Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth. You shall not bow down to them and serve them, for I the Eternal your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments.– Exodus 20: 3-4
A closer look, a restatement, a meditation:
Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth. — A manufactured thing is different from a living thing, like a human being, an animal, or even a landscape.
you shall not bow down to them – Do not put any manufactured thing at the center of your life.
and serve them – Manufactured things should serve human beings, not the other way around.
forI the Eternal your God am a jealous God – This is a high-stakes situation! Mess up the priorities, and there will be trouble, to wit:
visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me – Messing up our priorities and favoring manufactured things, human-made things, over the living world can cause a whole bunch of trouble for our children and grandchildren.
showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments. – Conversely, keeping our priorities in order can make it much more likely that our great-great-grandchildren can live in peace in the living world.
When I hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn] it seems to echo down the centuries.
The first time I heard it, I was surprised at the rawness of the sound. The shofar is not a fancy musical instrument. It is merely the hollowed-out horn of a ram. There is no mouthpiece, no reed, no metal in it whatsoever.
If you have the opportunity to handle one, you will see that it is just an old piece of horn. And yet this simple object can work wonders on the Jewish heart. It wakes up our souls during the month of Elul. It thrills us on Rosh HaShanah. On Yom Kippur, it shakes us to our core. It awakens ancient memories.
When you hear the shofar, close your eyes. Feel time drop away from you. You are one with all the Jews of history: one with Joshua, one with David, one with the Maccabees. Feel the disturbance in your soul, the urgency of the shofar’s call.
When I was a child growing up in Tennessee, I used to count the mosquito bites on my body. I could tell you exactly how many I had at any given time, where they were, and which ones itched the most. I could not escape the bugs, but I could keep a perfect accounting of what they were doing to me.
I was on the watch for every slightest itch. I knew when one bit me, and I knew when the bite began to tingle. I paid careful attention to each of them. Because I was always thinking about them, I could not resist scratching at them. As a result, I was miserable most of the summer.
It was years before it dawned on me that some of the misery was the fault of the mosquitoes, and some of it was my own. By focussing all my waking attention on those bug bites, I drove myself crazy. As an adult, I learned that the less attention I paid to them, the less they bothered me. Now I will sometimes get a bothersome bite, but mostly, I notice them, chalk them up to the fact that this world is not created just for my comfort, and go about my business.
The same can be true of hurts from other people. We can choose to keep careful track of them and to catalog every twinge. Some of us monitor every slight like I did those bug bites, focussing attention on them, picking at them, scratching at them, and complaining to the world about our catalog of grudges and woe.
The good news is that unlike the mosquitoes, there’s a cure. The cure is the month of Elul, the month for apologies and mending broken relationships. When someone comes to me and says, “I’m sorry I never thanked you for that favor” I have the choice to accept the apology. If there is something I need to make things right, I can ask for it. I don’t have to trust that person again, if they are not trustworthy, but I can still be healed of that bothersome little wound.
I can also choose to cherish the anger. I can refuse an apology, and say that nothing will ever make it right. And that may even be true: some hurts go very deep. But do I want to carry it forever? Do I really want to keep scratching at it? Or do I want to make room for some healing, not for the person who offended, but for myself?
The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9
if we are normal people leading normal lives, there are sometimes people to whom we to apologize. The offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.
A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process. Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”
Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.
Now: what do you say? Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.” It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot. Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken.” All of those are useful replies.
What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “What do you want? For me to fall down?” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot! And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”
The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended — not at this point — what has to be attended to is the hurt. That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings/ ran over your dog / etc.” And no subjunctive mood nonsense, either: none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff; that makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just makes people angrier.
Then, after the other person’s reality is acknowledged — then it’s time for the explanation, if you want. “I wanted to tell you how nice the party was, not imply criticism about it!”
And if there was damage done (real or perceived), there’s the question of making it right: “What can I do to make this up to you?” It’s a powerful statement, because it disarms the aggrieved party. What will make this right? If the deed was bad enough (you ran over their dog with your car) it may be that nothing will fix it, and that’s sad. You made the effort to apologize, and that will have to do. But if they say, “Buy me a new dog,” then it’s time for restitution.
I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with the people we love.
Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:
1. “I am sorry that I _____ your _____.” Say it with eye contact, in a sincere tone of voice.
1a. (optional) “I intended _____, but instead it came across as _____, and I am sorry about that.
2. “What can I do to make this right?” or “Here’s what I have done to make sure this never happens again.”
3. Do it, if you can. If you can’t, make an offer: “I can’t afford _____ but here is what I can and will do _____.”
That’s it. That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?
The month of Elul is for taking inventory of the soul. The Hebrew term is cheshbon hanefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.” This is not an easy task, because many of us have trouble seeing ourselves clearly. Here are three nontraditional but effective ways to get a reality-based take on what’s really going on in our lives:
1. ROLODEX.I know, you have something more high-tech, a contact list on your phone, an address book, something. Whatever lists all the people in your life, look through it, slowly. Be aware of your body: are there any names that make you a bit uncomfortable? Make a list of those names, the uncomfortable names. That’s your Elul to-do list: call those folks and deal with that discomfort. Take responsibility for your end of whatever happened. Do not try to get “satisfaction” from anyone – just take responsibility for yourself.
2. CHECKBOOK. “Checkbook” means whatever document gives me a fact based sense of where I spend my money. It may be last year’s tax return, or a budget, or a computer application. Ask: how do I spend my money? How much did I spend on food, housing, clothing? How much did I spend on entertainment? What were those entertainments? Where did I spend my money: what criteria did I use to decide with whom I would do business and with whom I would not? What did I spend on justice, on tzedakah, on relieving human suffering? Are there any red flags in this record: too much spending on alcohol, gambling, compulsive shopping? Would I be ashamed if my budget appeared in the newspaper? How would it be different, to be a budget of which I could feel proud? What about the sources of my income: was all of it honestly earned?
3. APPOINTMENT BOOK. How do I spend my time? How is the balance between work and family? Does the record show appointments to take care of myself, my body, my soul, my legal obligations? What do I do on Shabbat, really? Do I show appointments for any volunteering or work that benefits others? Look through the appointments in the book: does anything here make me feel uncomfortable? Do I have appointments of which I am ashamed? Is there anything here I would not want my spouse or children to know? Is there anyone who does not appear in my appointment book because we have an unresolved conflict? What about the blanks in the appointment book: what filled those? Were they pursuits that really rested me, or were they pastimes in which I hid from something – and if so, what?
If you are wondering what “#BlogElul” means in the title, I’m one of a number of rabbis and others blogging together as we approach the High Holy Days this year. We’re organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, aka @imabima. If you’d like to hear a chorus of Jewish voices blogging this month, search for us on Twitter using the hashtag #BlogElul.
OK, so it’s the third of Elul and I’m only on the first topic: well, I’m a little rattled. Actually, I’m a lot rattled, because I’m angry, and the topic of “Return” sums up what’s bugging me:
1. I’m angry at the RETURN of old lies. US Rep Todd Akin of Missouri went on the record saying that pregnancy rarely results from rape. (Therefore, he suggests, raped women don’t need access to Plan B or abortions.) In case you were wondering, over 32,000 rapes in the U.S. result in pregnancy each years, according to a 1996 study published by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Whatever your feelings about Roe v. Wade, vicious lies and misinformation do not help matters.
2. I’m angry at the RETURN of terms like “Legitimate Rape.” This brings to mind old canards like “she asked for it” and such. What happened, did I go to sleep sometime this summer and wake up in 1970?
3. I’m angry at the RETURN of outdated attitudes towards women in Israel, and the use of the police to enforce them. For example, check out what happened this Rosh Chodesh (first of the new month) at the Western Wall, the so-called holiest site in Judaism, which is sounding pretty UNholy to me these days. Four women were detained for hours by police for wearing white or black and white prayer shawls. No, I’m not kidding. Read this blog entry by an eyewitness for the details. I’m too disgusted to repeat them in detail. For a sense of the bigger picture, check out Merav Michaeli’s excellent op-ed in Haaretz: “Be a Woman and Shut Up.”
4. I’m angry at the RETURN of lynching as a substitute for justice. This headline that appeared today in Haaretz, the newspaper of record in Israel: “Israel Police: Hundreds watched attempt to lynch Palestinians in Jerusalem, did not interfere.” The article that follows describes something that sounds like it came out of the Jim Crow South. I am a lover of Israel, a proud Zionist, but I am covered in shame. This, from Jews? From the people whose holy Torah says, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue?”
5. I’m angry at the RETURN of yet more mass murders, in Colorado and elsewhere. Why can’t we figure out how to keep assault weapons out of the hands of dangerously deranged persons? Again, whatever your stand on the Second Amendment, the founders did NOT intend for us to have mass murder after mass murder.
I could keep on going; that’s the awful part.
I know that Elul is not about looking outside myself and seeing what makes me mad. It’s for looking inside myself and seeing what needs fixing.
So maybe the question is, if I’m so mad about the RETURN of these things, what could I be doing about them? I can only change myself, but how can the world change if I haven’t bothered to do anything about it?
Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.” This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it: the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon. The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.
Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life. The day begins at sundown. The year begins in the fall. (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.) Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.) The whole thing is cockeyed.
There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9. Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot. Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week: it’s a nuisance. Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.
Why not accomodate? Why not assimilate? Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?
We stick with it because time is sacred. The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so. But we could as well read it the opposite direction: we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer: it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day. The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world. It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so. But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop! Look! Think! PAY ATTENTION!”
Notice the passage of time. Notice the cycle of seasons. Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon. Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively. Pay attention.
Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer: “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it! Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”