I’ve been reading blogs and reflections and meditations and emails galore as we start Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. This time from Elul 1 through Yom Kippur is another one of our forty day periods, a gift the rabbis offered us as a time to concentrate, really focus on our spiritual review. Now, in the days of social media, it seems like everyone is contributing to this process or bein
g encouraged to contribute. Jewels of Elul, Art of Meaning, Prepent – I sent links to these this morning. But there is also #Elulblog and more. Rabbi Yakar down in South Lake, my mentor rabbi George Gittlemanin Santa Rosa are both blogging – a veritable explosion of meditations on spiritual accounting. So much so that I am having trouble focusing on my own thoughts. It feels so noisy.
And so I have to withdraw a bit, because the process – cheshbon hanefesh – literally accounting for our nefesh or soul – is my favorite time of year. This spiritual accounting, spending some real time looking at our souls, at our behavior, at what has gotten trapped in us, is a particularly Jewish practice, a deeply spiritual one, where we look at ourselves and where we are in the small circle of our lives and the larger circles of our community and the larger world, however we define it. But as the Sfat Emet taught
, it all starts with looking at ourselves. If you don’t clean your vessel, he noted, you are unlikely to have much of an impact on anyone else.
I want to share a teaching I just learned from R. Alan Lew (z”l)’s book, Be Still and Get Going. He teaches that when someone asks us any question soliciting our opinion on anything – our favorite color, our favorite Beatle, our feeling about gun control – our first answer should be, “I don’t know.” Because unless we stop ourselves and consider, we will answer an old response, a rote response that might not apply anymore. Maybe we once had a brilliant response to gun control, and we’ve been reiterating year after year, but now, if we stopped to really ask ourselves the question, we might discover that our feelings are more nuanced, or more passionate, or just different, but we’ve just gone on autopilot.
And I think this teaching applies to what we take from our torah portions each week or each year. The readings stay exactly the same, each letter, each word. We might look at a different translation or read a different commentary, but it’s the same torah portion. Only WE are different when we come back to it. Maybe we’ve suffered a setback, or we have new members in our family, or we have done something that makes US different from same time last year, and so we come to the portion with different eyes.
I see this when I go back to my computer files and read what I wrote last year or two years ago, and realize 1) I’m not the same person as the one who wrote that, or 2) I need to look at a different verse or two, even i
f I just love one in particular.
For example, in this week’s torah portion, Shoftim (Judges), is the sentence hanging on the wall of the office of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of my heroes: tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice shall you pursue. I could probably drash on those three words (two words really) over and over and over, but think you all might get bored or might think that’s all there is in the portion. So it was time to find something else.
And it turned out that reading the portion this week in light of the overkill of Elul meditations and teachings, I rediscovered that the torah itself offers beautiful teachings for Elul.
Shoftim is chock full of opportunity to reflect on how we are doing as a community and as individuals. Do we live in a society that is just, where the judges are free from bias and bribe, making decisions with input from at least two witnesses?
On a communal level, we might all answer that question differently. As well as on a spiritual level. Are we free of bias about other people, or do we judge them based on how they look, their color, gender, their clothing, their physical disabilities, their political beliefs, whatever? Do we believe what we hear or do we verify before we pass judgment on other people’s behavior?
The portion refers to making sure that we keep our children away from the strangers’ ways. (I’m ready to burst into Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof.) This is trickier, because most of us up here are completely assimilated into the community. What do we mean by “strangers’ ways”? Do we mean Christmas trees, or bacon, or do we mean something more ominous, that we don’t believe?
For me, this section, combined with the commandment against other gods or idols also in this portion, is about straying into worshipping materialism, comfort, greed, power, personality, celebrity, believing that my personal needs outweigh society’s. Those are not Jewish ways. They may be American ways (and believe me, I love my comfort), but they are not traditional Jewish ways. So the questions this torah portion raise concern how do we balance our American habits with our Jewish values? How do we balance what we do with what we say? My mother used to tell me that I should do as she said not as she did, and I know that she meant that somewhat ironically and sadly — that she knew the right lesson would have been that we should watch her behavior, because that’s the real proof in the pudding. And so during Elul, we have space and time to reflect on whether we can make the choices to back up our words with our actions.
One of the other highlights of this portion is the verse, tamim tihi’ye im YHWH elohecha: You shall be wholeheartedly with your God (Deut. 18:13), according to the JPS translation – you shall be perfect or pure are other ways of translating it. Rashi comments on this as being loyal to God (following the Talmud commentators), but trusting in a way that allows us to accept what comes our way. This echoes our High Holy Days texts, when we consider the various fates that might befall us this year, and we acknowledge that teshuvah (turning), tzedakah (acts of justice) and tefillah (prayer or self reflection) can mitigate the harshness of the decree: how we respond, whether we trust in the end, makes the decree easier to swallow. This one verse—be wholeheartedly with your God—offers us a myriad of opportunities to reflect on our relationship with God, to even speak about the God we consider. This week at Tea and Torah, people had trouble integrating the God of the torah, the God of the liturgy – the King we pray to especially on Rosh Hashanah – with the God each of us might experience in our lives. Whereas my goal is to help us be able to match the divine we may experience in our own lives in some way with the God in our liturgy, I think this was a new concept for people who came to study. I am prayerful that we can move in this direction as we weigh our spiritual assets and debits.
Shoftim also talks about the responsibilities of the king that the Israelites might choose to follow when they have entered the land. It’s an awesome list really – the king is not supposed to be too rich, have too many horses or wives, should write himself a copy of these instructions or this Torah, read it regularly and finally not raise himself above his subjects. We could spend hours discussing this as a model for leadership. But what I want us to consider here is the concept that we are generally considered the children of the king (all God’s children…) and so these are some of our responsibilities as well.
The one that seems to apply most powerfully to a cheshbon hanefesh concerns our humility, and our ability to honor others around us. Can we remember or enact the lesson from Pirkei Avot: Ben Zoma asks, “Who is honored? The person who gives honor to others.” (M. Avot 4:1) Do we do this to the people around us?
Someone told me a story the other day, a story that elicited a belly laugh from me, about how she had mistreated a waiter, not out of malice, but still, without honor. At the end of the story, the waiter got her back and she gleefully acknowledged that she had been gotten. The story is a perfect cheshbon hanefesh tale: she explained what had gotten her started, she appreciated his calling her on her behavior, and I hope that she recognized the lack of honor she had paid him as a person with a divine spark.
Whether we use the plethora of materials currently available on the abundance of social media, or rely on the time tested Torah, or sit quietly in our own reflections, I pray that we all spend these next few weeks looking deeply into our core, into our soul, and begin the process of cleaning, cleansing and purifying, making ourselves the people we were meant to be.