23rd Elul “I am wrong. I was wrong, I will be wrong again. I am human

23rd Elul  31st August

Most of us find it hard to admit to being wrong. We have what is known in psychology as “error blindness”

This may be because we have long internalised that making an error demonstrates our incompetence, or inadequate morality, or even our stupidity, so we prefer to be blind to our own mistakes and often double down on them rather than acknowledge them.

We know that “to err is human” – that as a general principle human beings are fallible, we make mistakes. We know that learning follows a pattern of getting things not quite right until we get them right. But as individuals, we tend to take our own subjective position and weave stories around the inconvenient parts until we can defend ourselves and what we “know” to be right.

Kathryn Shulz asks in her Ted talk “On Being Wrong” “how does it feel to be wrong? The answers show an interesting disconnect – people will generally say “it feels bad, or embarrassing or uncomfortable”. But these are not answers to the question – instead they are answers to the question “how does it feel when you realise you are wrong?”.  When we are wrong, and haven’t realised it, we simply don’t notice. We assume it is the fault of the other person that they disagree with us. And because we assume there is a problem with the other, then we find it hard to connect with them.

Shulz argues that our ability to see things other than with complete objectivity is inherently human. We expect something to happen, and if something else happens we either don’t notice it or we generate stories about it that keep our expectation safe. We bring forth our own reality and so stay in our comfortable space.

 “For good and for ill, we generate these incredible stories about the world around us,” she says, “and then the world turns around and astonishes us. . . . If you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step out of that tiny, terrified space of rightness, and look around at each other. And look out at the vastness and complexity, and mystery of the universe and be able to say, ‘Wow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

If we really want to rediscover wonder, we need to step out of our tiny space of being right, and look around us. Notice what else – and who else – is there. Notice other realities. Be able to say “I might be wrong” without any of the judgemental aspects we are often so afraid of.  Owning our mistakes can take us to wide new spaces, open us up to experiences and understandings and relationships we may otherwise think unimaginable.

Our liturgy for this time contains a number of ritualised confessions. Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu – I have been guilty, I have betrayed, I have stolen, I have been hypocritical…..  Maybe we should add another vidui line – “I was wrong, I am wrong, I will be wrong about so much – and now is the time to stop defending my view and think about it again.

22nd Elul

Yizkor: Instructions for Remembering


Remember the blessings of those who no longer walk this earth.

Remember each name, each life-story.

Remember on behalf of those whose memory fails.

Remember with love the sweet and the bittersweet.

Remember with forgiveness the hurt and misunderstanding.

Remember with insight so you might experience deeper meaning.

Remember through the pain until you can touch joy and find comfort.

Remember through dreams left unfulfilled and choose one to fulfill.

Remember through your heart.

Remember through your actions.

Remember through living with kindness, generosity and forgiveness.

Remember by planting memories and helping them take root in the living.

Remember by opening your heart even if you thought it was closed forever.

Remember to live your own life as a blessing.

Remember to do all this.

Remember and you will be remembered.


~Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi

21st Elul

Elul 21   29 August

“I am not immortal.

Whatever I put off for later

May never be.

Whoever doesn’t know now

That I love them

May never know.

I have killed time.

    I have squandered it.

            I have lost days…weeks…

As a man of unlimited wealth

Might drop coins on the street

And never look back.

I know now, that there will be an end,

A limit.

But there is time

Valuable and precious time

To walk,



Time to touch,



To warm the child

Who is cold and lonely.

There is time to love

I promise myself…

            I will.

I am

I am ready

I am ready to give

I am ready to give and to receive

I am ready to give and to receive love”

This poem is part of a longer work by Leonard Nimoy, published in 1973

Suggestions for reflection

With the limited time we all have on this earth, what are the most important things for you to have done?

Are you ready to give love – to others and to yourselves?

Are you ready to receive love – from others and from yourself?

Is there something you can decide to do in order to show more love to yourself or to others?

20th Elul – relying on God’s mercy

Elul 20 28th August

Leil Selichot

Leil Selichot ( the night of penitential prayers in preparation for the Yamim Noraim)occurs after nightfall this Saturday evening.

This service is usually said on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, although it may be done on the Saturday evening the week before if Rosh Hashanah is early in the week. Then there are selichot services on the following early morning throughout Elul.

Selichot are prayers which ask for forgiveness (you may be used to hearing the word “selicha” – please or excuse me – in Israel). A major theme of the selichot service will be the repeated recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, derived from the biblical verses Exodus 34:6-7 – Adonai Adonai El Rachum v’Chanun,  Erech apayim v’rav Chesed v’Emet. Notzer Chesed la’alafim, Nosei Avon v’fesha v’hata’a v’nakeh” _ The Eternal, The Eternal, God of mercy and grace, slow to anger and filled with lovingkindness and truth, who forgives iniquity and transgression and sin and who cleanses us of guilt.”

The locus of this verse is immediately after the incident of the Golden Calf, when God had threatened to destroy the people of Israel rather than forgive them (32:10) and Moses had to plead and persuade God to stay with the people. Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) comments that Israel’s sin was so serious that there was no possibility of successful intervention on their behalf, but God was moved  and so appeared to Moses and taught him the Thirteen Attributes, saying “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this (verse) in its proper order, and I will forgive them.” . No wonder then that the selichot services are built around the recitation of this verse, and no wonder that this period, while solemn and reflective in nature is not depressed or fatalistic. The possibility – indeed the fact of – forgiveness from God, is available to us, as long as we do the work of teshuvah, of acknowledging and repairing our mistakes, of resolving to do better in the coming year and making the behavioural changes to do so, of accepting our full selves and moving on.

In Elul we are told, God is close. The doors to mercy and forgiveness are open. And like every journey, it begins with the first step.

19th Elul – spiritual twisties

Elul 19th  27th August

In the Olympics this year, Simone Biles brought a curious word to the world’s attention – “twisties”.

The term ‘twisties’ is the informal name used by gymnasts for a condition of disorientation. It gets its name from the aerial twisting skills gymnasts perform, but far from the graceful and fluid movements we are so used to seeing in top flight athletes, it is essentially a mental block, a disconnect between body and mind so that the gymnast loses their spatial awareness and becomes disoriented.

While it is apparently a marker of stress and anxiety, showing the athlete to be at risk of mental ill-health, it also puts them in danger of physical damage should they fall or land badly. They could – indeed some have – damage spinal vertebrae and nerves, giving them life changing injuries.

Like many who watched I empathised with Simone Biles and applauded her bravery, while barely comprehending either the terror or the danger she was experiencing. But it also left me wondering about what might be called “spiritual twisties”, when we find our soul disoriented from our bodies, our minds dislocated from our daily living.

Jewish tradition teaches that the soul is at some level separate from the body. When the body ceases to live the soul continues in some way. There is a communication and a relationship between the two. But sometimes we have lost contact with what our soul wants or needs as we press on with more worldly goals, or in our search for spiritual closeness to God we may not listen to the demands or requirements of our bodies. We become disoriented and unaware of how we are moving through the world, what effects we are having on others, what consequences we are storing up for ourselves too.  Sometimes we have to stop, take a breath, draw back from our imperatives and give ourselves a spiritual check up. Are we living the best way for our own mental, spiritual and physical health? Are we working in partnership with God for the betterment of our world?  And if not, then maybe take a leaf out of Simone Biles’ book, and stop, reflect, take the time and the care to put ourselves back into harmonious relationship of body and soul.

18th Elul – becoming the owner of a good name

Elul 18  26th August 2021

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer v’Sarah, known as the Baal Shem Tov (or BeSHT) was born on 18th Elul in 1698  and is credited with being the founder of Chasidut.

He was orphaned young and brought up by the community, and while little is known of his early life, there are stories about him going out into nature in order to pray, and he developed a particularly strong emotional and spiritual bond with God.

He worked for the community, as a teacher in the school an as the synagogue shammes (caretaker) and it is said that he became immensely knowledgeable about Jewish texts, studying on his own in his spare time – yet all the time presenting as a simple person rather than as a scholar.

Then, married and established in his home village, he began to study kabbalah, and eventually his reputation as a mystic and a healer spread. He taught a Judaism that was less rigorously intellectually based and more focussed on relationship with, and closeness to, God. It also stressed love of one’s fellow human being and the importance of prayer. There were many rabbis known as Ba’al Shem – literally the master of the name, or people of repute, but only Israel became the Ba’al Shem Tov – the person of excellent reputation.

The folk stories around him, the teachings which were written down by his students and followers rather than by the man himself, make him both very comprehensible and very mysterious. But while  his teachings and his desire to make religion accessible to the ordinary person are powerful and important, I find myself struck now in Elul by the idea of being the owner of a good name.  What do we do to enhance our own reputation and the reputation of our community? What drives us to become Ba’alei shem in our own worlds? And are we sometimes less interested in our reputation amongst those less powerful than ourselves, while focussing on how we appear to those who are more powerful?

17th Elul – the breath of life

Elul 17 25 August

In Hebrew, breath is synonymous with the life force, not just in a mechanistic way, but breath is more than our intake or expulsion of air, it is that which animates us, and signifies the soul.

At the beginning of the book of Genesis we read that “The Eternal God formed the human being  ha’adam) from the dust of the earth. God blew into their nostrils the breath of life, and the creature (ha’adam) became a living being.  Genesis 2:7

And In the book of Proverbs we read:

נֵ֣ר יְ֭הֹוָה נִשְׁמַ֣ת אָדָ֑ם חֹ֝פֵ֗שׂ כׇּל־חַדְרֵי־בָֽטֶן׃

The lifebreath of humanity is the light of the Eternal,  Revealing all their inmost parts.

There are five different words used for the soul – nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah, and yechidah (see Bereishit rabbah 14:9)  The Hebrew language is generally very sparing, relatively few verbal roots expand to mean a plethora of meaning. But here we have five different aspects to our unique human selves.

Rav Saadia Gaon explained the different words thus:

   “ .. When [the soul] is attached to the body, one can see it three abilities: – the power of choice – the power of desire – the power of anger Therefore it is called in our language by three names: nefesh, ruach and neshamah.

 …”nefesh”  has the power of desire,  we see for example the phrase “for the desire of your nefesh” (Devarim 12:20), “his nefesh was satisfied of desire” (Job 33:20).

  And  the “ru’ach”  contains the power of being annoyed and angry, when it says “do not become empty through your ru’ach by getting angry” (Kohelet 7:9), 

 And  the “neshamah” has the power of wisdom, as it says “the ‘Neshamah’ of Shakaai will understand them” (Job 32:8).

    Because of these different traits we might say that that one of them is in the heart and the other in the rest of the body. Rather, all three are in the soul (nefesh) alone. So it became necessary to add more words:  “chayah” and “yechidah”. It is called “chayah” because it lives on account of the Creator, and  “yechidah” because this is unique to humankind.

According to Rav Saadia Gaon, we each have one indivisible soul with different aspects.  We have desire, which draws us towards people and we have anger which drives us away. And finally, we have thought/ knowledge /Wisdom.

With every breath we take, we prioritise one of the aspects – moving towards others or driving them away, or trying to understand or simply waiting for the next breath. But at all times we are unique, and every breath we take is a gift from our creator.

The only real question we have is – how are we using our living breathing selves to make ourselves an our world a better place.

16th Elul – Days are scrolls, and we write them.

Elul 16 24th August

We read in Mishnah (Avot 2:1) “Consider three things that you may not come within the power of sin. Know what is above you—a seeing eye, and a hearing ear, and all your deeds are written in a book”

The eleventh century philosopher Bachya ibn Pakuda framed it slightly differently:

“Days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered”

Record keeping is at the heart of the Jewish tradition. Whether it is the text of bible attempting to record the driving encounter between the Israelite people and God, or the Talmudic obligation to ensure that every child is educated and can read and write. ( Kiddushin 29a see also Baba Batra 21b). The words of the shema, recited in morning and evening services (and often at bedtime too) speak of the requirement to persistently teach and repeat to our children “these words” (Deut 11:19) in every conceivable situation. Moses ensure that all his final exhortations to the community are recorded and kept “Take this Torah scroll and place it to the side of the ark of the Eternal your God’s covenant, leaving it there as a witness. (Deuteronomy 32:26).

We have a great reverence for memory – yizkor; we re-enact the leaving of slavery in Egypt every year at seder, the Sinaitic revelation at every Torah service…We name our children after our beloved dead, we know that as long as a name endures that person will never quite die. We teach b’shem omro, in the name of our teachers, so that even in the grave that person will continue to be a teacher.

In our current world we are exercised by who is following our movements – tracking cookies on websites, gps satellites, how our movements are tracked by telephone towers, facial recognition that then targets ads based on our browsing history – and now of course the putative covid passports. But Jewishly we have always lived with knowing that there is a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a process of divine recording.

Given we cannot go off grid as far as God is concerned, we take heart at Bachya’s statement. We have the agency to create what we want the record to show. We are the authors of our own lives. Every day offers the possibility for us to write what we want to be remembered.

image from Memorial Scrolls Trust exhibit

15th Elul: Which God do you not believe in?

Elul 15 23rd August

A discussion among my colleagues – “What does one say when someone says to you “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God””

One answer – “I always ask them which God they don’t believe in”.

My teacher Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet used to bemoan the fact that so many Jews give up serious Jewish education at bar/bat mitzvah. They had, he used to say, a thirteen year old god. And as they grew and matured, their idea of God was frozen in time, adolescent and unbelievable.

Jews are the people of Israel – literally the ones who struggle with God. We are not required (despite the Maimonidean doctrine) to believe in God. Indeed earliest rabbinic Judaism was not so much interested in what people believed about divinity, but talked instead about shared narratives. Slightly later we have the extraordinary rabbinic midrash on the verse in Jeremiah (16:11) “They have forsaken Me and not kept my Torah”   – “If only they had forsaken Me but kept my Torah!” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 5-7th Century)

Rabbinic Judaism is far more interested in how people behave, in the keeping of mitzvot, in action rather than in belief.

Since the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their ancestral land, Jews are a people who are commanded – who are under a chiyyuv, and obligation – and whose live are traditionally framed by the observance of mitzvot.

Of course the idea of commandments does somewhere require there to be a commander, but while we may have an historic metzaveh in our texts, the doing of mitzvot is in and of itself integral to our religious life. So for example Rabbi David Polish wrote that “When a Jew performs one of the many life acts known as mitzvot to remind themselves of the moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life”[i]  His examples of the lighting of shabbat candles or of sitting at a Pesach seder are some of the examples he gives of our connecting with Jews across the world and across time.  The meaning and purpose of mitzvah for him is in part a way of sharing history and experiences across Jewish people hood, something that strengthens us in the world, and that momentarily allows us to transcend the mundane into the spiritual. 

There are many rabbinic names and descriptors for God. There are ways of understanding God not as a noun but as a verb – we are not tied to a thirteen year old god, some kind of supernatural being to whom we have to speak in stilted and formalised language. My very favourite name for God is “haMakom” – literally “the place”. Not a geographical location but a space where things can happen.

Israel – Jews – are named for struggling with God. Struggling with the ideas, the ethical demands, the behaviours that are required of us to be in covenant with God. The struggle is ongoing. If you find it hard to believe in the God of your childhood, then it is up to you to search the texts and find God with whom you can have a dialogue.

[i] ” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, ed. Simeon J. Maslin [New York: CCAR Press, 1979]

14th Elul – vidui – the acknowledgement we need to hear ourselves say

Elul 14  22nd August

 “The first step towards repentance, which is the most essential and at the same time the most difficult, is confession, or rather the admission to oneself that one has sinned. It is not God who needs a confession from us, for God knows us through and through: in fact much better than we know ourselves. But we ourselves stand very much in need of honest and unreserved confession. It is to our own selves that we must admit that we have done wrong” (Samson Raphael Hirsch)

The Hebrew word for confession is “vidui” coming from the root ידה  the same root that we have for giving thanks/acknowledging and indeed the same root for the name “Judah” from whom we take our own identity.

The verbal form for confession is in the “hitpael” – the reflexive form of the verb. We should be acknowledging to ourselves how are lives are going, adding up the debit and credit columns of our behaviour in the past year, reflecting on who we are and who our best selves might be.

When we recite the endless vidui’s in the coming days and weeks, the generic lists in alphabetical order of sins we may or may not have been party to, it may feel like a ritualised abasement without really touching our deeper selves. That is why it is so important to remember – it is not God who needs our confession or acknowledgment or even our praise – but we ourselves who need to accept and acknowledge our sins of omission and commission, and who need also to acknowledge and accept the good things we have done, and encourage ourselves to do more of the latter than the former.