days of repentance: 24 Elul

“who is a rose? assembly of Israel. for there is a rose, and then there is a rose! just as a rose among thorns is colored red and white, so Assembly of Israel includes judgment and compassion. just as a rose has 13 petals, so Assembly of Israel has 13 qualities of compassion surrounding Her….”

the introduction to the book of Zohar begins thus (pritzker edition, 1:1a), and evolves universes thereafter. but this opening is particular important to the People Israel (Assembly of Israel) as it gathers itself together worldwide, always facing Jerusalem, for the prayers of the Day of Judgment (Rosh haShanah) and the Day of Compassion (Yom Kippur). the 13 petals of the rose, derived from Song of Songs 2:2, is said to map against the 13 Compassionate Attributes of G’d, themselves derived from Exodus 34:6-7, as codified in Talmud (Rosh haShanah 17b).

“haShem, haShem, G’d, showing-mercy, showing-favor, long-suffering in anger, and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, keeping loving-kindness to the thousandth [generation], bearing iniquity, rebellion and sin,  clearing”

“clearing” those who do t’shuvah, and not “clearing” those who don’t, at least in many readings. the reading we offer on the Days of Awe simply stops with clearing (13)…..and Chazal go on to tell us that “whenever Israel sins, they ought recite this, and I [G’d] will forgive”. so you tell me now: what’s in a word? how bout in 13?

talk about a lucky…no, not lucky…rather blessed number. perhaps we will talk more about words and speech tomorrow, on the birthday of Creating…..the emergence of yesh (stuff) from ayin (no-thing)…

but today, 24 Elul, the day before the traditional date of creation, 25 Elul, is considered in kabbalah to be the “Shabbat” that blesses all Creation. the ayin (nothing, not-doing, not-controlling) state of shabbat being the base out of which all the hurly burly of universese springs. the relationship between t’shuvah and a sort of shabbat pre-existing all we know, all we live, wherein we work, is important. both things partake of G’dliness, and are holy in their separation from Creation…at least in their original root existence.

each offers a taste of the world to come during the duration of the world that is, so long as WE MAKE IT SO by walkin the way of the 13 alongside the Waymaker. on 24 Elul we do t’shuvah for the month of Nisan, the month of liberation, of passing over, of becoming the Assembly of Israel.

oh, and by the way, 24 Elul is also the traditional day on which Noah sent out the dove a second time. it is from this sending that the dove returns with an olive branch. life, once again, is good.

dwell on the 13 between now and Rosh haShanah. find ways to be, just be, powerful, showing, long suffering, overflowing, keeping, bearing and clearing. how many can you fit into your t’shuvah where you find yourself now?

ketiva v’chatima tovah



days of repentance: 22-23 Elul

“G’d will answer you on the day of distress”

we learn this from Psalm 20:2. so the question becomes are you distressed enough in your current t’shuvah work to get that immediate answer? are you doing proper hachna’ah? that is, real admission and acceptance of your wronghearing during the course of the last year?  are you completely envisioning a separation from what has been wrong and a setting off on a corrected path?  which is to ask: are you ready to be yourself? that is, your real, core, G’d-whole self to the very best of your ability and effort?

“when troubles come upon Israel due to their iniquities, let them stand before Me as one family and say the seder selichah….

and I will respond to them.”

so says the midrash (Eliyahu Zutta ch23). our ashkenzi family have joined us now in the daily saying of selichot prayers, so we are now one nation, under G’d, indivisible, with responsibility and justice for all. this may be as close to super as we can get, for if we are preparing well during Elul, we will find a favorable judgment on Rosh haShanah, and will be sealed for a sweet new year (ie, full of hamtakah, sweetening of reintegration). and what we do, if we accept the teachings of our tradition, has effects in all the Creation. if you believe you can destroy, you must, must believe that you can repair.

on the 22nd, we did t’shuvah for Shevat (the month of the new year for the trees), and on the 23rd we did t’shuvah for Adar (the month of Purim….aaarrrrgh!)  a quickie for those of you fond of drinking on Purim till “blessed be mordechai” and “cursed by haman” can no longer be distinguished…that would, i’d think, be a lot of drink…unless you consider non-literal meanings…R’ Alexander Hacohen pointed out in the 14th century that the 2 phrases had the same gematria (502, if i remember aright), so that underneath the surface meaning, the 2 are not just indistinguishable, but identical….

why? well beneath all the variations of our understandings their is the unimpeachable unity of haShem. and it is living in that level of understanding that changes everything. so, if you believe that you can destroy (cursed be haman), you must believe you can repair (blessed be mordechai). you see, chevrei, Purim really is the messianic holiday….the one that will remain in the end times….

but Elul is the time of preparation for the intense t’shuvah of the Days of Awe. and each of the 2 Great Days has its own type of t’shuvah: the general t’shuvah of Rosh haShanah, and the utterly specific t’shuvah of Yom Kippur, in which we spell out our iniquities on the individual level thoroughly. we work as a nation in Elul doing general preparation; but now, in this week of lead up to Rosh haShanah we get a bit more specific in the selichot prayers (look at them carefully). and between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur we redouble the  specific intensity of our personal infusions into the selichot prayers yet again. twice daily…for the double return of the Days, based on the words of Judah to his father Jacob (Genesis 43:10)

“Shavnu zeh paa’mayim”

“we could have returned there and back twice by now”


ketivah v’chatima tova


days of repentance: 20-21 Elul/haftarah of comfort 6

“i firmly rely on the gates of tears, which are never closed”

you may recall this verse from the Ne’ilah prayer of Yom Kippur. it reveals a good deal about the traditional jewish attitude toward “wrongknowing” of G’d and the “wrongdoing” to which it leads: regret at having missed the point. and the recognition of the consequences of that wandering away for the world, not just for each of us. for we are a People built on the idea of responsibilities, not rights. when we fail, we fail not only ourselves, not only the Holy One, but we fail each other and leave more brokenness unrepaired.

we break things and are broken ourselves thereby. breakage brings hurt. remember the last time someone broke a promise to you. remember the last time your heart was broken by another. was it secret and contained? or did it have wider consequences and follow-on breakage?

but the way of this People of responsibility has always been to recognize that brokenness is also the beginning of redemption. all the prophets reveal this truth. and the kabbalistic way sees Creation as being the history, if you will, of the way of repair, for brokenness is built into the world we come into.

the holiest place available to us today is the remnant of a wall of the Temple compound. have you ever wondered why a broken piece of wall is THE place of prayer? why not build a jewish dome of the rock…so lovely. or maybe the grandeur of st peter’s in rome would suit better? no.the world doesn’t need the smoothing over of fine finishes and gleaming surfaces. it needs a broken remnant, and the haftarah of comfort for this week tells us why by showing us the look of a world redeemed (Isaiah 60:6 & 18)

“aliens will build up your walls…you will call your walls


the broken wall is reality. we go there to pray because it brings tears to the feeling heart…it is in a way a test of our submission to the understanding that the world is broken, and it is from that starting point that we move to repair. but that repair is never ours alone to do. we are all in it together, and that is why we do no say ne’ilah alone in the privacy of a corner. we are a People of responsibility. and our tears are for failings personal and communal….as all wronghearings, wrongknowings and wrongdoings are.

tears are the representation that the 3-stage practice of t’shuvah is taking hold:

1. hachna’ah…acceptance and humbling. there is no getting around “submission” to a full accounting of your brokenness. knowing that your path has strayed…you are walking still, but not closely with G’d. simple honesty is all you need. where do you need to be? and how far from it, in which ways…what is the pattern of wronghearing?

2. havdalah….separation from your past. once you have accounted for the error and ferreted out the pattern of misunderstanding, you put off the burden.  your true self is always connected to the Core of All Souls, so know that all wrongknowings are not essential to you. what is pure in you drives the return.

3. hamtakah… the “sweetening” stage. in this stage is forgiveness, relying on the loving acceptance of G’d in spite of all…tears of Ne’ilah. and the real sweetening in tears of reintegration of your self, and getting back to the walk with G’d, not merely in sight, or sorta near, but with.

“weeping may tarry for the evening,

but joy comes in the morning”

this from Psalm 30, but we also see the morning of t’shuvah in the haftarah of comfort

“arise, shine, for your light has come”

indeed, rise and shine, chevrei, and rectify today and on shabbat the months of Kislev and Tevet respectively. like light….that smile shines brightest that follows on after sweet tears.

ketiva v’chatima tovah

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: 13 Elul

 “you shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep or goat cast off and hide yourself from them;

you shall surely return them to your brother . . . you will be unable to hide yourself”

R’ Avraham Shaag asks the obvious question of this phrase from this week’s parsha (Devarim 21:22-23): why the odd near repetition of the phrase about hiding yourself? he answers his question by explaining that even someone born with negative character traits (ie, laziness, tendency to complain, stubbornness, etc) can acquire good traits in their place. it is done by “answering a call, either from their heart, or from their knowledge” and behaving contrary to one’s natural tendencies. in this case, if your tendency is not to get involved–but you know in your heart you should, or you remember this mitzvah from Torah study, or your mother would be soooo disappointed in you–break it by going out of your way to do this mitzvah……repeatedly if necessary.

that last part, the repeatedly if necessary, is learned from Chazal. they learn from the phrase “you shall surely return them to your brother” that you must return a lost thing EVEN IF THE OWNER HAS LOST IT BEFORE AND YOU HAVE ALREADY RETURNED IT….100 TIMES BEFORE!

the mitzvah is alive in every moment, so too is the obligation to do it alive in every instance. there is no such thing as “habitual mitzvot”…though there certainly can be mechanical repetition in frequently repeated “everyday” mitzvot in those who do not yet live in the moment. but repetition serves to ingrain the doing in you. it will become as natural to you as breathing.

R’ Shaag uses this verse to point out that this is how you change your tendencies. what’s more, we should look for like opportunities to ingrain better behavior in ourselves during Elul. we should stop our indifference to others, remove all hatred from our hearts, put aside preening arrogance, stomp out lashon hara, and stop doing the errors for which we are atoning now. then maybe by the time Yom Kippur has passed, the new good behavior will have become second nature for us (D’rashot haRash, I, #25).

thus, you will be unable to hide yourself.

t’shuvah can also mean “response” or “answer”. there are many people who will turn toward G’d in moments of great crisis or fear, or in the face of enormous personal loss.they seek answers in response to hardship. their questions will often be deep seated and challenging, and they may not always be ready for the answers. no light is as bright as that which comes out of the darkness.

but it is always possible also to find opportunities around you in the most humdrum aspects of life and in the light, not the dark. and they also can exert a powerful call…and answers that will break your ways beyond what you would have thought possible. the opportunities will be deeply concealed in your habits, or in your everyday reactions to the people around you, or the world around you, or in your underlying assumptions.  the problem is that you have to find it out. and it is hidden to you by its everyday nature…and yourself  may now be hidden in it.

the parshah gives you a hint. what are the routine goods you do now? 100s or 1000s of times? and what are the things you know you should do, but shirk? you know your deeds…you know your “routines”. what is their to answer?

ketiva v’chatima tova

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: 8 Elul

“all the ways of man are straight in his eyes”

we learn this insight in Proverbs 21:2. but all the ways of humans are not straight in G’d’s eyes. some miss the mark, which is the root of the most common word for sin in Torah, namely, chet….as in the High Holy Day prayer, Al Chet (“for the sin..”). we recite this prayer, with its list of  “sins we have committed before You [G’d]” by doing or being in many different ways out of step in our walk with haShem. we repeat it a minyan of times…10 times during the course of Yom Kippur. each way of sin is a descriptor of a missing the mark, eg, “by foolish talk”, “by improper thoughts”, “by running to do evil”, “by casting off the yoke of heaven, etc. there must be about 50 ways to step away from your G’d. some go beyond “mere” misalignment and describe a deliberate crossing over a boundary, an aveirah, which shares the root not only of avar (the past) but also of “overing” , crossing a boundary with deliberation.

to do a mitzvah is to align and connect with the intention of haShem. when a person in a military force accepts an order, that one aligns herself with a superior officer, but also with the rest of the forces working to achieve a mission. it is all about alignment and connection for more effective results. mitzvot in Torah are not fundamentally different. when we accept them, and understand them, we act in concert with the other doers of tikkun olam (repair of the world).

so in a fundamental sense, every chet, every misstep, is an anti-mitzvah.

chet is being out of step, or out of line…fundamentally to walk Torah crookedly or from a distance. aveirah is to deliberately set out on a wrong route, perhaps not recognizing that the route is wrong, but going off course and out of bounds deliberately.  to disconnect from the corps is to stretch your spiritual supply lines, or to go off the grid entirely, and to get increasingly out of earshot of subsequent mitzvot….eventually, you will simply drop all calls.

the Midrash Rabbah relates that all levels of chet are expressions of a temporary state of heresy. chet is not an absence of G’d , but an internal failing of an assumption about G’d…perhaps that G’d is not intimately concerned with Creation, or that G’d has better, bigger things to do then to pay attention to some small peccadillo, or, more seriously, to believe that G’d does not exist. when these heretical attitudes take root, even temporarily, we are no longer in clear touch with our ultimate soul source….though we think our path is straight and well considered, we are operating with ever diverging gps data. and the way back becomes increasingly difficult to discern, even if we suddenly realize we are off course. eventually we all realize that we are lost. but up until that time, it is easier to ride the horse in the direction it is going. we can all harden our hearts in such a way.

“humans do not commit transgressions unless a ruach shtut (spirit of folly/nonsense) enters”

so teach Chazal in Sotah 3a. think for a second about your last kashrut violation…exactly what made the particular food item so much more important than walking humbly with G’d?  what were you thinking?  probably not about Torah, yes? probably that it wouldn’t matter to G’d, right?  whatever would give a person such an idea?  ruach shtut. the problem is that each bad decision draws others after it. and bad decisions settle into habit, tossing free will into the dustbin, replacing it with a preconditioned way of acting, thinking, and being. once you accept an error as being a precendent, you are trapped in your past and no longer in a free moment.

the aspect of t’shuvah practice that is directed to this is to control what you take in. if you spend hours listening to music about wobbling breasts and booty, well, you are likely to start seeing the world in similar terms. if you restict such shtuyot (foolishness) you are less likely to see the world so. we are touched by what we entertain ourselves with. the very high and difficult ideal is to always have words of Torah in mind, and heart and ear. we learned in the 4th haftarah of comfort just this shabbat past (Isaiah 51:16):

“and I have put My words in your mouth, and I have covered you in the shadow of My Hand”