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.

13th Elul – ki tetzei – you shall not remain indifferent

Elul 13  21st August  Shabbat ki Tetzei

Ki Tetzei: You Shall Not Remain Indifferent – The Extra Dimension in Jewish Law

first Posted on September 1, 2014

            Parashat Ki Tetzei contains seventy two commandments, (some say 74: either way the largest number in any Torah portion). They deal with such diverse subjects as the treatment of captives, defiant children, lost animals, birds’ nests, roof railings, divorce, rights of aliens, loans, vows, and protection of works; parental guilt, charity for the poor, regulations for inheritance and fair weights and measures. Many attempts have been made to categorize such laws, but the words of Torah which conclude the duty to return lost property or to keep it safe until it can be restored to its owner – the words lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent (or you shall not hide or act as if you cannot see) seem to me to sum up the ethical principle which underpins these disparate laws most powerfully.

            Way back in the book of Genesis, when Cain says to God “am I my brother’s keeper?” the response from God is “What have you done, your brother’s blood calls out to Me from the ground” – in other words it is made clear to Cain that ‘Yes, we are responsible for each other; we must not remain indifferent to the situation of others, nor hide from their pain, nor avoid seeing their distress. More than that, we have to try to see ahead, to work out the possibilities that our actions or omissions may cause others. We are obliged to consider the effects of what we do upon other people.

‘Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent’ It is a powerful dictum, a motto for every day life. It could have been formulated for our middle class existence, when people talk of compassion fatigue, of undeserving refugees; when we create rational and reasonable explanations for our unwillingness to care about the discomfort in the world we see around us.   Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent – it is an in-your-face moral and ethical requirement, taking us further into our humanity, reminding us that however practical Judaism is, however much a religion of doing, the doing is based on our shared humanity, our striving to reach a fuller and richer knowledge of our Source.

            Nachmanides makes it clear that the mitzvah of returning lost property supersedes any inconvenience to the finder. He reminds us that the mitzvah applies to friends, strangers, and even to enemies. He says “Assist others. Remember the bond of humanity between you, and forget the hatred”. Benno Jacob builds on his commentary, and suggests that the act of helping an enemy by helping his lost animal is itself a means of arriving at reconciliation. But it is Pinchas Peli who crystallizes the heart of Judaism taught in this huge collection of disparate laws – “From the moment one notices an animal gone astray, or an object lost by someone, one must not hide oneself. Whether he is busy with something else, or whether he chooses to get involved, a person is in fact involved, and duty bound to bring the object to his home, keeping it there safely until it can be returned to its owner. While some legal systems require returning or handing over found property to the authorities, none enjoins the finder from ignoring the lost object in the first place.

            Judaism is an infinitely complex way of being. There is no single Hebrew expression to approximate the word ‘religious’ – the use of idioms such as dati (legally observant) or charedi (quaking in the presence of the lord) are recent innovations, and they are not only inadequate and parochial, they distort the essence of Judaism. Judaism is not only about what one does and doesn’t do. It is more than what rituals you keep, or what time you separate. It isn’t lived only in the spiritual plane nor exclusively in the material world, but is rooted in the ethical and the moral. A legal code which tells us to behave properly towards others, to look after lost property even of your enemy, to make strenuous efforts to return that property – this we all understand and appreciate. But that extra expectation, – you shall not pretend not to see or to notice this property – you shall not hide yourself or be indifferent to your surroundings, however inconvenient it might be for you to notice them and therefore to have to respond to them – that is a quintessentially Jewish requirement, a teaching which fully recognises age old human rationalizations or ways of glossing over what we’d rather not deal with.    

            At this time of year, in the month of Ellul, we examine our lives and the things we have done or left undone, affecting people around us as well as affecting ourselves. It is a time when we need to be honest, to stop hiding behind all the good reasons why we didn’t have time to do what we should have done, to stop sliding our eyes away from the pain we have participated in.

Lo tuchal lehitalem- you shall not hide yourself, you shall not be indifferent.   We are not permitted to look the other way, to continue with our lives as routinely as before. Hiding the truth from ourselves and not acting to help others is a direct prohibition. Indifference to our world is intolerable, unethical and it breaches our morality. As we continue the run up to Rosh Hashanah, the annual Heshbon ha Nefesh – accounting of our soul, we need to strip away the pretence, come out of hiding and look clearly and dispassionately at our world and our place in it.

Losing our indifference might be the best thing we do all year.

wiesel indifference


12th Elul

Elul 12th 20th August

Born on this day 1875 in Mikhailovka, Crimea (now part of Ukraine) Shaul Tchernichovsky is considered one of the great secular Hebrew poets of the modern era. As a young boy he studied in Hebrew school, but later attended a Russian school and then studied languages at school in Odessa. He qualified as a medical doctor and was drafted as an army doctor during the first world war.  In 1931 he made Aliyah to Israel.

He was twice awarded Israel’s coveted Bialik Prize for literature and is one of four poets whose portrait appears on Israeli currency (although this scandalised the orthodox establishment). He died in 1943 and is buried in Tel Aviv.

Tchernichovsky wrote on universal themes,  he sometimes attacked what he saw as petty ritual activities, and he was particularly fascinated by Greek themes and also by nature, neither of them traditional Jewish areas – but his poetry embodies belief and hope.

His poem Sachki is one of the most famous and particularly compelling

Laugh at all my dreams, my dearest; laugh, and I repeat anew
That I still believe in mankind as I still believe in you.
For my soul is not yet unsold to the golden calf of scorn
And I still believe in man and the spirit in him born.
By the passion of his spirit shall his ancient bonds be shed
Let the soul be given freedom, let the body have its bread!
Laugh, for I believe in friendship, and in one I still believe,
One whose heart shall beat with my heart and with mine rejoice and grieve.

Let the time be dark with hatred, I believe in years beyond.
Love at last shall bind the peoples in an everlasting bond.
In that day shall my own people rooted in its soil arise,
Shake the yoke from off its shoulders and the darkness from its eyes.
Life and love and strength and action in their heart and blood shall beat
And their hopes shall be both heaven and the earth beneath their feet.
Then a new song shall be lifted to the young, the free, the brave
And the wreath to crown the singer shall be gathered from my grave”.

11th Elul – Yossele the miser and Yomtov Lipman Heller

Elul 11 19th August 2021

On 19th August 1654 the Yom Tov Lipman Heller, a student of the Maharal of Prague and the author of a commentary on the Mishnah (Tosefot Yom Tov) died.  He was a deep scholar of Talmud, but also a keen student of bible, Hebrew grammar, philosophy, geometry, natural science mathematics and astronomy.  He was also known for his integrity and became a communal leader at a very early age.

Besides his great talmudic knowledge, he engaged in the study of Kabbalah, religious philosophy, and Hebrew grammar and also acquired an extensive general knowledge, particularly of mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences. In 1597, when only 18 years of age, he was appointed dayyan in Prague, and served in this office for 28 years, during which period he became renowned for his knowledge and for his integrity. As well as Talmudic commentary, he wrote commentary to that of Asher ben Yechiel, (The Rosh) focussing on prayer and on kashrut and developing the local Prague halachic traditions. He also translated the Rosh’s ethical work “Orchot Chayim” written originally for the author’s sons and embodying teachings to live an ethical Jewish life. Heller introduced the reading of parts of this work into the liturgy of his community and the work is an important part of mussar literature to this day.

His life was not easy – his integrity and his straightforwardness meant that he was not a successful political being nor always a revered community leader, but his character shines through his work and through stories that are told about him. So, for example, we see his response to the persecutions of 1648 being to try to help agunot lose that awful status. And we have the testimony on his death that “he did not leave the wherewithal to purchase shrouds, even though he was the Av Beit Din of Cracow… all this because he never took dishonest money” (testimony of Z Margulies, intro Hibburei likkutim 1715)

The story I find most fascinating is that of Yossele, the Miser of Cracow.  When Yossele, a wealthy man but one who was never seen to give tzedakah or to help the community died, YomTov Heller was asked where to bury him. He decreed that as this man had not supported the community in any way, he should be buried in a far corner of the cemetery away from the places where the most honoured people would be buried. Shortly after the burial however it became apparent that far from being a miser Yossele had practised the highest level of tzedakah – he had given anonymously via third parties so that no-one knew the level of his charitable giving, nor did he know to whom this support were going.  Far from being a miser, he was now understood to be a lamed vavnik. Yom Tov Heller repented his harsh decision and left instruction that he be buried in the same section as Yossele as an act of teshuvah.

His grave is indeed in a remote part of the cemetery in Cracow.

Image of grave by Talmidavi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48824514

10 Elul – praying to be able to pray

Elul 10  18th August 2021

Rabbi Eliezer said “Let a person first prepare their prayer, and afterwards they should worship” (B.Talmud: Rosh Hashanah 33a)

A few weeks ago we read the sidra “va’etchanan”. In it, Moses speaks of his conversation with God, that he pleaded to be able to cross the Jordan and see the land that the Israelites had been returning to the last forty years since leaving Egypt. His pain and disappointment are palpable in the text (Deuteronomy 3:3), God’s answer to him harsh – “Enough, never speak of this again” mitigated only slightly with the instruction “go up to the Pisgah and look around, West, North, South, East. Look well, for you shall not cross the Jordan. Give Joshua his instructions….” (3:27ff)

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev picks up on what seems to be an extra word in the first verse – I pleaded with God at that time leimor (saying/to say) saying that “Moses pleaded (va’etchanan) for the ability to pray, for he needed to speak but was unable to do so.

We don’t know what Levi Yitzhak saw as the impediment to Moses’ prayer, but his reading is powerful. Sometimes we can’t begin to pray.

If prayer seems too hard to do, then begin gently. Look for the words of others that might help you, it can be the traditional prayer book or it can be poetry or songs. Find some music that moves you, that you can lose yourself in and let your mind roam. Set aside a few minutes each day with nothing to do but to be and know yourself as a living being.

Elul is the month when tradition says that God is most accessible. Whatever the impediment to prayer, like Moses we can pray that we can find it within ourselves to express ourselves in prayer.

9th Elul – the relationship between synagogue and commuity

9th Elul  17th August 2021

On this day in 1267 Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides/Ramban) arrived in Jerusalem having been exiled from Aragon after the Disputation of Barcelona. Tradition has it that he founded a synagogue once he arrived, having allegedly found only two Jews living openly there and a ruined domed building which he reclaimed. (This story is in a document purporting to be a letter to his son, though it is a deeply problematic text in many ways).

He is alleged to have written

    “Many are [Jerusalem’s] forsaken places, and great is the desecration. The more sacred the place, the greater the devastation it has suffered. Jerusalem is the most desolate place of all. … There are ten men who meet on the Sabbaths they hold services at their home. … Even in its destruction, it is an exceedingly good land.

The story goes on that Nachmanides decided to rebuild the Jewish community by rebuilding the synagogue as a place where they could come together to pray, that he brought back scrolls that had been hidden in Shechem, and that in just three weeks, in time for the services of Rosh Hashanah, there was a Jewish community to pray in the recreated synagogue.

One should add that Nachmanides was seventy two years old at the time he made Aliyah and then rebuilt a Jewish community.

Whether this ancient synagogue really was revitalised by Nachmanides is at the least questionable, but the premise -that a synagogue builds a Jewish community as much as a Jewish community builds a synagogue-  is an important one.

Many people question whether they should join a synagogue. Often the questions are framed in a transactional mindset – “what do I get from paying my dues?” Rarely do we ask “what does my supporting a synagogue give to enhance my own values?”

Rabbi Paul Kipnes wrote after reflecting on the question he was asked by a former member “How does my being a synagogue member make my life better? This is his response:

I thought about her question a lot and struggled. I’m wondering how YOU would answer. My answer was:

Depends on what you mean by “better”.

If you mean physically healthier, it won’t… Join a gym.

If you mean more beautiful physically, it won’t, go to Nordstroms or a make up artist or…

If you mean richer, it won’t, get a higher paying job.

If you mean more mentally stable, it won’t, go to a shrink.

If you mean more knowledgeable, it won’t, take a class at Pierce.

If you mean… Then go …

But being part of a synagogue allows you to be part of a larger community… of YOUR people.

Being part of a synagogue means promulgating values that your tradition, and you, hold dear.

Being part of a community is like ensuring that your “room” is still there even if you go away to college. You can always come home. Or if you are an adult, you can not show up but we are still here.

Being part of a community teaches future generations that being a Jew matters, even if you aren’t a power user of the synagogue at the moment.

Being part of a community means that there will always be high holy day services for you and the community.

…That you have a place to turn if you are in need.

…That there is always Torah in your community

…That you have a spiritual home.

…That your values are played out through social justice

…That you have a place to go to sing Mi Shebeirach…

…That Israel has an advocate in the community.

…That you take responsibility for the next generation, like the previous one did for yours.

Its not about money, because everyone can join regardless of wealth or lack of money. Its about commitment to community.

We live in a world that speaks of consumer values. What do I get if I pay. Judaism is a people/religion/nation/culture/ethnicity/more that transcends that, asking what will being part of a community do for OUR world, ALL people, OUR people, OUR community. That’s how I think and its how I want my children to think.

If it is how you want to think, come home. If not, home will still be here for you if you ever decide you want to come home.

(Oh, and Judaism, synagogue and community can make you more beautiful because you feel better about yourself when you are spiritually centred. You will be richer because you will have enriched your life and those of others. You will be smarter because you will be able to partake in 5000 years of Jewish knowledge. You will be mentally more stable because you will have adjusted the balance of the mind, body, spirit. Of course all this presupposes that not only do you join but you also connect in and come.)

So, that’s my answer. The shofar’s in your court…