days of repentance: 19 Elul

“now, if you will obey My Voice indeed, and keep My Covenant, then….”

this is the king james version of the conditional preamble of  Exodus 19:5. does it puzzle you like it does me? first because of that “indeed”….obey me indeed. how does one obey more than just to obey? and is that the standard against which we measure whether we have failed in the doing of a mitzvah (“commandment”)? if so, doesn’t it seem that we are all pretty much doomed to fail? to obey indeed…to obey extremely well….to go the extra mile in obeying…..tough standard…indeed.

but this translation, like virtually all of the english translations is simply wrong. but not so much in the use of the intensifier “indeed” as in the use of the word “obey”, for in biblical hebrew there simply is no word for “obey”. surprised?

it isn’t that we are not to do the commandments. there is a word for “to do” in Torah. and we have a word for “to guard/keep/watch over”…in fact, it is the word that you see before “My Covenant” in the quote we began with. but “obey”? nope. the word used at Exodus 19:5 for what is translated as “obey” is the root shin mem ayin, the familiar shema, usually translated as simply to hear/to listen. at 19:5 it is intensified as shamoa tishm’u…perhaps “really hearken to My Voice”.  and it is used hundreds of times in Torah, most often in connection with mitzvot and how we are to react to them.

the 19th day of Elul is for t’shuvah for the month of cheshvan, which has the distinction of being the only month in the jewish calendar that has no particular holidays or mitzvot associated with it.  many modern jews see it as a sort of break after the heavily “burdened”, if you will, month of Tishrei, which has not only the Days of Awe, but also the long Festival of Sukkot, and all the particular mitzvot associated with all those special days and that special season. there is, of course, Rosh Chodesh in Cheshvan and Shabbatot, but none with special character associated with that month.

but Cheshvan does have something special in it (aside from my birthday, which is neither here nor there), for being the 8th month of the year (why the new year begins in the 7th is for another time), it is associated with the beyond natural…..and we learn in the kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah that Cheshvan is reserved for the Messiah and the mitzvot that will come to be understood in that Time. but the thing to remember is that the month is associated with redemption….

and that brings us back to why there is no word for obey for redemption is not a matter of obedience, but of hearing, truly listening to the Voice of G’d in the mitzvot, in the world, in ALL.

“we will do and we will hear”

this is the third and definitive reply of the People (Exodus 24:7) to the call to hearken and to keep that we began with. through the doing we will get at the hearing, the listening to the Voice of G’d, which is full understanding. and it matters, for transgressions are less “wrongdoings” in the end than “wronghearings”, akin to “misunderstandings”.  we learn that “we will do what we understand” (Mekilta d’rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7). and it is this distinction that allows for chesed (loving-kindness) to overtake gevurah (strict justice) allowing for t’shuvah to be the central point in judaism…not obedience.  sin is disconnection that comes from “wronghearing”. t’shuvah is getting the listening/understanding aright. the life of t’shuvah is one that gets and stays attuned to the Voice of G’d. and the mitzvot are the notes and and the holidays the rhythms by which we

“sing unto haShem a new song”

perennially new, miyom l’yom (“from day to day”), everyday, as King David, model and sire of the line of Messiah, sings in Psalm 96. maybe in Cheshvan we have the time to listen to all the doings of Tishrei as they echo in our souls…the lingering sostenuto.

a practice to follow might be to linger on what you are doing right…what brings you close to G’d already…the “righhearing” you already have. abide in it today.

ketiva v’chatima tovah

days of repentance: 18 Elul

“the month of Elul, a time of t’shuvah, a time of healthy tears”

This is the Ari’s comment on the nature of the month of Elul. healthy tears are life restoring, and that is something to remember on this chai day, for traditionally it is on this day that we begin to examine our failings more analytically, dipping into memory to recall our wrongs in time, month by month.

today begins the last 12 days of Elul, conveniently corresponding to the months of the year. and as you would then guess, today we reflect on our shortcomings and errors of Tishrei of the year now passing. indeed, we look again to the wrongs in our way from last Rosh haShanah on! so if you remember wondering the rabbi’s sermon would end more than you remember the message…..well, this is a good day to rectify that and reintegrate your ability to learn from every jew every day into your spiritual walk……

but wait…didn’t we finish with last RH on last YK? well, think about it. what is judged on Rosh haShanah? the walk we have walked in the year previous to that Rosh haShanah. and what judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur? the judgment from Rosh haShanah that just passed that year, so the judgment for your way between RH last and forward is yet to come….and this is another reason to remember that t’shuvah is not a one and done affair, but a continuous way.  hei vav hei…not hei and then just vav.

“bring us back to You, haShem, and we shall return to You”

ends a conversational debate between the Creator and the People recorded in midrash (Lamentations 5:21). G’d tells us to return, we say that it requires the power only G’d G’dself has! and guess what? we are right. let’s turn again to the letters of haShem: hei is the letter representing t’shuvah, the letter with a narrow escape route into the future, and the vav is the extent of G’d’s expression from “above” Creation all the way through it to the Creational level in which we walk–it is the representation of the straight line between the Holy One and us.  we’ve said already that hei brackets the vav…there is t’shuvah on either side of the axis between heaven and earth. to understand the midrash, we can just turn to the hei vav hei. the first hei is our own earthly impetus to return as we recognize G’d, and the second hei, the one after the reach down from heaven, as it were, is the G’d-empowered return.

“haShem is my light and my redemption…whom shall i fear?

haShem is the strength of my life…whom shall i dread?

yes, Psalm 27 yet again, chevrei. but it gives us another important way to look at the hei vav hei way of looking at t’shuvah. haShem as light source is 1 hei; haShem as strength source is the other. Chazal teach G’d is revealed before every transgression as a light to us (are we looking?), and after a transgression haShem is revealed to us as our source of strength for return. it is the “strength of my life” that we count on in the next 12 days to finish the work of rectifying a year’s worth of trudging cheit and aveirah. but i know also that this is the time of embracing and being embraced by beloved G’d

“may His left hand [gevurah] be under my head

and Her right hand [chesed] embrace me”

now do you see why R’ Akiva insisted on including Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) in the “canon”?

ketiva v’chatima tovah


days of repentance: 17 Elul

“y’yasher kochacha sheshibarta”

(you are to be congratulated for the shattering [of the tablets])

this is the astounding conclusion of Chazal (Yevamot 62a) concerning haShem’s decision to have a second set of tablets made by Moshe, upon which G’d G’dself would inscribe afresh “the words that were on the first the first tablets that you shattered“. this shattering is 1 of only 3 completely independent actions of Moshe that G’d praises, according to Chazal.  have you ever been praised for shattering something of value? for shattering something of great value? for shattering something of profound value?

well, yes. if you are doing profound t’shuvah, you are shattering youself in order to get to the essence of your Self. and this is praiseworthy. it is righteous.

“a time to act toward haShem”

we learn from Psalm 119:126. “toward” is usually translated as “for”, but the prefix means toward as well, and when so understand points to the basis for calling the shattering of person in t’shuvah a righteous act. when you are returing to G’d, which way are you going? well, toward G’d. it isn’t the full extent of “to” that matters, but the direction of  “toward”.  and in Elul all of us have the opportunity to recognize that it is a time to act in a direction leading unerringly toward haShem.

the shattering of the tablets is, in the eyes of the Meshech Chochma, a late 19thc/early20thc chassidic scholar,  necessary to demonstrate to the People Israel that there is only 1 source of holiness in existence: G’d G’dself. particularly if you consider that the People were, at the time of Moshe’s descent with the first set of tablets, engaged in worship of a golden calf, it is easy to see how dangerous bringing the tablets themselves to the gathering could easily have led to the replacement of the calf with the tablets. that might at first glance seem to be an improvement, but it is actually even worse. G’d intended the words to be holy revelation and not the stones, and it was abundantly clear to Moshe that the People were doing “thing” idolatry.

t’shuvah is correction of our mistaken making of things to which we cleave instead of cleaving to G’d. but we each must be Moshe to ourselves. we have to develop, in our efforts at t’shuvah, the instinct to know to shatter before our error becomes entirely stony barrier or substitution for acting toward G’d. but none like Moshe has ever arisen, we hold as “creed” in the prayer yigdal. but that was only in Moshe’s capacity as prophet. the action of shattering was taken by Moshe in his independent humanity. what it taught, and still teaches, is that now we can always recover from stoniness and shattering by preparing ourselves as new tablets

“I [G’d] will inscribe the words that were”

the words that were before we mistook them, or misplaced them, or engraved them ourselves in ways that created idols instead of revelation. paths that led us away from the walk with G’d. 

make like Moshe and shatter the hardnesses–it is time to act toward G’d!


days of repentance:12 Elul

“and I was in the exile”

and so he was…Ezekiel was amongst the babylonian exiles, so this phrase can be read simply and literally. but the greater lesson for t’shuvah is gleaned when we read “I” as “ego”, or even self. read it as, “my consciousness was in the exile”, and you will see another aspect of t’shuvah. the reintegration within yourself and then also with haShem. R’ Kook phrases it as: “restoring the human being to being human”, which naturally means reintegration with G’d.

physical exile is dreadful….never to be undersestimated. but we are all of us more immediately acquainted with the exile that is estrangement from oneself, and from one’s community. so many jews these days are exiled from their home community, dispersed amongst the communities of nonjews without a hook to any jewish institution. and all of us to some degree seem to be exiled from ourselves…or at least from our better selves.

when we say that t’shuvah can also be understood/read as tashuv hei, or return of the lower hei of the Unpronounceable Name–the hei that extends into Creation following the vav–we probably should understand not only what the ba’al hatanya wanted us to understand…that we are to return the hei to haShem in Elul…but that the way we return the hei to G’d is to restore it to ourselves! it is, after all, clearly a spark of Divinity, and as every kabbalist knows, our very business on the planet is to restore Divine sparks to their Source, removing them from the klipot, the husks, that conceal their light.

“the soul of man is the candle of G’d, searching all the inward parts”

if we just let the Divine spark within burn radiantly, according to Proverbs 20:27, that spark is restored to being the tool with which G’d G’dself assists us in our self examination. t’shuvah movement toward G’d on our part returns us to our inward parts, and what do we find? well, if we are attuned to it, we will find the Presence of the Holy One bringing the search of ‘elul’ to our deepest recesses, our soul flickering against the walls of ourselves.

repentance doesn’t really cover the enormity of t’shuvah. not all of the work is a putting aside of chet and aveirah. it is also a removing the exile from within us….a reintegration of our parts and understandings.  t’shuvah is a homecoming within us and to our soul’s Source. and that is why every person’s t’shuvah is unique. it must fit our ego. it must be born of the spark we each have been granted. and it must be focused on our personal calling and mission in the world.

we speak often of tikkun olam, the repair of the world, thinking of it as action in the larger world. and so it is. but let none of us forget that there is internal tikkun to be done….and please, please don’t forget that   recognition and restoration of the Presence within ourselves is itself a tikkun for the rest of the world! restoration of the Presence anywhere in the world, including within us, is restoration throughout the world. how?  consider Sanhedrin 23a (jerusalem talmud) or 37a (babylonian talmud)….

“whoever preserves a single soul, it is as if he had preserved a whole world” 

QED. social action will never be enough. repair, return, revolution is individual. it is yours. your t’shuvah must be tailored to your walk with G’d. so what sort of practice hammers this home?  practice hishtavut, “equanimity”, or evenness of heart, soul and ego. do not let the judgments, or urgings, or insistence, or criticism of others alter your t’shuvah except as you yourself understand the words of others as well directed for your path. and remember that you are the only one, save G’d of course, who can clearly evaluate your focus on your individual mission. you need no accolades from the peanut gallery of the world at large….it is YOUR work, with G’d’s help.

days of repentance: 11 Elul

“t’shuvah can be read as  toshuv hei . the lower hei of G’d’s Name is manifest in our world. through t’shuvah we elevate and return the hei and everything it energizes to its true source”

so teaches R’ Schneur Zalman in Tanya (Iggeret haTeshuvah, ch4). if you remember your roots, you will recognize that toshuv hei is a returning hei, one that is leant us by G’d  from G’d’s very name to energize us. this, of course, makes t’shuvah very personal, for who would not be eager to return a tool to the lender? particularly if the lending of part of a good name…indeed, the very best name…is part of the value in the borrowing?  Elul is the month in which we strive to make right things between adam and adam. often that means nothing more complicated than taking stock of what you have and taking time to return what is borrowed, or to pay any outstanding debts, or simply to restore a relationship broken to a fixed state by taking time to apologise for wrongs and setting things aright.

it is all return….restoration….recompense…realization….and, well, revolution. revolution? yup. t’shuvah is nothing shy of spinning and also overturning of habits and paths and violations….we should end up reborn. at very least we should be revolting against what we have been, even if the revolution is more of a restoration. let’s consider a story related by R’ Menachem Mendel Futerfas, chabad mashpia (“person of influence’) in the former soviet union, who spent 14 years in the siberian gulags for the ‘crime’ of establishing cheders (‘jewish elementary schools’, essentially) for young jews in the USSR. upon leaving russia finally, he settled in as mashpia of the central lubavitch yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, Israel. he relates his own encounter with a former tightrope walker while they were in the gulag together….

the rabbi asked the tightrope walker about the secret to his art. “what does a person need to master to be a tight rope walker? balance? stamina? concentration?”

the tightrope walker’s answer surprised him: ” the secret is always keeping your destination in focus. you have to keep your eyes on the other end of the rope. but do you know what the hardest part is?”

“when you get to the middle?” the rabbi suggested.

“no,” said the tightrope walker, “it’s when you make the turn. because for a fraction of a second, you lose sight of your destination. when you don’t have sight of your destination, that is when you are most likely to fall.”

now is a time of turning for all of us (sharper for some than for others perhaps), and none of us is able to perfectly see where we are headed…so we must be tightly focused on the destination that we know in our soul is ultimately ahead, even though out of view. the ultimate return is redemption.

t’shuvah is to redemption as shabbat is to the world to come

but the path of redemption for our People, and for the world, is not a straight road that we can look down to its end. we can only glimpse glitters of the end by looking into our own souls as we work at our individual turning back to G’d. your focus in t’shuvah is a focus on personal mission….and not just your mission, but your shared mission….shared with haShem to whom you return.  the stronger your sense of personal mission, the better off you will be when the going gets rough. every moment of Elul can be (should be) directed toward your mission of return, and because t’shuvah isn’t something you do just once a year, but rather a way of living in Creation, everything you do in Elul and after should be dedicated to your mission in life.

so here is the practicum: what is your mission in life? what do you think your calling in the world is?

if this is a difficult exercise for you, then try to focus on what steps you will have to take to FIND your mission in life!

days of repentance: 9 & 10 Elul

“G’d would speak to Moshe face to face

just as a person speaks with a close friend”

so we learn in Exodus 33:1. but we learn later in Deuteronomy that no other like Moshe ever rose….who knew G’d face to face (34:10).  and there’s the rub. we ALL of us want to make like Moshe…no, no, that’s not it….we all EXPECT to be like Moshe Rabbeinu, speaking to G’d face to face….even though we also know from Torah, that even Moshe could only see G’d’s back when he asked to see G’d’s Glory (Exodus 33:18).

so, what is it, face to face, or face to back, or even

“you may not see my face. no one shall look upon me and live”

at Exodus 33:20ff, which is where we left off 8 Elul with G’d’s shadowing hand as G’d passed before Moshe, who was hidden in the cleft of the rock.

how many times have i heard someone say, “if only G’d would answer my prayer clearly”, or “if only i had a sign”…..then i would believe. well, of course, if G’d spoke to you directly, unambiguously, and face to face, you wouldn’t need faith, for you would only have observational science.  humans are about observational science much of the time. G’d, and the faithful individual,  is about intuitional science, to coin a phrase.

but the demand for observational data regarding haShem is the quintessential modern indicator of the presence of a belief in pirud (“separation”). so very many find it effortless to believe in pirud, but not in Presence. and it is the belief in separation from G’d that initiates the steps toward absence. it is the space created by belief in separation that gives breathing space to the ruach shtut, the spirit of folly, the temporary insanity that leads us to step away from the path and even accelerate toward aveirah, the crossing of  internal boundaries into actions evincing disbelief. as the cynicism, the negativity builds, the tiniest of separations will seem to become overwhelmingly huge. it will be utterly real to the creating beholder. it is this possibility that leads someone, in bratslaver terms, to believe that you can destroy without believing the you can fix simultaneously.

it all starts with an unintentional error born of our own nature. but the important thing to know is that our true nature is NOT negating and not cynical. we all know that by spending time with children…it is abundantly clear that cynicism is taught/learned. not that you won’t hear a lot of “no”, but this “negativity” is born of human selfishness…….so let’s talk about the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov and that popular modern derivative, the ego. the 2 yetzers are the “negative (hara) inclination” or selfish impulse and the “positive (hatov) inclination” or selfless impulse. the word yetzer itself is from the same root as yatzar, meaning “to form, or build, or construct”. so our “inclination” in jewish terms is an innate will or impulse to form, build, or construct desire, and then to actuate it.

before we go further, let’s make it quite clear that haShem finds both inclinations “very good” parts of Creation (B’reishit 1:31), so we aren’t looking to get rid of the yetzer hara. this is important for t’shuvah (and kabbalah).

so what’s so all-fired good about the selfish impulse? well, without a little lust, people don’t couple and marry, they don’t have babies, they don’t have the same drive to build a home and raise and support a family. the selfish is survival centric, and that is very good.

uncoupled from a counterbalancing selfless impulse, though, it becomes what all of us know these days as egocentric. ego counterbalanced is inclined toward survival, toward strength, toward plenty…all of which are part of the Promise of G’d in the Land and as the natural reaction to right behaviour.  without counterbalance, though, ego becomes central and overwhelming, thinking nothing of the well being of any other, and thinking nothing of the effects likely to stem from any action constructed by greater selfishness.  ego is not evil per se, but it can easily become a tool for evil. and the root of the potential for evil is in the ego’s definition of “the other”.  there is me, and there is you. and i’m for me….the pirud, separation opens up. but

hear….G’d is One

human nature in Creation is to have a “working out” of things between 2 antipodes of inclination. and one can err on the “good” side too, mistaking the denial of desire as a greater good than a holy desire (eg, celibacy instead of kiddushin)….G’d is down with this be fruitful and multiply idea, after all.

but the yetzer hatov, the selfless inclination, gets at the central mitzvah

“love your neighbor as yourself”

the other is to be dear to you….recognize that her ego, his ego, is just like your ego. so we should all form, or build, or construct with others in mind as well as ourselves. it is the humble walk, which is not alone with G’d as we might prefer it. think about it, we are all equally required……the walk is crowded in its universal unity.

the ultimate expression of the worldview of separation is avodah zarah, literally “strange worship”, but usually rendered as idolatry. it is the error of thinking a bit of something is equivalent to the everything that is G’d. chassidut (chassidic theory and practice) sees the root of every evil act or negative construction as stemming from an idolatry. there is a substantial dollop of this sort of idolatry in the expectation that G’d answers to us to the degree that we be able to see his face and get a personal sign….if you want a material G’d, go build one….don’t expect haShem to do it for you.

and it is essential to t’shuvah that we get this idea of counterbalancing yetzers right because to live in the moment is very different from to live for the moment. for the moment is to limit the now to what is happening and what we desire. in the moment is to open yourself to the entirety of time that is in every moment…it is only on that scale, the comprising of past and future in the present, that one comes to dwell in the achdut, the unity of all things. the Presence is about the correspondences interconnecting all things, not their material distinctions.

“that evil confronts good gives man the possibility of victory”

which aphorism, attributed to R’ Yechiel Michael of Zlotshov, is very much in line with Zoharic teaching (2:163a) about the very purpose of our existence

all that the Holy One has made, both above and below, is for the purpose of manifesting His Glory and to make all things serve Him….indeed, the yetzer hara also serves the will of G’d

a practical way to get at this is to stop and ask at as many junctures as you can (you get good at it with time and practice): how does this thing i intend to do serve more than just my ego? then go further: how does this thing i intend to do serve others as much as it does me?  then go further still: how does this thing that i intend to do serve the Holy One, blessed be?  if you can’t answer these questions very well, then your path tends toward the idolatrous, toward constructing for you alone, which is not the way of the humble walk. it aint about the bit of something that is the focus of my desire, but rather about the EVERYTHING all together through my desire. egocentric practice is zarah, strange, in that it is not an expression of full-bodied human soul. generosity, with a healthy greed, is good. just plain greed is strange worship indeed.

you can ask the questions at many junctures every day, but you can also hold a kabbalistic mantra in mind to help you comprehend the reality of the Oneness of G’d which underlies all the rest of soulful practice, and also is the basis of t’shuvah:

ein od me’l’vado

(there is nothing else but haShem alone)



days of repentance: haftarah of comfort 4

“my people shall know my Name…that it is I who speaks…hineni”

the haftarah this shabbat just past was the 4th in the series of 7. it is the haftarah of comfort that begins the outweighing of rebuke….there were 3 of rebuke, and now 4 (and still counting) of comfort.  in this text from the prophet Isaiah (51:12 -52:12) we have the call to know the Name of haShem. the unspeakable 4 letters about which we have been speaking since the 4th day of Elul.

it is G’d and G’d only who speaks and comforts the People now. it is direct. as it must be in t’shuvah, for when t’shuvah expunges the sin, the missing of the mark, the direct line to haShem is laid bare. and just as Avraham avinu ansered when G’d calls to him and tells him to lech l’cha, to go to/for/into yourself , G’d answers when called upon by Name by the ba’al t’shuvah, the one who is doing t’shuvah, and who is ready to live in the here and now…..hineni….”behold”, “here i am” …..hineni…..

“in the place where baalei t’shuvah stand,

even the perfectly righteous cannot stand”

hineni….answers haShem to the call of the ba’al t’shuvah, for the master of t’shuvah has drunk the dregs from the cup of trembling/staggering/shaking/bewilderment, the cup of fury (Isaiah 51:17, 22) and has returned to the straight and narrow, as it were….but not straight and narrow as in puritanical, but in the sense of ‘reserve’, b’tsniut, walking again humbly with G’d.

to the humble the answer is humble, as G’d G’dself  answers as simply as the awed Avram, who became Avraham with the addition of a little hei, a little t’shuvah, not as a one-time act, but as a way of life. the ba’al t’shuvah stands where Avraham avinu stood, for like Avraham, the ba’al t’shuvah is rebeginning. ever ready to hear the Voice of the One who Speaks.

so imitate the way of G’d by bringing comfort to one in need. don’t go in with the attitude of “buck up”, but rather with tsniut, with reserve, ready to answer a need with hineni, here i am…..

whenever you call me, i’ll be there…i’ll be around