Yom Rivii, 25 Kislev 5778
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Elul Reflections

elul

As many of you know, I grew up in the Philadelphia area and so my NBA team is the Sixers. Now, besides having Jewish ownership (Josh Harris), the Sixers used to have a Jewish general manager named Sam Hinkie. Sam Hinkie brought the art of “tanking” to a new level. He had a clear philosophy that in order to create a championship team, one first had to suffer through several years of losing in order to accumulate the “assets” (like high draft choices) that you could eventually utilize to build a championship team. In Philly, this became known as “The Process”, since Hinkie was famous for saying “Trust the Process”.

I am not certain that Sam Hinkie understood the Jewish roots of his Process. As explained by Daniel Erlbaum in an article in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, Hinkie’s idea reflects the Chasidic notion of “yeridah tzorech aliyah.” This translates into “descent for the purpose of ascent.” It is a Chasidic idea based on the notion that there is no ascent (aliyah) without a prior descent (yeridah), and the lower the descent, the higher the potential ascent.

This is what the month of Elul, the month before the High Holy Days, is all about. During the month of Elul, we are supposed to engage in introspection and evaluation of our lives; to truly descend into the recesses of our lives. The purpose of that descent is to make us available to reach new heights of living at the High Holy Days. Observance at the High Holy Days was never intended to be an event, it was intended to be the culmination of a process of teshuvah during the month of Elul.

Beginning 1 Elul 5777, your temple’s clergy and professional staff (and some guests) will be providing a daily commentary based on a verse from the most well-known piece of High Holy Day liturgy, the Avinu Malkeinu. Each day a new commentary will be posted on the temple website to provide inspiration as each of us prepares for the High Holy Days. Through the process of honest descent and introspection, may each of us acquire the assets of knowledge and wisdom we need to ascend to becoming the champion of our own lives. Trust the Process.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Alan Freedman

Avinu Malkeinu-we yearn for true compassion-for our children most of all.

There is nothing like meeting a brand new human being to give us hope for our future. The past two weeks of my life have been completely focussed on nurturing Noa, the newest member of our family. And yet as I recovered from her birth in the hospital and at home, I had to limit my time on the internet because of the impending and eventually devestating hurricane Harvey. Reading about the destruction of people’s entire lives has been too much for me to emotionally grasp in the wee hours of the morning as I feed Noa. I can’t stop the questions in my mind, what have we done to our planet? How will the thousands of people without homes and jobs, without loved ones to rely on or savings accounts to tap into rebuild their lives? And how are moms like me, just days out of the hospital with their newborns in the coastal towns and in Houston, fairing without access to the comforts of their homes?

This weekend I read a beautiful and uplifting article written by my colleague Rabbi David Segal, about the many ways faith communities are responding to the crisis in Houston. In the article he quotes Rev. Barkley Thompson, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Houston, who believes that, "God does not cause the hurricane but can be found within it. God is in the redemption we will find together in response to this disaster." Rev. Barkley reminds me that I’ve been focusing on the wrong questions. Our friends and loved ones will rebuild their lives, with our help. Those that we do not know will find hope in the many organizations and foundations who are giving substantial amounts of fund to those who need it most. Perhaps we will learn more about why storms such as Harvey cause so much devastation, and in the rebuilding, prevent such destruction from taking place again.

God, help all of the victims of Harvey’s rage feel compassion, from you, from their fellow human beings and from within themselves. And be compassionate to each and every one of us, as we do our best to respond to the challenges of our time. With your help we will rebuild and repair our world with hope for future generations at the forefront of our minds.

--Rabbi Cohen

Avinu Malkeinu- remember our goodness and call it to mind

So often this time of year we focus too much on the bad things that we do. It would help us to also remember our good deeds like how people have sacrificed to help those who are victims of the recent floods. These good deeds matter also and are worthy of God’s attention. People are basically good and I hope God remembers us for the good people that we are and not just for actions that do not reflect the goodness that is in all of us.

--J.C. Dahlberg, Facilities

 

Avinu Malkeinu, we stand in awe, we draw close in love.

Like many of the Jews, and non-Jews, across the world, the events that took place in Charlottesville on Friday, August 11th left me reeling. I was angry, numb, shocked, upset. I texted my friends and they, too, responded with outrage. For that weekend, I lost a little bit of faith in America, and in the world. I was, as the kids say, “shook.”

Avinu Malkeinu, we stand in awe, we draw close in love. This verse, I believe, reflects not only how our country has responded to Charlottesville, Barcelona, and the presence of domestic terrorism in our communities, but also the world.

I listened to NPR after the attack in Spain. The correspondent for Barcelona described the sense of unity that pervaded the city, how citizens and tourists alike banded together to provide comfort and courage to each other.

I found an article on Facebook about the white supremacist rally in Boston and the city’s response. Droves of people showed up in counter protest, thousands rallying against the few dozen self-proclaimed “Alt-Right” and KKK supporters, vastly outnumbering them.

As America, and as the global community, recovers from these threats and acts of violence, I feel many things. I feel relief, pride, admittedly a little smug (take that, Neo-Nazis!), upbeat. But most of all, I feel love.

I feel love because America has shown that it will not back down from a threat on its home soil, even when our leaders are hesitant to outright condemn that threat. I feel love because people of all walks of life can count on each other for support, even in an unfamiliar city that is usually ambivalent towards its outsiders. I feel love because, in these past few weeks, the global community has come together in so many ways to show these violent and hateful fringe groups that no, we do not approve, and no, we will not allow you to hurt us. I feel love and I am in awe.

So, Avinu Malkeinu, thank you. Whether or not any of these events were divinely influenced, whether or not any responses were guided by the hand of G-d, thank you. Because regardless of theology, there’s something divine in how we have all come together. There’s something beautiful and spiritual in feeling love for and from your fellow human beings. I hope that, as we move into the new year, I continue to feel this warmth and support.

Avinu Malkeinu, I stand before You in awe, drawn close not only in Your love, but the in the love of my community -- Jewish, American, and global.

-- Maddie Pflueger, Administrative Assistant

 

“Avineu Malkeinu, act towards us as befits your name."

God is an indescribable, abstract concept. God is created in the human image just as humans are created in the divine image. Any possible way humans can conceive of such a powerful idea, and then transform those thoughts into words, and then communicate them outwardly, is limited by human consciousness and speech.

There is power in naming. In the pagan cultures out of which the early Israelite community emerged, the names of gods would be chanted repeatedly in order to commune with the respective deity. But the god of the Israelite tribe, “El”, developed into a less knowable character. Refusing to give his name after a night of wrestling with Jacob, God offers what seems to be an intentionally elusive response, often translated as, “I shall be what I shall be.” God is not someone we can meet. Though God is something with which we can wrestle. Jews had a tough time naming their god. Sometimes it’s just better to go with a place holder like “ha’shem” (the name). This difficulty in naming the divine is one of my favorite examples in which humans created god in our image. We recognized our limitations, inherent in our human design. We felt that if there was in fact a life force pulsating through everything, it would certainly be too awesome a concept on which to simply bestow a name. So instead of giving their god one name, the Israelites settled into a future of referring to god using a variety of titles. By whatever name we know God, may that Name guide our actions in the year ahead.

-- Blossom Cohon, Youth Engagement

goodyear

Avinu Malkeinu – renew for us a year of goodness. It’s interesting to me that we don’t ask that God would make a good year for us, but that God would renew one. This implies that the last year was a good one. Making this renewal request each year helps me think about the past year in a positive light. Even if things went wrong and there were struggles and obstacles, even if it was “the worst year ever,” there is benefit in viewing the past year as a good one, pushing oneself to see the many good aspects of a year even when it was challenging. I admire those who, when in times of hardship focus on the positive things in life. This line in Avinu Malkeinu reminds me to pay attention to and focus on the “good stuff.”

-- Abby Gostein, Cantorial Soloist

 

Enter our names in the book of lives well lived…..

As we sort through all the noise and chatter that modern living brings, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. It’s easy to function on auto-pilot, unaware how far we’ve come from living our values, living intentionally, spiritually, or collaboratively. It’s easy focus on the daily tasks, but forget what it means to live well. Of course, the definition of “a life well lived” means different things to everyone. But when we pause to reflect on how we’d like to be remembered after we leave this world, or humbled as we realize another year has passed us by, it’s an opportunity to pause and reflect. It’s a chance to re-visit our lifestyles and values. We can make conscious shifts to reflect how we would like to define our lives. In this prayer, we’re asking G-d not only to inscribe us in the Book of Life, but to give us the tools to live with intention and purpose. I’m inviting you to use those tools in the upcoming year.

--Jennifer Braham, Director of Membership Engagement

 

Aveinu Malkeinu, act for Your sake, if not for ours.

A bedrock concept within Jewish theology which is too little noticed is that God has a stake in the outcome of our lives. As one reads the High Holy Day liturgy, it might seem that God is sitting in judgment of our lives, dispensing justice but also compassion simply as an act of mercy on God’s part. It is important to note, however, that in several places in our High Holy Day, as well as daily, prayer we remind God that without us there is no one to recognize God’s greatness or to praise God’s Name. Moreover, without us there is no one to perform God’s will on earth. Our God is not a neutral observer and judge. God has an interest in our living meaningful and fulfilling lives because, in doing so, we bear witness to God’s Presence in our lives. Without us, God is the proverbial tree in the forest. It has often been speculated as to why God creates humanity in the first place. Perhaps the reason behind Creation is that without humanity, what is the point in being God? As we traverse the Days of Awe, we do not do so alone. We walk the road of life with a true Partner, the One invested in the lives of us all.

--Rabbi Alan Freedman

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Courage is something high up on my wish list these days. I often feel like the world is full of monsters, horrific things both corporeal and ideological. I’ve spent many sleepless nights staring into the maw of my Twitter timeline and New York Times app, asking questions no one around can answer. Did they really just do that? Is that legal for him to say? But what about all of the people who will die? I keep busy with “the work” and try not to fall prey to panic, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that in the dead quiet of night I sometimes peer into the closet of my fears and quietly ask if everyone I care for, or everyone I could care for if given the chance, is really going to make it through this.

The fear can affect my judgment, and sometimes I feel myself preemptively blocking out people I disagree with over minor things, worried that these minor discrepancies mean they’re “in league” with the monsters. Every rope looks like a snake if all your dreams are filled with copperheads. 

The thing about fear is that, if it doesn’t make you fight or fly, it’ll make you freeze. You tighten up and transform yourself into a wall so nothing can get through. As a culture I think we are taught to admire this. We idolize folks who dig in their heels and stand firm against the possibility of changing their mind, the people who “stick to their guns” regardless of what life throws at them. 

Change can feel so shameful, and so many of us hide the experiences of our previous selves. We can be afraid to admit that we have been changed because admitting being something different means admitting that you were at one point someone you currently would disagree with. But change is also honorable, and being a wall is not all it’s cracked up to be. Being rigid can make you fragile. A reed that doesn’t bend will often break. 

Honoring change means valuing both the position you hold now, as well as your experience holding the position you had before. By acknowledging not only the possibility that you can change, but also that YOU HAVE ALREADY changed, you can believe in the possibility that others can change too. Someone having a change of heart doesn’t seem quite so impossible if you can feel a heart that’s been changed pumping away in your chest. 

By having the courage to remember being a human that once believed an idea, you can better understand the humanity of those who still believe that idea now. Some walls are important, and while there are certainly folks to avoid who would do my loved ones and me harm, I choose to believe that the majority of people I interact with are not the monsters I’m so afraid of. They are just ropes, not snakes, and ropes can be helpful. A rope can become a lot of different things in a single lifetime if given the chance.

This season I hope to have the courage to withstand my enemies, not by indiscriminately building up walls, but by keeping the hope of change alive by compassionately remembering what it was like to be in a different place than where I am now.

--Jayme Dale Mallindine, Education Coordinator

Avinu Malkeinu, Let us Wake Up to the Blessings Already in our Grasp

So often we get caught up in our daily lives - taking care of our children, doing laundry, meal preparation, shopping, work, and the like - that it can seem like there’s nothing good happening for us. The mundane rules our lives.

This month of Elul is a time to reflect on the many aspects of our lives, including those things we want to change, as well as those we desire to embrace. I search for the blessings I have been bestowed, the large and the small. These can often be overlooked.

Remember the old saying, “Count your blessings?” I have friends and family members who do this as a daily exercise that they post online via Twitter and Facebook. I smile as I read some posts sharing: Found time to bake cookies; Took an unexpected walk this afternoon; Completed a jigsaw puzzle with my kids. Some posts Other posts make me want to jump for joy on their behalf: I’m in remission!!!; My child was accepted to UT!; I spent the week with my newborn grandchild!

To be honest, I’m not the most reflective person. I know there are many blessings in my life lurking about and I am using the remainder of this month to search for them. I’ll be keeping a list of these posted on my Facebook feed and will share these on the Temple Beth Shalom Community Forum. I invite you to join me in recognizing and finding those blessings already in your grasp.

--Kelly Finkel, Director of B’nai Mitzvah Studies

rememberourgoodness

All of my close friends and family know that I am hyper critical of myself. I tend to look at all of the things that I’m not doing well and forget about the things that I am doing well. I am very quick to brush off things that I accomplished during the day in order to sit at the end of the day and look at all of things I didn’t get to.

Most of us are not going to be people who are written about in history books and seen as great changers of the world, but where does that leave us with understanding our impact on others and the earth?

I think it’s very important to spend time remembering the little things we have done to help people and understanding that those things are just as important as the actions of more “influential” people in the world. You may not be able to solve a massive education problem, but have you taught someone something that helps them grow and succeed in their life? You might not be able to fix homelessness but have you contributed at a food pantry or a homeless shelter? You may not change people from being angry, but did you let someone into your lane in traffic?

All of these little things that we do every day contribute to a better world as a whole. They may not be glamourous or something newsworthy, but they are just as important. Give yourself a break and continue to look for opportunities to make a difference every day. I think it’ll contribute to a more peaceful world and a more peaceful you.

--Marissa Wright, Clergy Assistant

 “Avinu Malkeinu, let us wake up to the blessings already in our grasp.”

What a beautiful and simple idea. I mean how hard is it to appreciate the things in your life that you are thankful for and feel blessed to have. Yet for more times than I care to admit, I have to say that I mostly recognized my blessings when hearing about someone else’s misfortune-- “Did you hear they lost everything in that fire?”, “Poor thing, he’s getting a divorce”, “His mom told me that he was arrested yesterday?” which of course made me thankful for a roof over my head, a loving husband, and sons who are law abiding. And then it happened to me-- I was the one who experienced the misfortune- the benchmark for which others were probably counting their blessings. Two years ago, I had a heart attack. The type of heart attack I had was very rare, a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), in which one of my coronary arteries spontaneously tore and created a blood flow blockage causing the heart attack. Having suffered a SCAD is scary and awful, but it did come with a silver lining. It made me slow down and be present, really present. And, as cliché as this might sound, it gave me a new perspective about what was important in my life, what I chose to spend my time doing and who I chose to spend my time with. Once I made these deliberate and intentional choices, I began to see, experience and appreciate the ordinary moments in my life as the everyday blessings already in my grasp—sitting next to my husband reading the paper, talking on the phone to my boys, laughing with my mom, waking up. So as strange as this might sound, my heart attack wasn’t really a misfortunate event at all; it was an opportunity for me to become aware of all the blessings around me.

--Patti Bridwell, Temple Administrator

Hear our voice

For me, prayer has always been a way to uncover my true voice. To build a relationship, yes with G-d, but also with myself. Through prayer, I uncover my deepest fears, most pressing concerns, and biggest joys. When I stop to listen to myself during prayer, as I ask G-d to do, I truly find my own voice. I can’t count the number of times I have leafed through the Mishkan T’filah and teared up as I read a prayer, which in that moment resonated deeply within me, or how often I’ve felt a sense of awe as I looked around the synagogue, feeling a sense of deep connection with those around me, who were reciting the same words, singing the same tunes, and asking G-d to hear our collective voice.

In a world full of increasing distractions, it can be hard to find the stillness and framework to understand one’s own thoughts, opinions, and values. Through prayer, I can shut off the noise of the world, and trust that G-d is there to hear not only my voice, but and the voice of my community, and the voices of marginalized communities around the world. I find trust that G-d is patient with our process of making sense of the world around us, and finding our place within it. Through prayer, I’ve found my true voice, and built the confidence to stand up for my values. Yes, G-D, hear our voice, but please give me the opportunity to hear my own voice as well.

L’Shana Tovah.

--Jennifer Braham, Director of Membership Engagement

 

mercyavinu

On the Days of Awe we ask God to “racheim aleinu” – to be merciful to us. This makes sense, as we come before God in our most vulnerable state, asking for forgiveness. It is easy to think about this request as something for us; we seek to gain mercy, to ease our minds regarding how we perhaps haven’t quite “measured up,” to be told “It’s okay.” So I find it interesting that we are asking God to be merciful to us specifically not for ourselves, but “l’ma’ancha,” [literally “for You”] for God’s own sake. This makes me think more about the act of forgiving, of granting mercy in the form of forgiveness to someone else. Although it can help the transgressor to feel better, ultimately the one who grants forgiveness most often gains the most emotional benefit. At this season, perhaps our focus is often on asking for forgiveness. This line of liturgy reminds me that I also need to focus on forgiving for my own sake, for the sake of the community, and for the sake of God.

--Abby Gostein

 The Avinu Malkeinu is so named because each of its verses begins with those words.  The literal meaning is “Our Father, Our King”, an obvious gender-specific reference to God.  Rather than introduce a gender-neutral version of this phrase, our prayer book chooses instead to not translate the phrase at all but simply to transliterate the words.  In doing so, we are reminded that the One before whom we stand on the High Holy Days is not only beyond gender but is also intimately available to us while simultaneously transcending the universe.  Avinu is right there with us like a loving parent, providing support and gentle guidance as we, like children, struggle with how best to live our lives.  At the same time, Malkeinu stands outside of the moment with an eye towards eternity and overseeing the universe.

During Elul, we have need for both elements of God’s being.  We are most concerned with the quality of our own lives and our relationships with those closest to us.  At the same time, we are part of something much greater than ourselves; we are part of the universe and, through our actions, help to shape eternity.  

--Rabbi Alan Freedman