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Elul Empowerments

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 29

by Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary

Watch Video Here.

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 28
by Joshua Shanes

Kabbalists contrast Tishrei to Nissan in our relationship to God. Nissan sees an “awakening from above” – God personally comes down to raise us although we did nothing to merit it. This inspires us and evokes an “awakening from below,” a move on our part towards Godliness, towards Sinai. This in turn draws further Divine energy downward, and a cycle of growth ensues.
Tishrei, in contrast, represents an initial effort from below, as its very name suggests. Tishrei moves from the end of the alphabet backwards towards its source, towards aleph (one). This is a time of teshuva, of return, launched by our own work. It is a particularly propitious time, as we read in the Haftorah next shabbat. “Seek out God where he is to be found,” we read, which our sages tell us mean the ten days of Teshuva. Our efforts, God willing, will trigger a Divine response, and once against a cycle of spiritual growth can occur.
What return do we seek? I’d like to think about one piece of it.
On Yom Kippur, Jews around the world will fast while reading in the morning from the Book of Isaiah. Why? We do not fast to obtain expiation. Expiation can only come via the hard work of return. “This is the fast I desire,” says Isaiah, “to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free. To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him.”
Isaiah is not telling us that ritual is meaningless. Indeed, he continues to speak of the need to observe the Sabbath, the pinnacle and symbol of the commandments between us and God. But without doing our part to fight wickedness, suffering and oppression – meaning apathy, let alone God forbid actively oppressing others – that ritual is not enough.
This is a call to action. May we all find the strength to fight for justice and freedom in whatever opportunity Divine providence places before us.
And may we – and all humanity – be sealed in the Book of Life.

(Dr. Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, and Associate Director of the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program at the College of Charleston)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 27
by Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter

Hope is an active spiritual quality that we can cultivate during Elul. As we begin to recite Tehillim 27 over and over again, the last line calls out to me. It is a call towards hope: Kaveh El Hashem, hope towards God, Chazak V’Ametz Libecha, strengthen and fortify your heart, V’Kaveh El Hashem. Note that the pasuk actually tells us not to hope once, but twice. Religious hope is not a flat positivity. Hoping is hard work - this pasuk assumes that we will try to look for the light, and something will get in the way of us walking towards it, so we’ll need to look harder. Hope is born out of the vulnerability of trying once, struggling through it, and hoping again. The words of Yirmiyahu on the second day of Rosh HaShanah proclaim, there is a hope for your future, declares God. Let’s kick our hope up a notch and make this a year of jumping in and trying to hope, even when we’re not sure if we’ll succeed. Let’s make it a year of removing the barriers, being curious instead of negative, when our instinct is to shake our heads or dismiss. A year of knowing that every single mitzvah, every single act--between us and our fellow human beings and between us and God, are an opportunity to be surprised by the goodness that can come out of it.

(Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter is founder and spiritual leader of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 26
by Josh Nason

As I was sitting down to write my Elul thought the news broke: “Israel and UAE reached agreement to normalize relations.” This is a historic event. Israel has been a state for 72 years. It took 30 years (and four major wars) for Egypt to become the first Arab state to recognize Israel. In 1994, Jordan became the second. But Israel would have to wait another two and a half decades for a third to come forward.
A White House signing ceremony, reportedly to take place within a few weeks, would represent a momentous occasion. The announcement of full diplomatic relations between the two American allies would be further cemented through the launch of the Strategic Agenda for the Middle East to expand diplomatic, trade, and security cooperation. The possibility of direct flights, tourism and partnerships in business, healthcare, and technology would be a sea change for the Middle East and the world.
As the details of the agreement remain in development, some things are immediately clear: the first is that such an agreement does not happen without a strong bipartisan U.S.-Israel relationship. The strength of that relationship was vital in moving the UAE towards taking that step, and just as with Egypt and Jordan the U.S. proved a helpful mediator in getting the parties together. And that relationship has been strengthened over decades through bipartisan support in Congress for Israel’s security needs, without conditions. Yet that relationship doesn’t just happen on its own, it’s a byproduct of the dedicated work of thousands of pro-Israel Americans who work every day with their members of Congress to ensure that U.S. support for Israel remains strong and bipartisan.
Second is that such a moment happens because Arab states are recognizing that their long-standing policy of boycotting and isolating Israel has been a self-inflicted wound to their national interests. Israel is a strong regional power: militarily, economically, and technologically. The UAE is making a bold statement that it has more to gain from working with Israel than from pushing it away. Indeed, international pressure to boycott, isolate and discriminate against Israel is counterproductive to achieving peace and stability.
Nobody knows what tomorrow may bring, but especially in a year like this, it’s important to recognize good news when we see it.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and permitted us to reach this time.
May we continue to see peace grow between Israel and her neighbors.
Shana Tova!

(Josh Nason is Assistant Director of Policy & Government Affairs at AIPAC in Washington, DC. In 2004 he was International President of USY, and I was proud to be one of the rabbis at his shul in Dallas)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 25
by Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal

​Among the most profound experiences I have as a rabbi are those spent with individuals facing an illness or life crisis. For example, a member of the congregation came to see me because her husband had left her. She was bereft – he was the love of her life, and now the marriage was over. How would she survive on her own? How would she help her kids?
​“Have you ever felt such despair before?” I asked her. She began to talk about her father, who had passed away when she was a teenager. Her world had been shattered. “How did you ever get through it?” I asked. Along with the support of her mother and her friends, she spoke about finding an inner strength she didn’t know she had. “It seemed miraculous at the time,” she reflected.
​“I know it feels impossible, but I believe that you will find the same strength in this crisis as well,” I offered as comfort. “I believe it was embedded when your soul was created, and is always a part of you.”
​The Talmud teaches, (Avot 5:8, translation in Siddur Lev Shalem): “Ten things were created on the eve of [the] Shabbat [of creation] at twilight: the mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the speech of the ass, the rainbow, the manna, the rod, the shamir, the script, the writing instrument, the tablets.” While cryptic references, each of these was destined to provide a miracle to humanity or the Jewish people at a moment of crisis or re-creation.
As we approach the anniversary of the world’s creation, I have faith in the miracles that have been placed within us. May drawing upon them give us the strength and inspiration to survive and even thrive in these challenging times.

(Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal is CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism & the Rabbinical Assembly)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 24
by Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

There is a powerful tale found in the Palestinian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia (2:5), that has much to teach us about the quest for and cultivation of Mensclichkeit – “transcendent humanity” – which I believe is the primary purpose of the month of Elul and the YamimNoraim, our upcoming Days of Awe.
Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach was a great sage of the Rabbinic period and even served as the Nasi (ranking member) of the Sanhedrin. He was truly a Yireh Shamayim, a God fearing person, who devoted his life to studying and teaching Torah. Though he had many students and admirers, Rabbi Shimon refused to accept compensation for his Holy Service. Rather, he eked out a paltry living by producing ink. Tradition has it that he would rise early in the morning, head to the forest, gather chestnuts and carry them on his back, to his home. Out of these chestnuts he would make ink, sell it in the market, and sustain his family.
Rabbi Shimon though poor, had but one regret; that he wasted too much precious time carrying the loads of chestnuts from the woods to his home. So, he decided to sell all of his earthly possessions and buy a mule to enable him to complete his work more efficiently. When he brought the mule home, his students went out to see it. They stroked, petted and admired the animal who would be of such great service to their revered Master. Suddenly, one of the students discovered - hanging down from the beast’s neck and hidden in a small pouch, a precious stone. The students rushed into the Rabbi’s house. "God's name be praised!” they exclaimed. "God has rewarded your piety Master. You are now a wealthy man! Our beloved teacher shall know no more want!"
They showed him the precious gem, but Rabbi Shimon did not share their excitement. "God forbid, that I take this diamond," he said. "I only bought a mule from that Ishmaelite in the Shuk. This diamond does not belong to me. Do you think that Shimon Ben Shetach is a boor – one who would take what is not rightfully his?"
Whereupon Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach ran back to the market in search of the Ishmaelite who sold him the mule. He found the merchant and returned to him the precious stone. The Ishmaelite was amazed at such unheard of honesty and integrity. "Blessed be the God of Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach!” he exclaimed, and never tired of retelling the tale of the pious Jew, the true Mensch, the sainted Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach.
Though we may never discover precious stones dangling from the necks of donkeys, each of us will be faced with moments when our morality will be challenged. Will we do what is right and true – even if it means we will potentially lose out materially or emotionally?
Our Menschlichkeit is challenged not in the easy, simple or straightforward moments, but rather in those moments when it would be easy and expedient to turn a blind eye for our own benefit and gain.
Being a truly “transcendent human being” means withstanding the temptation to pretend that ill-achieved gain does not impact on our sense of self. May we – inspired by this tale of our great teacher Rabbi Shimon – quest for integrity and righteousness and pray that our descendants will never tire of telling the tales of our integrity, our Menschlichkeit, our “transcendent humanity”. Amen!
In warm friendship, I bless us all with an Elevated Elul and a year filled with meaning and consequence.
(Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis, and was mesader kiddushin [officiant] at our wedding 23 years ago)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 22
by Dr. Jason Kalman

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, his beloved son. Just as Abraham raised the knife to slay the boy a heavenly angel stayed his hand. An early rabbinic retelling of the Akedah (Tanhuma, Vayera) imagines a dialogue immediately following between Abraham and God. Refusing to descend the mountain Abraham challenged God and the command to slay Isaac to which he had silently and faithfully acquiesced. Abraham rehearsed God’s promise that through Isaac Abraham would become the father of a great nation. He argued that because he could have protested God’s command based on this promise but instead faithfully held his tongue and followed through, God owed him. Abraham demanded that in the future when God might condemn Isaac’s descendants for sinfulness, God should remember Abraham’s willingness to bind Isaac, account his merit to the future generations, and forgive them. God accepted the demand and asserted that on Rosh Hashanah when these descendants blow the shofar it would call to mind the ram caught in the thicket by its horns. God would recall that it replaced Isaac on the sacrificial altar. And God would remember Abraham’s merit and forgive our sinfulness for his sake.
In the face of an unspeakable injustice, a demand to sacrifice his own child, Abraham remained silent. Abraham’s silence, his willingness to murder his son and sacrifice future generations, may have counted to his merit, but is this an inheritance we want?
As we begin the month of Elul and the period of self-reflection leading to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, remaining silent in the face of injustice does not seem meritorious at all. This past year major events gave us the opportunity for sacrifice and protest. Did we? Did we do enough to bring merit for us and our descendants? If not, may God forgive us, and grant us health and strength in the year ahead for the necessary sacrifice and protest. The time for holding our tongues has long past.
If only Abraham had remembered that he too was capable of real protest, as he did when he challenged God’s destruction of Sodom’s righteous people along with the wicked. That kind of protest is the meritorious model we need for the year ahead.

(Jason Kalman, PhD is Professor of Classical Hebrew Literature & Interpretation and Gottschalk-Slade Chair in Jewish Intellectual History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 21
by Rabbi Eliezer Diamond

What does it mean to forgive? What does it mean to be forgiven? You may think that the answer to these questions is simple, but if you take a moment to think about it you will realize that the matter is more complex than it seems. After all, we cannot undo what was done; we cannot do what was left undone when the time to act has passed. When we have wronged or disappointed others, we cannot expect them to act as though nothing has happened. What, then, does forgiveness offer the forgiven?

Let’s look at two metaphors that are used to describe forgiveness, one Biblical – נשא, neso, to carry – and one Rabbinic – מחל, mehol, to forgive or cancel a debt. Each one frames the act of forgiving in a different way. The first, carrying, makes us think of sin as a burden, weighing us down with guilt and despair. When God forgives us, a weight is lifted from our shoulders, making it possible for us to move forward. The second metaphor imagines sin as a debt incurred to God and to a fellow human being, a debt that can never be repaid. Only by having that debt canceled through an act of grace on the part of the creditor can we hope to break free of our indebtedness.

An important difference between these two images is the following. In the first case, the burden created by sin still exists; it simply has been shifted to someone else’s shoulders – God’s. In the second, the sin no longer has any claim upon the sinner; any and all obligations stemming from the sin have been erased from the books.

And indeed, both of these are true. When we forgive or are forgiven by someone, we cannot erase the past. Being forgiven does not mean, unfortunately, that there will not be irreversible consequences of our actions, and we must accept these. What forgiveness means is that both the forgiver and the forgiven recognize the humanity of the sinner and the sad fact that we are all flawed flesh and blood. Forgiveness gives us permission to stop dwelling on the past and start building a better future. Let us hope that we have the wisdom and compassion to offer others the same sort of forgiveness we so much hope they will grant us. Shanah Tovah.
(Rabbi Eliezer Diamond is Rabbi Judah Nadich Associate Professor of Talmud & Rabbinics at JTS)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 20
by Ronald Halber

By now, we’ve all seen the memes about 2020 feeling like the movie Groundhog Day. The joke resonates because this year’s altered routines and repetitious days have been disorienting. Without our familiar commute to the office each day, without the usual bus stop drop-offs or carpools to school, and without the typical rhythms of our daily lives, it’s hard to feel grounded.
One anchor that does not shift, even when so many other changes are taking place around us, is the Jewish calendar. During this time of great flux, I am grateful for the constants I find in the Jewish holidays. While our traditions and ritual practice might look different this year, we can take comfort in the knowledge that Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the other haggim will mark time as usual and establish the beginning of our year.
At the JCRC, our approach to nourishing and protecting Jewish life always includes proactive and reactive work. We plan for each year so we can advocate for the needs, priorities and values of the diverse Jewish community in our region, the State of Israel, and the well-being of everyone in Greater Washington—including the most marginalized. And at the same time, we remain nimble so we can effectively respond to real-time events that impact our community.
This turbulent year brought wave after wave of change, and the JCRC reacted quickly to meet the needs of our community members and partners. And yet, as we navigated the unknowns, I found myself instinctively searching for something I could count on.
I discovered those roots to hold onto in the Hebrew calendar, which sustains us even when the winds of change are strong. And I found stability in the presence of my loving family and dear friends, who are sharing the experience of observing these special days with me, even when it’s from six feet away or through a Zoom screen. After all, we know for sure that the High Holidays will come when they are supposed to and that our loved ones and fellow community members are celebrating, just as we are.
The wisdom of our tradition gives us stability I didn’t know I craved until it was suddenly upended, and as the days of Elul pass, I welcome the familiarity and comfort of the holidays I know are coming.
(Ron Halber is Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relatiins Council of Greater Washington)

Elul Empowerment Message,

Day 19

by David Eisenstadt

(David guided our recent Har Shalom Hanukkah Israel Mission in 2019-2020. He earned an MA from Bar Ilan University in Land of Israel Studies, and trains professional Israeli tour guides.)

“An Elul Walk in Jerusalem”

In our tradition we announce and then celebrate the beginning of the new month according to the lunar calendar. In Israel Elul also announces itself.

In the beginning of Elul, as weekday shacharit services conclude, we blow the shofar for the first time in nearly a year. The first blasts are always halting, as if clearing a throat or more aptly removing the dust from the previous 10 months.

Later I walk through the valley below my home. On the side of the path, a tall green stem has sprouted from a large bulb barely buried in the hard, dry earth. At the top of the stem buds are slowly blossoming into a cluster of white flowers. This is the “Hatzav.” In English it is called Squill. The Hatzav is a ‘harbinger of Fall’. It sprouts in late summer, right at the beginning of Elul.

The name Hatzav is the root of the Hebrew “to quarry” or “hew stone.” The root of the Hatzav extends from its bulb deep into the ground, making it difficult to uproot. As a result, it was used as a property marker in ancient Israel and continued to be used as such well into the 20th century. An ordinary stone boundary marker could be moved by someone who wished to steal or trespass (annex?) their neighbor’s land, while the Hatzav creates an ‘indelible’ sign in the ground.

In Parshat Ki Tavo, which we read in the middle of Elul, the Levites declare to the People of Israel: “Cursed be he who moves (or alternately trespasses) his neighbor’s landmark, and the People say Amen”. In tractate Bava Batra (56a) of the Talmud, we are told that Joshua used the Hatzav to mark the boundaries of Israel, presumably the boundaries between the tribes. Another tractate of the Talmud, Beitza (25b) relates to the curse in Parshat Ki Tavo with the words “The Hatzav cuts the legs of the wicked” (apparently not literally, but meaning ‘trips up’ or ‘disrupts the schemes’ of evildoers). In the Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Hananel further explains that the Hatzav root “sprouts and descends straight down. If someone steals another’s field, then dig until we find the Hatzav [root] and the theft is exposed”. Rashi’s interpretation of this discussion in the Talmud brings us back to Elul and our penitential season, referring to the Hatzav as a “plant that bores a hole and descends deep and [its roots] does not spread out to the sides.” It is planted on the borders of fields and Joshua marked the boundaries of Israel with it, because on Judgement Day it disrupts the plans of the wicked who steal and trespass. Is Judgement Day the day of a trial, the End of Days, or Yom Kippur?

Near the Hatzav, a broken pot shard is sticking out of the ground. Both an ordinary and extraordinary find – How many places in the world do you find random pieces of ancient pottery along the path where you walk your dog. A piece of pottery, a ‘broken shard’. Seeing it conjures up an association with Unenata Tokef, one of the most poignant parts of our High Holiday liturgy, in which the temporal nature of human existence is compared to a ‘broken shard, dry hay, a withered flower’ (כחרס הנשבר, כחציר יבש, כציץ נובל...). It is hard this year not to think about Covid when reflecting on these verses.

My walk eventually takes me uphill to the Machane Yehuda Market. Tucked between the market stalls is a small Sephardic synagogue named Beitl Zevul. The synagogue is tiny, barely the size of a market stall. Uniquely the local merchants who pray in this synagogue chant Slichot, the penitential hymns recited in the month of Elul during the afternoon Mincha service. In most other synagogues Slichot are recited either late at night or very early in the morning. Some Yemenite synagogues begin chanting Slichot at 3:00 am! It is an experience to hear Slichot chanted in a traditional Sephardic synagogue.

If it is not too much of a mixed metaphor, Adon Haslichot is the most iconic Slichot melody. I invite you to listen to a version of Adon Haslichot produced by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel and wish you an early Shana Tova:

Leshana Tova Tikateivu Vetichateimu!

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 18
by Jen Vegh

There is a well-known story about a Chassidic rabbi named Reb Zusha. His students once asked him about his greatest fear. He replied that he was not worried about living up to Moses or Abraham. Rather, his concern was that, upon his death, God would ask him, “Zusha, why weren’t you the best Zusha you could be?”

In the month of Elul, it is incumbent upon us to partake in deep reflection and teshuva - yes, to heal our relationships with other people and with the Divine, but also to heal our relationships with ourselves. All too often our perceptions of our “best selves” are tied up in the perceptions of others. Sometimes that works in our favor - when we are inspired by a commitment to self growth, for example. But when our experience is based on envy or jealousy - when we are basing our versions of our best selves on being more like other people, then we run into trouble.

When we think about the journey to our best selves, the only thing to which we should compare is where we’ve come from, not where someone else is. It does not serve us to compare our stage two to someone else’s stage ten. However, when we can look at how far someone else has journeyed towards their best selves, perhaps we might be able to cultivate a spirit of admiration, inspiration and motivation to invest in ourselves - to offer ourselves forgiveness and grace, to offer ourselves the love and support we dish out to others.

There is a well known concept that Elul is an acronym for Ani l’dodi v’dodi li - I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. I’d like to offer a bit of a different read - We need to be our own beloveds. We need to do the reflection and the work to move towards the best versions of ourselves.

(Jen Vegh is Director of Community Engagement at Yeshivat Maharat. Originally from Dallas, she is a beloved former student and dear family friend)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 17
by Senator Brian J. Feldman

Life during the pandemic is extremely challenging. We have been forced to adapt in ways we never imagined. But even in these difficult times, we must remain hopeful. As the High Holidays approach, I am reminded of a favorite passage from my Gates of Repentance prayer book.

“Birth is a beginning. And death a destination. And life is a journey: From childhood to maturity. And youth to age. From innocence to awareness. And ignorance to knowing. From foolishness to discretion. And then, perhaps to wisdom. From weakness to strength. Or strength to weakness— And, often, back again. From health to sickness, and back, we pray, to health again. From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love, from joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion. And grief to understanding— From fear to faith; from defeat to defeat to defeat — Until, looking backward or ahead, we see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage. Birth is a beginning, and death a destination. And life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage— To life everlasting.”

We are on our life journey and currently in the middle of a very difficult patch. We must each move forward, step by step, finding meaning and purpose in our lives being true to our best selves. Victory is not found later when the crisis is over and behind us, but rather it is found in how we behave along the way. Stay strong. Be brave. Be kind. Act with love. Shana tovah u’metukah. May the coming year bring peace, unity, and good health to all.

(Brian J. Feldman is a Maryland State Senator, representing District 15

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 15
by Rabbi Joel Roth

​The most common explanation of the name of the month of Elul is that the letters which make up the name of the month are the first letters of the first four words in Song of Songs 6:3: אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. “My beloved” is, of course, God; and the message of the verse and the month’s name is that during this month leading up to the High Holy Days, the relationship between me and my beloved is very close and mutual, and it is a wonderful time to repent and be accepted fully by God. This explanation can be found in the introductory comments of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Mishnah Berura, to section 581 of the Shulhan Arukh.
​That explanation works fine in most years. But during this period of worldwide pandemic it leaves much to be desired. Why is it that “my beloved” has allowed this pandemic to occur, and for so many to be ill, and so many to die? Could not “my beloved,” the all-powerful God of the universe, have prevented this, or at least have stopped it? This is the “problem of evil” which has perplexed theologians forever, and for which “simple” and “complete” solutions have never been found.
​The goal of the month of Elul this year must be to provide me with an opportunity to struggle with this reality and yet to reaffirm that my relationship with “my beloved” is not undermined by this reality that I cannot adequately explain. It is difficult for me as a human being to grapple with my ultimate inability to understand “my beloved” entirely, and yet to affirm that “my beloved” remains “my beloved,” to whom I am devoted and dedicated, and in whom I believe with perfect faith. May this month of Elul succeed in reinforcing the conviction of each of us that “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

(Rabbi Joel Roth is Louis Finkelstein Professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 14
by Dr. Erica Brown

Change doesn’t have to be hard. There’s a wonderful passage of Talmud about a thief who wanted repent after many years of stealing [BT Bava Kamma 94b]. But his wife said: “Reika, you empty one, if you repent, you’ll have to give everything back that you stole – even the belt you’re wearing is not yours.” So he backtracked. He did not repent. He was about to do something momentous and his wife, instead of encouraging him, told him to look at himself the way he was in that moment. His very pants were held up by a belt he stole. There was so much shame and disgrace about his current life that it would take a radical overhaul to change it. It was easier not to start. So he didn’t.

What did this woman understand about teshuva that we don’t? If you make change overwhelming enough, you’ll never do it. The key: make it easier. Make it smaller. What if we stopped looking at change as climbing a mountain but as a slow, small, incremental process catalyzed by two simple profound questions:

This year, what should I do a little more of?
This year, what should I do a little less of?

Changing yourself doesn’t have to look like scaling a mountain. It can look like going down a mountain. Years after Sir Edmund Hilary failed to get to the top of Mount Everest, the British Parliament celebrated him. He walked into the chamber to a standing ovation and went straight to a large picture of the mountain set up in his honor. He shook his fist as he looked at it and said, “You won this time. But you are as big as you are ever going to get. But I’m still growing.”

(Dr. Erica Brown is a renowned writer, speaker, and educator. She serves as scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 13

by Rabbi Yossi Kastan

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Rosh Hashana is an overwhelming experience. Thinking through every mistake we may have made over the past year, every fault and character flaw we find in ourselves is emotionally exhausting. What if, instead, we focused on a specific trait to work on, instead of tackling everything all at once– hoping that one at a time, we can refine our character in ways that fosters long-term, sustainable changes.

As we approach the Yamim Noraim this year, it’s hard to escape the visual cues of masks on our faces and the need to socially distance ourselves from our friends and family members. As much as we yearn to be close again, to reunite, and to share, we know we must continue with these protocols, lest we cause harm to our loved ones. It is that same visual cue that can potentially serve as a focus for our Rosh Hashana.

Just as we are careful to wear our masks to protect others from any droplets that may come out of our mouths, so too, we should be careful with the words that come out of our mouths. If small droplets can cause others such physical harm, imagine the severe emotional harm caused by the droplets of gossip. If we had a metaphorical mask that filtered our words, what would we rethink or re-evaluate?

This Rosh Hashanah, it is almost certain that we will pray for Covid-19 to go away so that we can once again feel close to our friends and family, so that we can once again share in a warm physical embrace. Perhaps, let us also consider the forces that push us further away from each other than our current six feet. Our words have the power to bring us closer together or to drive us apart. Our words, our verbal droplets, can help make someone’s day or ruin their reputation.

This Rosh Hashanah, if we are to focus on one thing, let’s focus on the visual of our socially distant minyanim, with our fellow congregants in masks. Let’s ask ourselves: when we can stop worrying about Covid-19, when we can be together and speak to each other without masks, will we use speech that will keep us close?

(Rabbi Yossi Kastan is Head of School at Berman Hebrew Academy)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 12

by Rabbi Mitchel Malkus

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When I walk through the hallways of my school, it is not uncommon to hear comments such as “I am slow,” “I don’t like writing essays,” “math is easy for me,” or “I am a terrible test taker,” suggesting that students have gained reasonable insights into themselves as they identify and verbalize the areas of challenge that may be the source of a roadblock in academic and personal progress. However, I am also aware that such observations are neither completely accurate nor do they often lead to any constructive improvement in students changing their own destiny by utilizing these insights to improve their learning experiences.

Mesillat Yesharim, ("Path of the Upright”), is an ethical text composed by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto who lived from 1707–1746. The work is one of many traditionally studied during the month of Elul in preparation for the High Holidays. In the third chapter of Mesilat Yesharim, we read that a person who wants to watch over themselves has to investigate two matters: מהו הטוב האמיתי שיבחר בו האדם, והרע האמיתי שינוס ממנו The first: that one contemplate what is the true good for a person to choose and the second, what is the true evil to flee from. Luzzatto calls this investigation of the self “watchfulness.” While he frames this self-exploration in terms of good and evil which is different from how we as contemporary Jews view personal strengths and challenges, the concept of “watching” ourselves connects to recent research in cognitive psychology and I believe is extremely valuable as we enter this period of before the high holidays.

Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence, describes self-awareness as the “ability to monitor our inner world – our thoughts and feelings.” He writes, “This means having a deep understanding of one’s strengths, limitations, values and motives. People with high self-awareness are honest with themselves about themselves. They are realistic, neither overly self-critical nor excessively optimistic.” Self-awareness is arguably the most crucial personal skill we can develop to successfully guide our attention and intention towards the self as a doer, thinker, and an evaluator to yield goals set by ourselves for ourselves.

This is where Luzzatto’s idea of “watching” ourselves can help us in this work. Self-awareness requires taking into consideration a perspective that belongs to the other. This perspective-taking can be an effective tool for self-change, but it can only be activated with the involvement of the self as the other – either as a neutral observer or as a feedback provider.

In spite of discoveries in cognitive psychology and social sciences, there exists a surprising gap between the science and the art of self-reflection practices in the real world. By recognizing our own strengths and challenges through perspective-taking, Luzzatto’s concept of watchfulness, we have a practical tool for self-improvement and reflection. This Elul, we have an opportunity to “watch” ourselves, and through this watching to become more reflective. We do have to strive to do an honest assessment of how we see ourselves and how others view us. Together, these two views of the self will help us gain better clarity for what we want to work on this New Year.

Shanah Tovah u’metukah - May you have a happy, healthy and sweet new year.

(Rabbi Mitchel Malkus is Head of School at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 11

by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Watch Video Here.

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 10
by Rabbi Joanna Samuels 

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Everything that is alive has the possibility to be renewed.
Everything that breathes, and all that contains a spark of life in it, can be changed for the better.
This is what Rosh Hashanah teaches us.
We are all still here.
We are, each one of us, here today.
There is blood coursing in our veins and cells inside of us that are being created and recreated.
And each one of us, as long as the breath of life resides in our bodies, each one of us possesses promise and potential.
The Torah reading for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah teaches the story of how we forget this potential, and how we can learn it, anew.
Following a battle with Sarah, Hagar is cast out of her home with her young son Ishmael. Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert and eventually run out of water ,and Ishmael is in danger of death.
The Torah teaches,
ויכלו המים מן־החמת ותשלך את־הילד תחת אחד השיחם
When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes,
ותלך ותשב לה מנגד הרחק כמטחוי קשת כי אמרה אל־אראה במות הילד ותשב מנגד ותשא את־קלה ותבך
and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.
Hagar turns away from her son, Ishmael, when he is most in need. She does not want to look at him in his vulnerability, because she can not help him not to die. Hagar’s own helplessness makes her distant from that which is most precious. At a moment when we might imagine profound, intense engagement, lifesaving action, Hagar recedes.
This is a startlingly familiar impulse. We are living in difficult days. Many of us feel overwhelmed by how very finite we are. When, with our modest and fragile selves, we are called upon to face very big challenges, it is tempting in our vulnerability and pain, to think that our only choice is to look away. Even when what it means to look away is to disengage from what is most precious and beloved to us.
Whether we stare out at the fragility of our bodies, the difficulties of our closest relationships, or how stubbornly broken our country is, sometimes, sometimes the only choice seems to be to look away.
At this moment in our Torah reading, when Hagar looks away, God reminds her that this is not how the story is going to end.
ֱֶ ְֱֶָָָ ָָ
אַל־ִ֣תּיְרִא֔י ִכּי־ָשַׁ֧מע ֱאלִ֛הים ֶאל־ק֥וֹל ַה ֖נַַּער ַבֲּאֶשׁ֥ר הוּא־ָשׁם׃
וַיְִּשַׁמ֣ע אלִהים֮ את־ק֣וֹל ַהנַַּער֒ וַיִּקרא֩ ַמלאַ֨ך אלִ֤הים ׀ אל־הגר֙ ִמן־ַהָשַּׁ֔מיִם וַיּ֥אֶמר ל֖הּ ַמה־לּ֣ך ה ֑גר
God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.
ק֚וִּמי ְשִׂ֣אי את־ַה ֔נַַּער וַהח ֥זִיקי את־יֵָ֖דך בּ֑וֹ ִכּי־לג֥וֹי גּד֖וֹל אִשׂיֶמנּוּ׃ ְְֲֲֶֶָ
Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
וַיְִּפ ֤קח אלִהים֙ את־ֵעינֶ֔יה וֵַתּ֖רא ְבֵּ֣אר ָ֑מיִם וֵַ֜תּלך וַתַּמֵ֤לּא את־ַהֵחֶ֙מת֙ ַ֔מיִם וַַ֖תְּשׁק את־ַהנַָּער׃ ְֱֶֶֶֶֶָ
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.
God opened Hagar’s eyes and showed her that there was a resource she had not been able to see. This resource, this well of clean water, would save her beloved Ishmael, and would restore her capability to be his mother -- the one who has the power to help him thrive, not the one who will watch him perish.
The gift that God gave to Hagar is the gift available to each one of us on these Yamim Noraim. These days, we can listen for God’s call to Hagar: OPEN YOUR EYES. You are not too far gone, says God. Somewhere, nearer than you think, there is a resource that will help you. Even in this broken world, even in this epidemic, even in our embattled country.
This is the promise of these days of awe, and this promise will hold, as long as each of us is here. None of us is too far gone to try to fix something in our lives.
Life is, yes, very fragile. But we, human beings, we are also durable. We are durable, like Ishmael, who just a moment from death, needed only a cool drink of water to begin his journey towards being a great nation.
Rosh Hashanah is an invitation to have faith: somewhere, someone or something will become visible to us, like the well of water did to Hagar. This something, this someone, this idea will remind us of our vitality, our
 capacity, and of the very life that God has given to each one of us, both finite and infinite.
(Rabbi Joanna Samuels is Executive Director of the Manny Cantor Center, a community center on the Lower East Side is New York City, and a rabbinical school classmate)

Elul Empowerment message, Day 9

by Rabbi Ari Israel

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Holidays filled with angst, joy, hope, renewal and a myriad of other emotions. As the pandemic roars around us, and our thoughts and prayers turn to those in need of a physical healing, we also can look inward, towards our own spiritual guide as a way to anchor us and weather this stormy sea. For it is still the Shofar time of Rosh HaShanah and the awesome day of Yom Kippur. One of the primary opportunities at this juncture is setting one’s goals and priorities for the coming year. Meaningful reflection demands an honest check-in.

The Machzor, through its myriad of liturgical highlights, is replete with opportunities to focus on what is important and achievable. Each of us latches on to a unique tune, or phrase that charges our soul. One highlighted example is U­netanah Tokef - we shall ascribe holiness to this day – the medieval poem that touches upon many powerful themes: it reviews the year and recalls those who have passed on; reminding us that our lives hang so delicately in the balance. The end of this hallowed chant has the entire congregation invoking in unison: וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה - repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree. These three aspects, when considered through a lens of personal growth, can help us prepare for the coming year as we seek to overturn Gd’s steadfast judgement and alter our destinies.

The first, teshuva – repentance, speaks to the heart of our purpose on these austere days. Are we willing and able to self-reflect and when necessary, make adjustments to our life, and our behaviors? Teshuva demands honest self-reflection, without which no forward movement is possible. Teshuva ask us all to start the process of change, within ourselves first, and then worrying about others.

The second, tefillah - prayer, beseeches Gd directly. Through a spiritual conduit of the beautiful tunes, tefillah tugs on our heartstrings and pushes us to welcome the emotions of the day into our souls. We, in turn, strive to penetrate the Heavens with our words and our sentiments. Tefillah is a guidebook and toolkit for clear communication with our Creator. Tefillah humbly challenges us to connect in a way that may make us feel vulnerable. It this vulnerability, this rawness, that can, in turn, enable us to refocus, rebuild and retool our priorities in the year ahead.

Finally, the third phrase Tzeddakah, is not simply the act of making a charitable donation; it is the pursuit of justice as in Tzeddek Tzeddek Tirdof - Justice, justice shall you pursue’ (Deut. 16:20). This year in particular, we hear the calling of justice, the cry of suffering, racism and inequality, we feel the drumbeat exhorting us to step forward and make a difference for others. Where Teshuva (repentance) is internal and Tefillah (prayer) is about communication, Tzeddakah is the opportunity for implementation. It is doing something, not simply wanting to do. Changing behavior is a bolder and deeper manifestation of who we really are and who we strive to be. Tzeddakah is not about dollars and cents; it is action and follow through that speaks volumes and impacts change.

Although we may not be gathering in synagogue this High Holiday season, we can still begin the process of personal change through Teshuva; then our Tefillah can express our renewed feelings to Gd; and finally we will propel ourselves into the world of action through Tzeddakah. One prayer, three paths to success. While synagogue seats may sit empty, our hearts and prayers can still be filled with the age old formula of Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzeddakah which don’t take up any physical space but spiritually can fill the world.

Shana Tova

(Rabbi Ari Israel is Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Maryland)

Elul Empowerment message, Day 8

by Jennifer Raskas

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“From Darkness and Chaos to Light”

Why on every day of creation does it say “Vayar HaShem Ki Tov”, God saw it was good, except on the second day when God separated water from Heavens, and on the sixth day when God created man? What about water, Heavens and man was not fully good?

Rav Waxman posits that because the second day’s creation was only completed on the third day after the waters revealed land, God must have awarded the pronouncement of “good”, only to creations that were complete. Does this mean, however, that the creation of man on day six was incomplete? What does that mean about man, us, and our role in the world?

The word, “barah”, to create, is written in that exact form twice, when God begins to create the world and when God creates man, intimating an inherent similarity to God’s creation of the world and God’s creation of man. Just as God took an inchoate world of chaos and darkness with Ruach Elokim, the spirit of God, and created order and light, God created us with Tzelem Elokim, the image of God, for us to transform our inner human elements of chaos and darkness into light. In this way the creation of man was incomplete, we complete the creation by turning the chaotic and dark parts of our selves into light.

Though God never says the creation of man is “good”, He does state that it is “not good”, for man to be alone. Sometimes our inner darkness is too intense to turn into light on our own. Sometimes we need to help each other overcome darkness and find light.

Our tradition equates the saving of one person, as if one saves the whole world. When we save a person from dark despair we use our likeness to God to emulate His creation of the world, by turning a person’s darkness into beautiful rays of light.

We are living through intense times of chaos and darkness, where it is often hard to find light. During this month of introspection may we find courage in our powers of illumination. May we rededicate ourselves to helping one another, thereby making the world more full of light.

(Jennifer Raskas is the Washington, D.C. area Manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America)

Elul Empowernent Message, Day 7 by Rabbi Daniel Nevins

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Hope, or despair? Given the enormous disruption, loss and sorrow of the past year, which posture is more honest, more productive? When we gathered last year to sing, “who shall live and who shall die,” we had no clue how those words would reverberate. Who could imagine that millions would be infected, hundreds of thousands, dead? Who could predict that it would become dangerous to gather, simply to sing?

As we prepare for these Days of Awe we bear witness to this loss, but also to the resilience and creativity of our people as we have reconstituted Jewish life online and in careful gatherings. The example of our ancestors grows more astonishing by the month. How did they survive plagues, persecution, and exile upon exile with their dignity and Jewish identity intact?

The Psalmist models for us oscillation between hope and despair. In Psalm 27 we stand on a rock, high above our enemies, confident and impervious. For six verses we are strong and fearless, but in the next half dozen lines, that pride evaporates; we feel afflicted from every quarter. Reality has intruded, and fear has become our companion. But the Psalm does not give fear the final word. In the penultimate line the Psalmist remembers the goodness of living, and this provides the strength to find hope and resilience.

Hope and resilience—these are the spiritual skills that this year of plague have instilled in us. To them we must add joy. We will deepen appreciation for our Jewish faith, our heritage, and our community. We will rebuild for our children, and we will yet witness God’s goodness in the land of the living. L’haim—may we be blessed with health, joy and good life.

(Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins is the Pearl Resnick Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary)

Elul Empowerment Message, Day 6

by Rabbi Menachem Creditor