial “low hanging fruit.” For this he was condemned. What if, in relation to our own work of heshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) and teshuvah (repentance), we too only go after the low hanging fruit? What if we concentrate only on those parts of ourselves which are easy to fix, and neglect to take on the more difficult tasks? Will we really have created the change we want? Will we truly become new people?

We have to fight against this instinct of ourselves. We need to fight against the motivation to just focus on the superficial, without going after the deep. We need to fight against the tendency to not tackle the hard issues that we know are there. And like the Israelites, if we raise our eyes and remember that we do have this power to change and are supported by those around us and the divine within and without, then we will succeed.

This is what it means to blot out Amalek, during this month of Elul. To blot out the instinct within ourselves that lets us take the easy way out and prevents us from doing the real work of teshuvah we are called upon to do.

Parking Outside the Lines

File this one under: Really?!

Yesterday when stopping for coffee on the way to the synagogue after dropping Erez at camp I encountered the following car parked on Capitol Way.


If you know me, or at least remember my Rosh Hashanah sermon last year, this type of parking job really gets under my skin. In that sermon, I called out those other parents at my son’s elementary school who don’t pull up all the way to the car in front of them when parking on the city street, thus blocking others from parking and limiting the number of cars. (I didn’t really mean to just pick on other parents. I do see this behavior in other places, it is just I am regularly at the school.)

While clearly not the greatest offence in the world–it doesn’t make it into the 10 Commandments (though I guess a case can be made for “Thou shalt not steal”)–what troubles me about this act, and why I spoke about it from the bimah, is what it represents: the focus on the self at the expense of others. The demonstration of self-centeredness, that this driver is more important than other drivers. The flagrant disregard for communal norms and rules that are meant to govern how we interact with each other.

[At least by the school there are no lines demarcating parking spots. But on Capitol Way there are clearly lines that mark the spots, and this person chose not to follow them. They thus take up two spots, making it difficult if not impossible for another car to park there.]

We are now in the month of Elul–we celebrated Rosh Hodesh(the new moon) earlier this week. The month of Elul immediately precedes the High Holidays; Rosh Hashanah is exactly one (Jewish) month from now. Our most sacred season is upon us.

Rosh Hashanah begins the new year and initiates a time of reflection and self-examination. Yom Kippur, ten days later, is the day of atonement when we intensely focus on teshuvah(repentance): self-improvement, making amends and healing breeches. They are days of intense spiritual energy. Elul, therefore, takes on spiritual significance in that we begin to take on this important work. We begin to think of the ways we need to atone, where we need to improve, when we erred and what we can do to do better. Our tradition wisely gives us a lot of time to focus on this work; we are given a whole month of preparation before the holidays themselves.

To do the work of teshuvah we think about when we have sinned. In Jewish tradition we often talk of sin as “missing the mark.” That is, the wrongs we do are not inherently evil, but rather the places we fall short. We know what is expected of us, we know what we are supposed to do. We set a goal, and sometimes we miss.

The most intense work of teshuvah comes not in the places in which we fail ourselves, or God, but where we fail others. Since our life is lived in relationship, so much of what we do has an impact beyond ourselves. To do teshuvah we need not only identify those times when our actions have negatively impacted others, we need to correct them. And that means reaching out to others, admitting our mistakes and making amends. And pledging not to repeat the behavior.

So here is my new metaphor for the High Holiday season: sin is not just “missing the mark,” but sin is “parking outside the lines.” When we park outside the lines, we fail to recognize that we are part of a system in which we are not the only player, we do not take note that our decisions and actions impact those around us. When we park outside the lines we put ourselves above others, and do not recognize the full humanity of those around us.

When we park outside the lines we need to reassess where we need to go, get back in the driver’s seat and adjust our position.

With blessings for a meaningful, liberating, enlightening Elul.

Soul Kashering

I know we are coming up on the month of Elul and the High Holidays, but I wanted to turn my attention to Passover for a minute.

Passover is a holiday which traditionally requires a fair amount of preparation. The practice over the holiday is not to eat any hametz(leavened products like bread, pasta and so on), but the traditional practice is to not even own any hametz. Some will get rid of all of it [a good time to donate to our spring food drive], some will lock it up in an out of the way place, some will then “sell” it to someone so it is not literally in their possession.

The practice too is to use separate utensils over the holiday. Just as the observance of kashrut involves separate utensils, cooking- and serving-ware for meat and milk products, since the two are not mixed, observing Passover also involves separate utensils, cooking- and serving-ware from the rest of the year. [If you are keeping score, that means some will have up to four sets of everything.]

Wanting to honor the tradition of separate dishes for Passover does not necessarily involve having an additional set however. One can kasher (i.e., make kosher) ones existing cooking and eatingware. (Kasher is one of those great Yinglish words-rooted in Yiddish and Hebrew but used in an English context). One kashers ones pots and pans as well when an accident occurs and a “milk” pot is used for “meat,” for example, or a formally unkosher pot is being converted to kosher use.

According to traditional Jewish practice there are some limitations over what can be kashered and what can not be kashered, but there are ordained processes as to how one does it. And those practices follow the general principle as found in the Talmud: k’bolo kach polto-“as the vessel absorbs so does it rid itself of what it absorbs.” In other words, how something is used is how it is made kosher. So, for example, a cooking utensil is koshered by boiling. A utensil used over a flame or broiler is koshered by heating it up. A utensil that is used for cold food only is kashered by rinsing.

All this to say, the way something becomes kosher again is the way it became unkosher in the first place.

As we enter into the High Holiday season, which formally begins this Tuesday night with Rosh Hodesh Elul, it is time to intensify our process of self examination. We examine the ways we strayed, and we examine the ways we wronged another. We seek to heal the hurts of the past, and we seek to commit to do better in the future.

This Jewish law of kashering vessels is a good one to keep in mind as we approach this season. For we do the work of kashering our selves, our souls. Using the same method to purify something as was used to make it impure is akin to saying that in order to rectify something, we have to truly understand how things went wrong in the first place. To do the work of teshuvah (repentance), we have to directly confront what it is for which we are seeking teshuvah. We need to revisit past wrongs to find a way to make them right. K’bolo kach polto.

[This principle applies in another matter. To revisit the issue of the Co-op boycott again: the response of some boycott proponents to opponents is to say, if you don’t like the boycott decision then get a petition of signatures to put a measure before the membership for a vote. But this response is inadequate, because it would ignore the accountability the board has in making the decision in the first place. If it is to be undone it should be undone the same way it was created.K’bolo kach polto]

The principle of k’bolo kach polto is first and foremost a statement of acknowledgement and accountability. If we don’t know how a utensil is used, we can’t kasher it correctly. And this is the initial step of teshuvah. If we don’t know how we strayed, we can’t make it right. To make amends is to first recognize and admit mistakes, to take accountability for what we have done.

We can not undo the past. But by revisiting it, we take important steps to shaping a better future.