AN INVENTORY OF THE SOUL
First, before we can really look deeply into our own souls, we must find the ways that we can begin that process, we must each identify the methods and techniques that help us look within. We might ask ourselves the following questions:
• What helps me identify my successes and my failures?
• What makes it easier for me to let go of my own anger towards those who have hurt me? What helps me to forgive them?
• What gives me the strength to ask for forgiveness? How do I do that?
• What helps me to allow myself to be forgiven by others?
• What helps me to allow myself to forgive myself?
• What have I done well in the year that is ending? What have I done this year that makes me feel proud?
• What have done not so well in the year that is ending? How can I do better in the coming year? What must I change – in my actions, in my reactions, in my inner self?
• What are my truest and most fundamental values? How do I live in the coming year in a way that is most consistent with those values? – in my actions, in my reactions, in my inner self?
• What is most important to me about my life –
— as a Jew?
— As a spouse or partner?
— as a parent?
— as a child?
— as a sibling?
— as a friend?
— as a co-worker?
— as a human being?
How can I live in the coming year in way that most enriches and deepens me in these different aspects of my life?
Reflections for Elul – in anticipation of the year 5783
written and compiled by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Ph.D.
ELUL: אלול: אני לדודי ודודי לי — ani l’dodi v’dodi li 1
“I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.”
Who is “my beloved?” – usually we think in romantic terms – intimacy – a lover.
I suggest that the beloved is the Holy One, and the Holy One within us — ourselves! Elul is a time to come back to the wholeness (and the holiness) of ourselves, to love ourselves so much that we seek to heal our broken parts, that we seek to mend the fissures with others, that we seek to be at one with the One. These days are, when each morning the shofar is sounded as a wake-up call, we are meant to stir ourselves to the sacred work of renewal in all the four worlds of body, mind, emotion and spirit. Each day as the shofar wails its whole and broken notes, we are to listen, listen, listen with our heart’s song 2 to the stirrings of our own hearts. Let us listen well.
When the Holy One spoke to Abram and told him Lech Lecha,” 3 take yourself and go to a Land that I will show you, Abram set out on a journey to a terra incognita, an unknown land. As we begin our Elul journey, let us explore the new “lands” of the spirit and soul to which we will journey in this month. What territories of the heart do we need to travel through to prepare ourselves for the great Days of Awe that will be upon us soon?
Elohai neshama sheh-natata bi tehorah hi. . . “My God, the soul that you have planted within me is pure.” On this day, may I see the good and the godly that is within me, and when I am disappointed in myself, may I seek ways to live up to my best essence. May I also see the good and godly that is within others, and when I am disappointed in others, may I seek ways to discern the best essences of others.
Nachamu, Nachamu ami – “Comfort, take comfort, My People. 4 ” The first week of Elul is part of the seven weeks of consolation, which began with Tisha B’Av, and the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. It is a time when the prophets like Isaiah comforted the people and promised that God’s love would return to them. In difficult times, we too, can take comfort in God’s love manifested in myriad ways — in the love of our family, friends and even in the loving glances of strangers. We are never alone. May I remember to seek the comfort and love of those all around me. How can I learn better to give and receive comfort?
In the Aleynu prayer, concluding most services, we accept responsibility to work for the healing of the world — l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai — for “healing the world through the majesty of nurture.” 5 In this month of Elul, let us be students of nurture — let us learn how to nurture ourselves, others and the planet better. How can we become more accomplished nurturers?
There is a Hassidic saying that “there is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” Let us explore our own broken hearts – what wounds must we learn to live with, and from what afflictions of body, spirit or soul can we heal?
Shabbat is here once again! When the sun sets, I will be enveloped in an embrace of supernal love. Carter Heyward once wrote: Love is a conversion to humanity…the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life.” May I learn to dance on this eve of Shabbat and feel both Divine and human love in its full depth.
“Join a community. Only in this way can your work be made universal and eternal.” [Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch] What communities have I built for myself? On Shabbat, we are meant to spend time in community – in synagogue, with family, with friends. What do I need from community, and how can I offer the best of myself to my community? In what ways can I deepen and enrich my sense of community? In the coming
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” So taught Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Let us ask ourselves: What amazes me on this day?
“In the future, we will have to account before the Creator for all the pleasures that we wanted to enjoy, were permitted to enjoy, and had the opportunity to enjoy, but didn’t.” (Rabbi Zechariah – Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin, end of chap. 4). In enjoying my life, my ability to face adversity is strengthened. Elul is a time to love myself, to face adversity and inner challenge and take account before our Creator. Let me try to enjoy life more and face those challenges which I must face with strength.
Rabbi Lewis Eron once wrote: Here are snipped parts of his beautiful poem:
Rosh HaShanah never comes at the right time;
It is always too early or too late.
Rosh HaShanah always comes before we are ready
To put aside our past and lay our burdens down.
Rosh HaShanah always catches us by surprise.
Showing up with a Shofar blast
So we stop, turn and listen
To the arresting voice within and around us…
May I listen to the “arresting voice” within me. May I listen deeply, and may the lessons I hear teach me well, so that I may act on their truths.
The world you live in and the life you lead can be either Hell or Heaven. It’s totally up to you. In first-century Israel, during the violent and oppressive rule of Rome, the Israelites asked Ruchumai: ‘Rabbi, where is Paradise?’ He replied: “Here.” (Sefer Ha-Bahir, Mishnah 31) What will my attitude be in the New Year? Will I live in Heaven or in Hell?
“I offer thanks to You, Sovereign Source and Sustainer of life, Who returns to me my soul each morning faithfully and with gracious love.” — Morning liturgy. Each morning, an observant Jew wakes up with words of gratitude. In this time of Elul, let us awaken and do a cheshbon nefesh (an inventory of the soul) about what we are thankful for and let this list stay with us during the day. When we remember our gratitude, it is easier for us to sustain the big and small challenges of the day, and endure them, and walk into the New Year with a sense of purpose and thankfulness. What are we grateful for on this day?
Shabbat will soon be with us! Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, taught (after the teaching of Rabbi Elliot Ginsberg) that we should intend to cast from ourselves the otherness in which we dwell most of the time. When we put on our Shabbos garments we then draw upon ourselves an additional level of holiness. Reb Zalman continues: “The lawyer or broker who wears jeans on the Sabbath is making a statement about resting. [She] has taken off [her] professional role and donned clothes in which [she] can loaf at [her] ease. Others might put on special garb to enhance the delight of heart, mind, and soul. . .” 6 Dress in your most Shabbat-celebratory clothes! If I am in ‘formal’ clothes all week, I will dress down! If I am in ‘casual’ clothes all week, I will dress up! On the Days of Awe, we dress in special clothes as well – I will make garments my delight in the holy days and in the holy spark within myself!
“It is good to thank The Holy One, and to sing to God’s celestial Name! To speak in the morning of God’s kindness and Her faithfulness in the night!” (Psalm 92) — if I “let go and let God” on this day, I can truly relax, and delight in the joy of a day of true replenishment of body, mind and soul. I can become a playful being, a soulful being. What a gift indeed is Shabbat!
We are taught in the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Bava Metzia 58b): “If a person is truly penitent and sorry, one must not say, ‘remember your former deeds.’” Do I have trouble “letting go” of old hurts? Do I have difficulty forgiving and putting past events aside? Do I stubbornly remain locked into the past? What inner work must I do to be able to release the past into the past and accept God’s gift of the future?
Naomi Hyman wrote: “Why do we find the names of the daughters of Zelophohad listed not once, but four times? This is to teach us that when we speak up for ourselves we claim the right to name the world as we see it. And we would add: we name the world as we would want to see it. In these troubling times, may I envision a world filled with abundant justice for women, men, people of color, people of all genders and people of all economic stations — and may I work every day to bring this world to reality.
Sometimes I feel bored, even jaded with life. I think, as Ecclesiastes wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” And then I read the words of Reb Nachman of Bratslav: “Every moment is a new beginning, every act is your very first. Never regard your action as if it were the second or fourth or hundredth, but always as if it were the very first time you have ever done it.” (Likkutei HaMaHaRaN, Ch. 62:5-6) 7 I wake up! My mind sparkles with a newness, a freshness, a small but palpable rebirth! May I learn this lesson as I take each step in this New Year!
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that “love is a verb.” “How do you love people? You do things which don’t necessarily benefit you…In this sense, every favor can be the beginning of love or at least its repair. Each favor is a gift of self that says ‘You mean more to me than me. It may not understand your motive; it is enough for me to know that you desire it.’ In these days of Elul, I will resolve to offer more love into the world.
There is a Jewish teaching that God created the world a hundred times before the one in which we live. It’s kind of like our own selves. We invent and re-invent ourselves all the time. May the “self” I invent this year be authentic, honest, loving and caring. May it be true to my best essence. So help me God.
When you encounter an obstacle to your journey toward God, know that God is hiding within the obstacle waiting for you” (Reb Nachman of Bratslav, Likkutei HaMaHaRan, Ch. 115). (Included in op. cit., p. 166) When I encounter obstacles, I need to remember that I have the capacity to overcome them and that God is with me. I need to put one foot in front of the other and face the challenge(s) confronting me. Together, God and I will prevail.
Teach me my God, a blessing, a prayer
On the mystery of a withered leaf
On ripened fruit so fair
On the freedom to see, to sense,
To breathe, to know, to hope, to despair.
Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praise
As each morning and night
Your renew Your days,
Lest my days be as the one before
Lest routine set my ways.
— Leah Goldberg, Israeli poet
How can I bring the blessing of Shabbat “non-routine” into the regularity of my weekdays and bring the quiet thoughtfulness of Shabbat into these Elul days?
The poet Adrienne Rich once wrote: “To say yes over and over, to our integrity, we need to know where we have been, we need our history.” As Jews, as human beings, we must examine our histories — and seek to heal what must be healed and redeem what must be redeemed. Without our histories, we are rootless.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 32b), we read: " Four things must be done with zest: Torah study, good deeds, prayer, and one’s daily task. [Talmud Berachot 32b]
What have I done most zestfully in the year that has passed? What might I do to enjoy life more fully? How do I integrate my Jewishness, my humanity, my spirituality and my professional life in a more healthy and organic way. so I can rise up each morning able with sincerity to say "Ma tov chelki!” How good is my portion (in life)?
The Jewish poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker writes: “I tell my students that they must write what they are afraid to write; and I attempt to do so myself.” To Ostriker’s words, I would add, we must try to live in ways that we are afraid to live — with absolute honesty, integrity and wholeness. This is often difficult to achieve. The great Days of Awe call us to this task.
Diane Arbus once said, “My favorite thing is to go where I have never been.” This applies to the most profound parts of one’s spirit and one’s soul. Elul calls us to delve deep.
A Hassidic teaching: Reb Zusya of Tarnopol was being pressured by his colleagues to make a certain decision, to act in a certain way, which went against his own best instincts. This is what he said in response: “When I come to the gates of Heaven and stand before the Holy One for judgment, God will not ask me, “Why were you not more like Moses?” The Holy One will ask me, “Why were you not more like Zusya?” Elul and the Days of Awe call us to authenticity.
As I enter Shabbat this week in Elul, I remember that Shabbat is “a taste of Olam ha-ba (the world to come) and may I remember yesterday’s reflection – and pray on this day, when I can taste a redeemed world, at Shabbat’s end, of my commitment to work for that world.
When the first humans approached the first Shabbat, they did not know that the world would not end. They feared darkness and death — and then at the end of Shabbat a new day dawned and the world continued – Life continued! On this Shabbat, may I experience rest and regeneration and may I prepare myself, in this last week of Elul for the continued deepening of my contemplation of personal repair and tikkun haneshamah (healing of the soul) as I approach the great Days of Awe.
With the New Year, we have a chance for newness within our heart, a newness that can change the course of our lives. But change is often frightening, and sometimes we are not sure that we are indeed ready for it. “What will this new heart be like?” we wonder. “How will this purified heart change the persons we are?” “Will the very structure of our lives change as our spirits are renewed?” So much uncertainty comes with change. As we stand at the threshold of a New Year, we pray for the valor to face uncertainty, the courage to truly change what needs to be changed, and the faith to welcome the new spirit that is within us.
— Rabbi Leila Gal Berner
SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU!