28th Elul: What are we, what is our life, what are our deeds?

28th Elul September 5th

As the moon of Elul begins to wane, we increasingly reflect on our lives and their purpose. What are we here to do? What is our reason for being?

Jewish tradition tells us that our purpose is to embody the principles of torah, to live lives that demonstrate and fulfil the words of the living God.  And in so doing, in bringing the words and ideas to life in every generation, we become part of the chain of relationship that takes us right back to Sinai and our people’s encounter with God.

The idea that each human being is a kind of living torah – or at least has the ability to become a living torah – can be found in the Talmud (Sotah 13a-b) where a connection is drawn between the two boxes (aronim) that travel with the people of Israel in the desert. One is the coffin of Joseph, whose bones are brought out – as promised on his deathbed – when the people leave Egypt. The other is the Ark in which the stones containing the Ten Commandments are carried, on the instructions of God at Sinai. Both are described as being an “Aron”. So we read:

And all those years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness, these two arks, one a casket of a dead man, Joseph, and one the Ark of the Divine Presence, i.e., the Ark of the Covenant, were traveling together, and passers-by would say: What is the nature of these two arks? They said to them: One is of a dead person and one is of the Divine Presence. The passers-by would ask: And in what way is it the manner of a dead person to travel with the Divine Presence? They said in response: This one, i.e., the deceased Joseph, fulfilled all that is written in this. Therefore, it is fitting that the two arks should lie side by side.” (Sotah 13a-b)

Similarly in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, a halachic midrash on the book of Exodus dating from c135 CE we can read a rather more expanded version of the story:  Moses occupied himself with the bones of Joseph.. …..And, what is more, with (the casket of) Jacob there went up the servants of Pharaoh and the elders of his household, while with Joseph there went up the ark and the Shechinah and the Cohanim and the Levites and all of Israel and the seven clouds of glory. And, what is more, the casket of Joseph went alongside the ark of “the Life of the Worlds” (i.e., the Ten Commandments), and when the passersby asked: What are these two arks? they were told: This is the ark of a dead man and the other is the ark of “the Life of the Worlds.” And when they asked: How is it that the ark of a dead man goes alongside the ark of “the Life of the Worlds”? they were told: He who lies in this ark fulfills what is written in what lies in the other ark. … 13:19:5)

Bachya ibn Pakuda reminds us that days are scrolls, and that what we do in our lives is not forgotten but the consequences live on. But here in these texts we are the scrolls themselves, embodying the living words of torah in our own choices and actions – we are to try to fulfil to the best of our ability the ideals and values of our sacred texts. 

It is notable that the aron of Jacob was accompanied by Pharoah’s servants and his family when he was taken for burial at Machpela, but the aron of Joseph – who seemed to have a much less “Jewish” life was accompanied by the Shechinah. Of course, the journey with Jacob took place before the Sinaitic encounter, although Jacob was the ancestor who most famously encountered God and struggled with God before being renamed so that his very identity became one of a person who engaged in a struggle with the divine.   However it is Joseph, who lived his life on foreign soil, who was less of a struggler with God, who lived apart from his family for much of his life- it is Joseph who fulfils the Torah goals. How so? Could it be that however assimilated, he never forgot his place in the chain of tradition; he brought his children into the fold;  he used his power to prevent mass starvation; he straddled both his old and new worlds, embalmed in the Egyptian manner in order to be taken back home for burial when his people left the country.

What is our purpose in life? It is to be living torah, to embody and act the values of shared humanity. To add our understanding to how the texts are read, to play out in ordinary life the extraordinary ideas in Torah, to build human connection through time.

Albert Einstein asked the question too – his answer, though framed a little differently, is essentially the same as the Talmudic answer:

“Strange is our situation here on earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That [We Are] Here for the Sake of Others… for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon labours of my fellow[s], both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received and am still receiving.” –Albert Einstein in Living Philosophies

27th Elul : coming back to where we started

27th Elul

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with

new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The Jewish year is about continuing our journeying and returning. The very word for year – Shanah – is a Hebrew root that means both to repeat and to change. Our festival prayer book is called a machzor, from the root meaning to return – or to be part of a cycle. The festivals come around each year, inexorably reminding us of how life has and has not changed since the previous iteration, what we have and have not done, who is no longer with us, how we have been impacted by the days and months we have just lived through.

But the cycle is not circular, rather it is spiral. The festivals come and go but each time we are in a slightly different place, a slightly different time, we have moved on in our journey. We cannot bring back past times or lost opportunities, we can only acknowledge the loss and resolve to use the coming time rather better. Yet Judaism connects us to time – both times past and times present. When we celebrate a festival we are sharing the experiences of generations before us as well as those celebrating across the world. Lighting shabbat candles and ushering in the 25 hours of peace is said to give us a taste of the World to Come. Much of what we do in our ritual is about remembering – bringing forth the stories of our past and embedding them in our present.

As we spiral through time we look back at our history, bringing our stories and our memories with us, and we look forward to a future we hope to be part of shaping for the better. And as the new moon of Tishri will be seen in the sky we can see both past and future in its light.

We journey and we return. We bring some of our memories with us – and some of the memories of our people that we have learned to embody. And we leave behind some of the things we need to leave behind, facing a future with the resolve to do differently.

We go away and we come back. We see the places we came from in a different perspective, with different understanding, and we see the places we can go towards differently too. As Pratchett so wisely remarked, “coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving”.

26th Elul

Elul 26th   Friday September 3rd

בְּכָל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַזְכִּיר אֶת-שְׁמִי, אָבוֹא אֵלֶיךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ.
In every place where My name is mentioned, I will come to you and will bless you.

“In ancient times there were holy places.The land of Israel was holy.Holier still was Jerusalem. In Jerusalem the holiest site was the Temple.And within the temple was a place supremely sacred: the holy of holies. Then there’s holy time. There are festivals.Holier still is Shabbat.And holier than that is Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur. The day of atonement. And there are holy people. Israel is called goi kadosh, a holy nation.” Mishnah Kelim 1:6

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism had to face the question – there is still holy time and still holy people, but where are the holy places?

The answer comes from Ezekiel (11:16) who, speaking of forcible expulsion and dispersion from the Land of Israel, offers God’s promise:

וָאֱהִי לָהֶם לְמִקְדָּשׁ מְעַט, בָּאֲרָצוֹת אֲשֶׁר-בָּאוּ שָׁם  
And I will be for them a mikdash me ‘at (a small sanctuary) in the lands where they go to

Wherever we are, we create mini sanctuaries for ourselves. According to the Talmud (Megilah 29a), God will dwell in the holy spaces we create, because they are in place of the Temple: mik’d’shei me’at.  These holy spaces are traditionally study halls, synagogues, and of course our homes. Each of us makes for ourselves a mikdash me ‘at, we can feel safe and be ourselves “at home;  and the holiness comes when we intentionally create the space for it.  Be it lighting shabbat candles or making Havdalah, considering the ethics of the food we cook and consume, having a “Jewish kitchen”, studying Torah, praying…..

This is the second year many of us will be participating in services at a distance from our communities, sitting in our homes in rooms that are not purposefully designed to facilitate prayer. It may be helpful to think about how to make our prayer space more intentionally holy, how to transform the tables and spaces we work from and sit in, so that we are more able to feel ourselves both in the divine presence and also in the company of our community.

Firstly – find a space that is not your usual workspace if possible. Or if it is your workspace move things around a little, clear the desk, put away files.  Maybe put a meaningful tsatske or flowers on the table too.  Place your candlesticks and kiddush cup in your eyeline. On Rosh Hashanah put some honey and apple there, on kippur if you have a shofar, put it out too.  Get your prayerbooks ready and maybe also some good meditative reading (suggested list below)

Put a different cloth over the desk/table, and make your chair different too – you can drape it with some fabric like a scarf.  Then say a blessing over the space to designate it you mikdash me’at  (some suggested blessings are at the end of this post)

Move your computer screen as far away from you as you can, or attach your computer to the TV so that you are not tempted to play with the keyboard etc, and can instead immerse in the experience on screen. Turn off all other programmes and notifications that might pop up on screen while you are participating in the service.

You may also find that if you have a wall hanging on a Jewish theme, or a mizrach, it would help to make the space feel more “Jewish”. You can often download artwork or mizrachim or photos of Jewish interest from the net.

Then it is time to think about yourself. Just as you would if you are attending physical synagogue, consider what you will wear to be festive yet comfortable. Get your tallit and kippah ready and available to wear.

Verses and blessings to help create your sacred space/mikdash m’at:

  מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwelling places, O Israel!  (Numbers 24:5)
  מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה:  אֵין זֶה, כִּי אִם-בֵּית אֱלֹהִים, וְזֶה, שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם
“How awesome is this place, this is the none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. (Gen 28:17)
  כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃
The place which you are standing on is holy ground (Exodus 3:5)
בְּכָל־הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַזְכִּ֣יר אֶת־שְׁמִ֔י אָב֥וֹא אֵלֶ֖יךָ וּבֵרַכְתִּֽיךָ
In every place where My name is mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.  (Exodus 20:21)
וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם
Exodus 25:8  And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, הַמַבְדִּיל בֵּין קֹדֶשׁ לְחוֹל   Blessed are you God who separates between the holy and the ordinary. (Havdalah blessing)  
Blessing for the Household:    

בְּזֶה הַשַּׁעַר לֹא יָבוֹא צַעַר בְּזֹאת הַדִּירָה לֹא תָבוֹא צָרָה בְּזֹאת הַדֶּלֶת לֺא תָבוֹא בֶּהָלָה בְּזֹאת הַמַּחְלָקָה לֺא תָבוֹא מַחְלוֺקֶת. בְּזֶה הַמָּקוֺם תְּהִי בְרָכָה וְשָׁלוֺם Through this gate let no sorrow enter Through this house let no trouble come Through this door let nothing frightening come In this area let there be no quarrelling or conflict In this place let there be blessing and peace.  

25th Elul: building our community together

25th Elul  2nd September 2021

This will be the second year that many of us will not be sitting together with our community as we work our way through this penitential season. We may be alone or in a small group, but the loss of being together with the whole synagogue community, of hearing and singing along with the heartfelt penitential prayers, of viscerally experiencing teshuvah with others, helping each other on the journey – this loss is real.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote – and I am never quite sure if he is paraphrasing a famous theme tune – “Community is the human expression of Divine love. It is where I am valued simply for who I am, and for what I give to others. It is the place where they know my name”

So how do we build community when we are socially distanced from each other? How do we reach out to others, pray with them, call them, feed them, cry with them? How do we enable the sense of belonging that we crave?

One of the mi sheberach prayers after the reading of the Torah and Haftarah, the prayers that invoke God’s blessing on those being prayed for, is the prayer for the community and it is extraordinarily detailed.

We ask for God’s blessing first on the whole of the local community and their loved ones, as well as on the whole Jewish people, but then focus more narrowly  

Those who prepare synagogues for prayer and those who come to pray in them. Those who provide light, and those who provide wine for kiddush and Havdalah, and those who provide bread, and those who give charity to the poor and for everyone who is involved faithfully in supporting the needs of the community……

There is no job too humble, no gift too small, for the community to recognise that without that person/ work/ object they would be far less able to function.

While we are unable to meet in person, it is up to us to keep communities together and functioning. Reaching out to others to see how they are, checking that there are supplies so that everyone will be able to make shabbat and the festivals – and for the wider community that our neighbours and neighbourhood is cared for.

Making community is an active verb. It doesn’t just happen, and it works best when there are many different people involved.   It is for all of us to get involved – as the midrash says: “If someone… says, “Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],” this person destroys the world. — Midrash Tanhuma, Parshat Mishpatim

Soon the new moon of Tishri will be with us and we will prepare for the services of Rosh Hashanah. We may be physically alone or isolated from loved ones. We may feel ourselves distanced from normal community events. We can respond by drifting away or we can respond by making an active choice to create community in whatever way we can.

The mi sheberach  for the community uses an interesting adjective – it speaks of those who create community be’emunah  With faith. It sometimes is a leap in the dark to put in the work to create community, and sometimes the process is discouraging or hard to do. But with all important work if we begin with a belief in its importance, we will find the strength to bring it forth into reality.

24th Elul: Each of us has a voice with which to speak truth

24th Elul 1st September

“Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mt. Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mt. Sinai, young and old, women, children, and infants according to their ability to understand. Moses too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:9)

This midrash, which speaks of God being heard by each person according to their ability to understand, also hints that even if we might disagree with each other, we all somehow hold the same ultimate/absolute truth. 

The Talmud clarifies this Eruvin 13b

Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another. . . For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. [One group] said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion,” and the other said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion.” Ultimately a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: “Both these and those are the words of the living God.”

The word of God emerges in a multiplicity of ways and is understood according to the context and situation of those who understand. But as the Talmud tells us, the disagreements that ensued from different groups having different understandings were held with respect, the groups never separated from each other or put each other on the other side of acceptability. Instead they worked with each other, recorded each other’s opinions, found ways to work with the complexity rather than boil God’s word down to absolute do’s and don’ts.

Rav Kook developed this theme. Writing about the idea that the scholars of Talmud were known as “builders” he said “the building is constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for “these and those are the words of the living God” . . . It is precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends which appeared to be in conflict”

We come from a tradition of rich multi-vocality. And each of us has a voice we must bring to the community, each of us builds our world as we understand the imperatives to be. If we are passive or silent, our voice will be missed, our world the poorer. Speak your truth with respect and with love.

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.

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.

Remember.

~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,

        talk,

            breathe.

Time to touch,

        taste,

            care.

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.