#BlogElul — Prepare!

Image: My colleague @imabima has posted a list of topics for Elul on her blog every year since 2012. The image above is this year’s list, days 1-29.

The lovely thing about @imabima’s list of topics is that for the whole month of Elul I don’t have to think of topics. They sit right there in front of me in a tidy list, already set. Today is Day 3 (yes, I missed 1 and 2. I may come back to them later.)

The word PREPARE always brings one verse of the Bible to my mind:

  קוֹל קוֹרֵא–בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵאלֹהֵינוּ

A voice calls – in the wilderness, clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God. – Isaiah 40: 3, translation mine.

This verse is echoed in the Christian New Testament:

φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ· Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ,

He is a voice calling out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight! – Mark 1:3 (ISV translation) 

In both cases, a prophet is speaking to the people: Isaiah in his eponymous book, and in the opening of the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist speaks to his followers, quoting Isaiah.

For the devout, the context is already there. Isaiah 40 is known to devout Jews by its first line “Comfort, comfort my people” – it is the haftarah for the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av. He was speaking to Israel after the disaster of the fall of Jerusalem, comforting them and saying, “Get on with it! Get moving! Buck up! Good things are ahead!”

Devout Christians today understand John to be saying, “Get ready! Jesus is coming!” What many Jews of his time likely heard was, “Remember what Isaiah said! Look forward, good things are ahead!”

Lately I’ve learned about “preppers” – people who focus on preparedness, usually with a bad scenario in mind.  They are preparing for massive accidents, terrorist events and natural disasters. They lay in supplies of nonperishable food and other necessities. Some of them get involved in amateur radio (for when the phone system crashes) or stockpile weaponry (for when the revolution comes.)

Preppers are  getting ready for bad things to happen. I confess have always been a bit of a worrier myself, and I try to be prepared for the things that worry me. I have a supply of water laid in, and a case of peanut butter, and dog food, because I worry about the earthquake fault in my backyard.

The thing is, neither Isaiah nor John were advocating “prepping.” They weren’t saying, “Look ahead, and be afraid!” They were saying, “Something good is coming, you better be ready!”

Today there are upsetting things all over the news. And yes, that Hayward Fault is percolating away beneath my feet. All that is true.

And yet the prophet calls to me,

“Clear the road of Adonai!  Go ahead  in the desert, prepare a road to our God!”

Perhaps, instead of preparing for the worst, my energy is best spent striving towards something better.

 

 

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One Week To Rosh HaShanah – How to Prepare?

Image: An iPhone showing a calendar app with many appointments. (pexels/pixabay)

I’m writing this exactly one week from the beginning of Rosh HaShanah. Perhaps you just realized that the Days of Awe are upon us. Perhaps you intended to do some preparations for the last month. Or perhaps, like me, sometimes you get disorganized and time slips away.

Here’s the question: How can I be ready for the Jewish New Year when the past three weeks have disappeared and there is only a week left?

Some ways to prepare, with just a week ahead:

  1. Take stock of the situation. One traditional way to do it is to go through the 10 Commandments, slowly and thoughtfully. Another is to read the confession we read on Yom Kippur. Are there any of these commandments that you need to work on?  Any of them stir discomfort? If you have an emotional reaction, that’s a flag: stay with it, ask yourself why this particular commandment is uncomfortable.
  2. For some less conventional approaches, read Three Ways to Take an Inventory of the Soul. This article shows how we can use our checkbooks, our appointment books, or our contacts list to prepare for the Days of Awe.
  3. For a more personal approach, have a chat with someone who knows you well. This approach requires that you come with an open heart, prepared to suspend defensive reactions. Some things you might ask:
    1. What have I mentioned wanting to change about myself?
    2. What have I complained about the most in the past year?
    3. Is there anywhere you notice my words and my deeds not matching?
    4. Then LISTEN. Do not argue, do not explain. Simply take it all in.
  4. Tamara Cohen offers five more approaches to preparation in How to Prepare Spiritually for the High Holy Days.

However we choose to prepare, we will likely finish with a list of things we wish we hadn’t done, or we wish we had done differently.  This is the point at which we need to think about how to make teshuvah. Teshuvah is the Jewish process of finding a better path upon which to move forward. Whether the “sin” is against another person, or against God, or against ourselves, teshuvah offers a process of dealing with it and moving forward.

Keep in mind that teshuvah is not about beating ourselves up. Shame-filled recrimination doesn’t do anyone any good. If we follow the steps in The Jewish Cure for Guilt then by the end of Yom Kippur, we’ll be well on our way to some significant changes. We will be able to relax under the sukkah, enjoying Sukkot and knowing we have done our best.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. He used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. If you have learned much Torah, your reward will be much; and the Master of your work is trustworthy to pay you the wage for your activity. And know, the giving of reward to the righteous is in the future to come. – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16

 

111°F:  Steward of the Earth

Image: In normally cool and foggy San Francisco, temperatures reached 106 degrees Friday afternoon, smashing records all the way back to 1874 when they began keeping records. In this photo of a bicyclist near Sausalito, the San Francisco skyline, normally visible, is obscured by smog from the fires burning in Northern California and the Sierras. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

“Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. – Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 7:13

I live in a neighborhood above the San Francisco Bay that is known for its mild weather.  In a bitter winter, we might see freezing temperatures once or twice. In the warm months, we all begin to whine if the temperature exceeds 80°F (26.6C.)

This summer has been different. A stretch of days around 100°F killed several California native plants in my garden. Yesterday and today we had the sort of heat I associate with Death Valley. The high today was 111°F, or 43.8°C. 

The dogs and I decamped at 105° and went to stay with a friend who has air conditioning. I have been monitoring the temp at home remotely with horror. My garden is the least of it; this sort of heat can be lethal for people and animals and most people in this area lack A/C.

Meanwhile I’ve kept track of the slow unfolding of stories from Hurricane Harvey and the flooding in South Asia. A tropical storm is battering Baja California, and more hurricanes are forming in the Atlantic. 

Also in the news and on the air: firefighters are battling dozens of fires in Northern California and some people in Southern California are packing to evacuate as fires threaten the suburbs north of L.A. The same east wind bringing burning winds to my neighborhood carries with it the smoke from fires in the Sierra. Usually I can see San Francisco from my patio; today I can’t see San Leandro High, less than a mile away. Our air is gritty, nasty, and dangerous to asthmatics. 

I might be forgiven, then, for a somewhat apocalyptic mood as this past Shabbat drew to a close. I know there is controversy about how much of the storms and heat can be traced to climate change. But I also know that some climate scientists warn us that these storms may be a new normal

I refuse to accept that the damage is done, or that any connection to human activity is just politics. The Torah teaches that individually and communally, human beings are responsible for the preservation of the earth.

What can we do? This season of Elul, let us each look around our own lives for ways to be good stewards of the earth. Some possible questions:

  • What can I do personally to preserve the quality of air and water where I live?
  • Do I waste resources? What can I do to waste less?
  • Is there a way I can reuse or recycle things I have been putting in the garbage?
  • Are there ways I can partner with others to be a better steward of the earth? 
  • Are there organizations that will provide me opportunities for action in the right direction?
  • Do I encourage local elected officials in their good programs, and let them know when I disapprove?

And finally:

★ Can I identify one single, specific change in behavior I am willing to commit to for the year 5778? 

32 Life Lessons for the Hebrew Month of Elul

Elul is the month in the Jewish year when we prepare for the High Holy Days by taking stock of our lives. Rabbi John Rosove posted this list on his blog and it’s so good, I want to share it with you.

Time is passing – it’s less than a month to Rosh Hashanah! This year it begins at sundown on Sept 20. How are you preparing for the Days of Awe?

 

 

Rabbi John Rosove's Blog

Soren Kierkegaard said: “It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”

Though we’re always living forward, the life lessons we learn help to shape our future. Since this is now the season of self-examination (hence, the photo of “The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin, Paris) in Elul which begins this year on Wednesday evening, leading to Rosh Hashanah, I offer you a list of 32 life lessons I’ve learned in my nearly 68 years – there are others, but the number 32 is a significant one in Jewish mystical tradition. It equals the 22 letters of the Hebrew aleph bet plus the 10 “words” of the covenant, and it’s the number equivalent for the Hebrew word lev (lamed – beit), heart, which the mystics teach are the number of pathways to God.

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Shabbat Shalom!– Re’eh

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days. With so much going on, our divrei Torah are particularly rich: our writers examine the confluence of the month, the texts, and world events.

Just as Passover preparation requires turning the house upside down in the search for chametz, the High Holy Day preparation of Elul requires that we turn our internal houses upside down to seek out the issues that we may have hidden from ourselves. Whom have we hurt or offended? With what behaviors do we hurt ourselves? This month calls for rigorous honesty and that, in turn, calls for courage. Fortunately the texts will support us in our preparation.

This week’s parashah is Re’eh, “See!” which is the longest of all the parshiot in the Torah. Some divrei Torah on Parashat Re’eh:

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi – Blessings

Melissa Carpenter – Re’eih and Acharey Mot: The Soul in the Blood

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs – Why I Love the Lone Ranger

Hannah Perlberger – True Love is Never Blind

Rabbi Marc Katz – No Place for Factions

Rabbi David Ackerman – At the Crossroads, After Charlottesville

Rabbi Ruth Adar – What Do We Owe the Poor?

 

What Would You Change?

If there were one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?

This is a question for you in your innermost heart. Don’t tell me the answer. Don’t think about what you “ought” to say. In what way would you most like to be different?

Another way to ask that question is to ask yourself whom you most admire. What is it about them that impresses you? What quality do they have that you wish you had?

Now then: what would it take to become that person?

Remember Pastor Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Some things we can change with effort. I can work harder. I can learn better behavior and attitudes. I can make better habits.

Other things can’t be changed; they are fixed. I can’t change my DNA. I can’t change change other people’s behavior. I can’t change things that happened in the past.

So, back to that secret thing you wish you could change about yourself: which is it: something you can change, or something you can’t?

If it’s the former, we are in the season for change. Yom Kippur offers us a whole day to think, to pray, and to plan how to become the person we’d like to be. 

If it’s the latter, if you are longing to change something that cannot be changed, it’s time to ask, “Do I want to spend my life longing for something I cannot have?” Perhaps Yom Kippur could be a day to let go of that longing.

I wish all of you a fruitful day of prayer.

 

 

 

 

Social Media Inventory, Part 2

Image: A to-do list, and a partially peeled orange. Photo by jedidja via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Part 1 of the Social Media Inventory is available here.

One who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as it says (Esther 2:22): “Esther told the king in Mordechai’s name.” – Pirkei Avot 6:6

Do I credit my sources online, including sources for images? “Cut-and-paste” functions on our computers make it very easy to lift information from one page to use it in our own writing. Crediting the words of others is a Jewish value; failing to do so is stealing. 

We use images on the Internet to convey information in much the same way we do words. Every image has a person behind it: someone took the photo, drew the picture, made the graphic. While images for worship have a different set of rules in Jewish tradition, images that we use to convey information should get the same treatment as words: credit your sources.

The ancient rabbis balanced the need to pass along good information and the need to credit sources by using the format, “So-and-so said…” We can and should do the same.

“You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people.” – Leviticus 19:16

Do I gossip online? Torah forbids tale-bearing: any talking about others, true or false, beyond that which is absolutely necessary. The principle in Jewish tradition is that all things are assumed to be secret unless those involved specifically say otherwise. So all “celebrity gossip” is out the window. The same is true for unnecessary discussion of our neighbors on Facebook or NextDoor.com. It is as wrong to listen to or read loose talk as it is to spread it around. The standard I apply for myself is: Do I need this information? Or do I simply want it?

Can online reviews be a form of improper speech? Rabbi Meir Tamari teaches that the rules of speech also apply to talking about businesses, because saying something negative about a business can endanger the livelihood of the owner and everyone who works there.

It is improper speech to post, “Ploni dry-cleaners are thieves.” However, a review about our own experience with specific details could be appropriate, for instance, “I used to take my dry-cleaning to Ploni, but after they twice lost things of mine, I switched to another cleaners.” Posting reviews to Yelp or similar services when angry is not a good practice, because it is easy to step over the line when we are angry. (Rabbi Tamari’s examples are from pre-Internet times before review services were prevalent. I cite his teaching but the examples are mine.) Saying, “I’ve heard that Ploni Cleaners is no good” is irresponsible speech forbidden by Torah.

News is a tricky area, especially since many news services have blurred the line between news and entertainment.  A good citizen should be well-informed. However, some “news” is more “gossip” than “news.” Again, did I need that information to be a good citizen? Or was I just titillated by the headline and could not resist clicking?

He who embarrasses his fellow is as if he has shed blood (killed him). – Bava Metzia 58b

Do I behave online in a way that might cause embarrassment to another? This is related to the issue of gossip. Our tradition equates embarrassing someone with murdering them. All forms of online bullying are therefore completely out of the question. Talk about others frequently has the potential to embarrass. The important thing is to stop and think before we hit send; if there is the possibility for embarrassment, it is better to be silent.

Photography and graphics have potential for embarrassment. Ask before posting a photo of another person. Posting a photo of another person without their knowledge may also carry criminal or civil penalties. When in doubt, don’t.

The month of Elul is a time to take stock of our behavior, to hold it up against our highest ideals. There are areas in these two posts where most of us has some room for improvement; the important thing is to do better in the future.

What have I failed to include in these two posts? What would you add?