Elul Inquiries: 5777

Rabbi Debra Kolodny | As the Spirit Moves Us. DIANE FREDGANT. FLOWERS.

In preparation for the Days of Awe, Rabbah D’vorah offered daily meditations to be part of our cheshbon hanefesh – our soul inventory. This page is a collection of every meditation.

Elul 5777 begins on the heels of the most transformative natural event many have ever experienced. For me the total solar eclipse lifted up hope for an end to duality and its oppressions and confusions.

On this first day of our 29 day journey to Rosh HaShanah, an invitation to start our cheshbon ha nefesh, our soul inventory with this question: How have I contributed to the silencing/negation/ oppression/pain/exclusion/violence/harm/disenfranchisement etc. against those who are different than me, especially those who are Black, Brown, Native American, Asian, trans or gender non-conforming, disabled or immigrants? How can I remedy those harms?

Elul 2: Humility in the Jewish tradition calls us be in right relationship with ourselves and others-neither taking up too much space or not enough. Question: How have I taken up more space than I should have, perhaps silencing or overwhelming another in the process? Have I done this in a way that corrected or bested someone in public when I could have done it in private, adding humiliation to the mix? How can I remedy those harms?

Elul 3: Now focusing on the flip side of humility-diminishing oneself inappropriately. Question: Have I kept silent when I had something valuable to contribute or when I wanted to say no and set a boundary? Who was harmed by my silence? Myself? Others? How can I remedy those harms?

Elul 4: Once the holy Reb Shloymele of Karlin said this: “God does not wish us to live in a state of continuous rapture like the angels. On the contrary, the Holy One wants us every now and again to lapse a bit, for after we have repented of our error we rise through our very repentance to a higher level than we were on before our fall. And with our upward movement we carry the entire world with us.”

What if we thought of our own mistakes AND the mistakes of others as opportunities to grow, make whole and then make holy ascension? Question: Have I seen the mistakes of others as opportunities to rebuke, berate and shame or as opportunities to compassionately guide with clear direction on how to remedy the problem, thereby inviting powerful connection, forever improved action and even holy ascension? If the former, what harm did my actions create? How can I remedy that harm?

Elul 5: Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, z’l’ wrote: “Ultimately we are theotropic beings. We are meant to grow to God. Our deepest intuition is that we are meant to wake up a knowing that transcends business as usual.” WAKE UP A KNOWING THAT TRANSCENDS BUSINESS AS USUAL. Of course it is IN to be WOKE, so we all want to claim it, but the truth is, THERE IS ALWAYS MORE WAKING UP TO DO. Or we wouldn’t be here any more. Rather than claiming completed status, what if we claimed a ‘woke in progress’ status. Question: Have I turned away from a new way of looking at something, a different way than I was used to because I thought I was fully awake and had nothing to learn from (someone older) (someone younger) (someone of a different religion) (someone with a different gender presentation) (someone straighter) (someone from a dominant culture) (someone from a non-dominant culture) (someone etc. etc. etc.)? What harm did that cause? How can I remedy that harm?

Elul 6: Menuchat hanefesh, literally a restful soul, meaning equanimity or mindfulness, is a core ethical value in Judaism. We are living in challenging times. Many (most) of us never thought we’d be fighting Nazi’s again, and that we’d have a dangerous, hateful overtly and unapologetically racist, misogynist, xenophobic, transphobic, ablest, etc. President. So many of us are angry and afraid for great reason. LIVES ARE AT STAKE!! HOW CAN ANYONE BE CALM AND MINDFUL! Question: When my circuits were fried, or even when I didn’t think they were, have I ever lost it on someone I care about, trust, maybe even love, someone who has proven their steadfastness with me and my causes, because I was triggered by the world, by the endless oppression, hate, white supremacy, etc., so I took it out on someone who is truly part of the solution, unable to forgive their moment of imperfection or perhaps even projecting wrong onto them because I didn’t even hear what they actually said? What harm did my actions create? How can I remedy those harms?


Elul 7: So often the place where we hurt others comes from our own hurt. Someone forgets something important to us and we express anger towards them because we aren’t sure that we are memorable. Or we have trauma around a parent who was frequently angry, perhaps abusive, and when we see anger in someone that could be quite healthy and legitimate and isn’t even directed at us, we decide that person must be unsafe and bad and we withdraw without any discussion at all, causing them pain. Question: Where is my healing edge, the place where if I dissolved or transformed or liberated myself from wounding I would be so much less likely to misstep with others. What steps can I take on my healing journey? What harms have my unhealed wounds inadvertently caused others? How can I remedy those harms?

Elul 8: The Zohar explains that at the beginning of Elul we stand achor al achor, meaning “back to back,” with one another and by the end of Elul we are panim al panim, “face to face.”

Have you seen the amazing artwork of two mesh sculptures back to back, looking hurt and despondent? And inside of each mesh adult is a toddler facing the other person’s toddler, reaching out to touch? That image says it all!

When we feel angry, hurt, abandoned and we turn away we have no ideaof the state of the other person. And we feel or believe that the other person has their back to us, so why turn around?

As long as both people insist on turning away there will be a hard wall between us. When one person softens and turns the whole dynamic changes.

If someone hurt us or scared us or we think they betrayed us it makes sense to protect ourselves. And if we know that the other person isn’t safe, protection is the way to go. But if we are making assumptions or projecting fear from another situation onto this one, it might make sense to give softening a try. To give reaching out and saying yes to connection a try. To give love a try. Question: Have I ever refused to turn towards someone when there was really no risk? In my refusal did I cause harm? How can I remedy that harm?

Elul 9: For years I’ve been using a grammatical paradigm to explain the difference between relating with someone where both people are fully present and fully empowered and no projection or dumping is going on (I called this subject to subject interaction) and the alternative (I called this subject-object interaction).

In May I heard Katherine Evans of Eastern Mennonite University give a keynote at a conference. She described a Relationship Window with four boxes. In it I saw a brilliant expansion of my paradigm. In three windows there were subject-object relations.

You could do something:

TO someone (hire, fire, judge, challenge, punish, praise, use as a strawperson for the sake of your argument, blame, use as a depository for your anger/frustration because looking inside is too hard….)

FOR someone (gift, excuse, help, enable–yes, even if you are being are kind, if you are ‘taking care’ of someone in a way that isn’t mutually agreed upon and/or where a balance is negotiated, there is a subject-object relationship) or you can

NOT engage at all (ignore, reject, neglect).

I would add that there is another important way to make someone an object. You can relate ABOUT them (triangulate, gossip, decide who they are without engaging with them).

The one way to be in a subject/subject relationship is to do something WITH someone (partner, collaborate, start from inquiry not assumption, engage, not direct). BRILLIANT! I loved this.

It is possible that the majority (the vast majority) of our interactions are subject-object interactions. Whenever that is true the potential for harm exists. Question: Have I ever done something to, for or about someone or cut them off, and in doing so caused harm? How can I remedy that harm?

Elul 10: While repairing harm/returning to wholeness (tshuvah) is required of us to renew in order to fully manifest our potential next year, so is tefilla/prayer and tzedakah/righteous giving.

Three times during Elul these inquiries will focus on financial giving (reparations) and three times on prayer.

Shneur Zalman of Liadi taught that if we give even more tzedakah than we think we can afford, our generosity repairs a breach in the upper realms that enables peace to reign both earth and in the cosmos.

What if we chose to act on this teaching as if it were true. What if our failure to act as if this were true is the reason we have not yet actualized peace in this realm?

Tzedakah invitation #1: Give more than you think you can to a place in the world where the pain is overwhelming right now. My choice was Houston Hurricane Relief:


Elul 11: Hakarat Hatov: Literally, recognizing the good, colloquially, gratitude, is a core Musar (ethical) principle in Judaism. Long before the Law of Attraction was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, Judaism instructed us to focus on and grow the good. From declaring daily blessings (some teach we should recite 100 a day), to applying the phrase from Proverbs, “Who is rich? The one who rejoices in his own lot”, to finding the spark of good to thank someone, even if it is a struggle to do so, the tradition abounds in practices to support gratitude consciousness.

We live in a time when there is so much to challenge, confront and demand change around. There is no doubt that we must do that work. That does not mean we should abandon growing the good. In fact, we MUST grow the good so it can flourish and be part of our salvation.

Question: When have I focused only on the negative (perhaps as a result of my own frustration, fear, or maybe even wanting to grow ‘political creed’) and in doing so cast aside the good, causing harm to myself and others? How can I remedy that harm?

Elul 12: Jews recite Psalm 27 every day during this month preceding the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe, and we continue to recite it through the holy day of Sukkot.

The best known line from this Psalm is: “I have asked one thing of Yah (G-d) that I will seek after: that I dwell in the house of Yah all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of Yah, and to visit Yah’s temple in the morning.”

For weeks and weeks we pray to dwell in the house of G-d every day of our life. And wake up and run to be with Yah as we start our day.

In some approaches to dream analysis a house represents our psyche. So if we dream that we have visited someone’s home or become their roommate, this dream represents a psychological bonding of deep magnitude.

What if every day when we recite Achat Sha’alti (I have asked one thing) we truly commit to being one with the One, to being inexorably linked with the consciousness that links all of Creation, to feel the pain of all living things, to feel the joy of all things, to truly enter Yah’s psyche?

What if in our doing this enough humans entered into what Hassids call ‘dvekut’ or cleaving with Yah, and that number was enough to trigger a massive change in consciousness that would banish hate, oppression, hunger, violence?

What if we took Psalm 27 seriously enough to recite it EVERY DAY OF OUR LIVES and to encourage every human we know to recite it EVERY DAY OF OUR LIVES just to see if we could herald in this shift…

What if…Won’t you join me in trying?


Elul 13: In honor of Labor Day, we take note that Torah and her commentaries are filled with invitations to treat workers honorably, pay wages promptly and honor the poor laborer amongst us. As an example, a passage from Sefer HaYirah, Rabbeinu Yonah reads: “Be careful not to afflict any living creature, whether animal or bird, and all the more so one should not afflict a person who is created in the image of the Divine. If you want to hire laborers and you find that they are poor, they should be regarded as poor members of your household. Do not degrade them, for you were commanded to have a respectful manner with them and to pay their wages.”

Question: Have I ever a/given a poor tip to a wait staff in a restaurant; b/paid someone less than $15 an hour (or equivalent in years gone by); c/treated someone in the workplace in a way that could be considered afflicting them; d/treated someone working in a minimum wage position or thereabouts in a public building, park or fast food joint, etc. in a manner that was anything less than dignified; e/benefited from teaching/music/ritual or other experience where the leader invested significant preparation and thought that didn’t require paying and failed to give a free will offering, or f/ in any other way failed to respect or appreciate the labor of another?

If so, what harm was caused and how can that harm be repaired?

Elul 14: Torah commands us to love, welcome and honor the ger/sojourner/immigrant in our midst no less than 36 times. Two examples: “When an immigrant sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34) “The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49)

Not only were we strangers in Egypt, but some percentage of Jews in this country descend from undocumented immigrants. I do.

The current threat to DACA and to all immigrants, but especially those without documentation, directly violates Torah’s instructions.

Questions: Have I ever allowed my privilege as a citizen direct my energies away from supporting Sanctuary and abundant welcome? Have I ever let a comment disparaging immigrants go without a response? Have I ever seen discrimination in the workplace against someone based on national origin and not spoken up? Have I neglected to put my time, money and emotional capital into supporting the rights of the undocumented? In short, have I ever stood idly by the blood of my neighbor?

What specific harm was caused? How can that harm be repaired?

Elul 15: Carolyn Baker in her blog (https://carolynbaker.net/…/if-we-have-no-future-why-grieve…/) quotes Martin Prechtel (Guatemalan Shaman) as saying in his 2015 book, The Smell of Rain on Dust:

The heaviest of losses comes to all of us when we as babies in the womb lose our mother’s heartbeat when we are born. The loss of our mother’s heartbeat and the loss of the hungerless life in the womb are so traumatic and gigantic an event in every child’s immediate beginnings as to cause all of us as newborns to utilize the very first inhalation of our lungs to cry out in grief…All of us were born masters of that hopeful, life-giving sound of grief the day we rolled in, the sound that all humans somewhere know instinctually for grief. It is a newborn baby’s grief wail that is the most profound form of praise for being alive. (10, 18)

Baker then states: “Thus, when we are told in this culture not to grieve, we are being instructed to suppress the expression of an emotion so fundamental, so embedded in our bodies from birth that failure to grieve is actually a violation of a basic human instinct.”

I’ve heard that cultures which suppress grief the most are the most violent and have the most war.

There is so much to grieve about right now, but I’ll focus on what is in my lungs at the moment.

Here in Portland Oregon, we are assaulted by the acrid air from what is now a 20,000 acre wildfire that is ZERO PERCENT contained, fueled by weeks of 100+ degree temperatures drying the forests to an unheard of degree before a few years ago.

The fire is joining with other fires, some of which have been burning since early July. I go in and out of desperate weeping. The loss is mind boggling. The majestic trees! The innocent animals! The land! And of course there will be property damage too.

Questions: Have I ever stifled my own or someone else’s grief response, reassuring myself or others that everything would be all right, or to look at the silver lining or some other pat phrase? Have I ever shut down my grieving or that of someone else because there was work to be done or there was a meeting to go to?

What harm resulted from these choices? How can that harm be remedied?

Elul 16: Torah instructs us to be Shomrei Adamah, Guardians of the Earth. I wonder, why hasn’t someone made a superhero movie on that topic? It could be the prequil to Guardians of the Galaxy. And who would the heroes be? Organic and permaculture farmers, electric car, solar and wind power inventors, maybe the inventors of birth control, since overpopulation is such a contributing factor to the decimation of our planet’s resources…the list goes on and on.

With a Climate Change denying administration in the White House, and all the evidence we need between fires, hurricanes, tsunamis and more, we must become also our own superheroes around environmental protection.

Questions: When have I put comfort, cost and convenience before environmental protection? Have I watered a lawn, left the water running, flushed when it wasn’t necessary? Have I purchased a new car that isn’t a hybrid or electric?

What harm was caused by these decisions (or these times when I’ve forgotten the implication of my actions?) How can I repair that harm?

Elul 17: Tzedakah part Two: Jews have a tradition of putting money in a tzedakah box before Shabbat starts. Traditions vary as to how frequently the money is removed and given away, and traditions vary about how families make decisions about the recipient of the money.

But with those differences, every week there is conscious, intentional attention to righteous/charitable giving in the home.

And every time there is a yartzheit-an anniversary of the death of a loved one, we give tzedakah in their name.

And every time there is a holy day with a memorial service we are taught to give tzedakah in the name of our loved ones again.

And at this time of year, tzedakah is identified as a NECESSARY part of the three- pronged recipe to return to wholeness/shalem for the ways we have missed the mark. There is no return to balance, there is no peace/shalom, without REPARATIONS.

Like any repetitive action, this weekly attention to the needs of others is a way to make generosity a practice, and it inculcate this practice into the blood and bones of our children. It is a way to imprint upon us our obligations to others-to the immigrant, to the poor, to the widow, to the orphan to whoever has been structurally, systemically, persistently OR randomly, spontaneously and fleetingly put in the position of insufficiency.

Today, in my second reminder to give tzedakah, I would like to invite you to give to an organization or an individual in your locality focusing explicitly on supporting those who have experienced centuries long systemic oppression, exclusion, state sponsored abuse and more: Some options that I know of: Black Lives Matter, Don’t Shoot Portland, NAACP Chapter 1120, Sankofa Collective Northwest, Race Talks, Two Spirit Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe and the Native American Youth and Family Center. (Please don’t hate on me if I didn’t list your organization—feel free to list in the comments!)

Elul 18: Prayer part 2

Psalms are rich with perfect mantras for the month of Elul. We are doing such holy and intense inner work of reflection and atonement, and sometimes having a little outside boost is nice.

Even if you aren’t engaging in a soul inventory, try ensuring that the following Psalm snippets start your day, preferably in song, so the message gets embedded in both your right and left brain!

From Psalm 34: Mi ha’ish hechafetz chayyim, ohev yamim, ohev yamim lirot tov.

Netzor l’shoncha mera, usfatecha, midaber mirma, Sur mera va’asey tov, bakesh shalom v’rodfehu.

Who is the person who wants life, who desires days of seeking good? Never let your tongue speak evil, nor your lips pronounce deceit. Turn away from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.

From Psalm 92: Tzadik catamar yifrach, k’erez balvanon yisgeh

Shtulim, b’vet Adonai, b’chatzrot Eloheynu yafrichu

Od ynuvun b’seva, dshenim v’ra’ananim yih’yu

L’hagid, ki-yashar Adonai, tzuri v’lo avlatah bo

The righteous will grow strong like the palm tree, they will thrive like the cedar of Lebanon

Planted in the house of Adonai, they will flourish in the courts of our G*d

They will bear fruit, even in old age. They will remain vital and vigorous.

Proclaiming that Adonai is just. My rock, in whom there is no unrighteousness.

Shabbat Shalom!

Elul 19: Leviticus 19:32 tells us: ‘You shall rise up before the elderly and honor the aged, and you shall revere your G*d; I am Adonai.”

The older I get, the less evidence I see of the manifestation of this invitation. Personal examples abound, and my response ranges from interested to shocked when someone assumes I am retiring as I undergo a career shift, or when some twenty something organizers assume I have no courage/no guts to stand on the front lines and confront hate (despite 8 years of rugby, 40 years of daily workouts, 20 years of martial arts) in contrast to the appreciative inquiry and respect I get from almost all activists of all races, sexual orientations and national origin who are over 40, versus the absolute indifference to 40 years of intersectional organizing by some under 40 because I must be one of ‘those white feminists’…

Before today’s questions, an invitation to gaze upon the beauty and power of aging through the eyes of master filmmaker Nora Collie, a woman I am so very proud to call my friend. If you are reading this and you can give her work maximal exposure so her gifts are renowned throughout the world, please do so. http://www.kaltblut-magazine.com/video-premiere-dan-freema…/

Questions: Have I ever dismissed someone’s words and wisdom because I thought they must be out of touch because of their age? Have I ever assumed something negative about someone based on their elderly years? Have I ever neglected to inquire about someone’s experiences because I just didn’t think they would add value? Have I ever rejected someone because they used language or syntax that wasn’t attuned to this year’s updated version of our understanding the world, rather than inquiring about where they were coming from?

What harm came from that? How can it be remedied?

Week 4

Elul 21: Social science research has proven that SHAME is the number one thing that gets in the way of our living life to the fullest. SHAME is the number one thing that interrupts our happiness. (Thanks, Dr. Brene Brown, for bringing this to our attention!)

SHAME is ALSO something that can get in the way of repenting and making amends.

We humans are hard wired to make mistakes in order to learn. But if we make a mistake and feel shame instead of recognizing and welcoming the opportunity to raise our consciousness and connect more deeply with someone through tshuvah, we lose that opportunity and reinforce the harm.

Shame might induce us to blame someone else. Or blame the system. Or even blame the person we hurt. Shame might cause us to minimize our mistake so we don’t have to fix or shift or grow. Shame might trigger shutting down and/or getting depressed and/or harming ourselves through self-medication.

If we recognize shame when it arises, recognize that it is not our fault when it does arise-as it has been implanted within us from childhood or even our inherited epigenetic DNA-if have focus on having compassion for ourselves first, remembering that we are SUPPOSED to make mistakes, and then allow ourselves to enter the stream of atonement and make amends to those we have harmed, we can live a life of continual growth and awareness, connection to ourselves and others and freedom.

Questions: Have I ever been unable to take responsibility for my mistakes because shame kicked in? What harm did I cause? How can I remedy it?

Elul 22: We are taught that there are three stages of tshuvah/return to our native state of balance, ease, wholeness and connection to Spirit:

First, we have to recognize that what you did was wrong and repent: charatah. Repentance includes atonement, which Miriam Webster defines as reparations.

Then we have to resolve, commit and plan how to do things differently in the future: shinui maaseh.

And finally we must resist temptation to repeat our mistake when it returns, as we can count on that temptation. Maimonides defined this as teshuvah gemurah, complete repentance. (Thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for outlining these three so clearly in several of his teachings.)

So many think that taking care of a mistake only involves apologizing. Many more understand the IDEA of repairing harm, although the concept of reparations has clearly not taken hold in our collective psyche. One proof of this is that no reparations have yet been paid for the systemic harm visited upon Native Americans and Black populations in this country. Fewer still understand what it means to resolve to change and what it means to overcome the temptation to repeat patterns.

Questions: Have I ever engaged in tshuvah that was incomplete? Perhaps apologizing not repairing? Or repairing and then hurting people the same way over and over again, never seeking the healing or behavioral therapy or spiritual practice or or or that would prevent me from repeating? If so, what steps can I take to truly complete my tshuvah and end the cycle of repetition?

Elul 23: Elul 23 One of the most common inquiries I receive this time of year is, “What if someone hurt me and they are so clueless that they don’t even think to apologize, let alone atone? Or maybe they are actively refusing to take responsibility? How can I make them step up! Isn’t it their obligation?!”

It is understandable to want others to do this work. We imagine that our wounds will be soothed and we will be released from suffering if others do their part.

But we aren’t in charge of anyone but ourselves. We cannot make anyone else do anything. And in fact, asking others to change or step up when they aren’t taking the initiative is not how the process works. It can exacerbate our wounding, as it reinforces our disappointment and frustration, and the whole point of a soul inventory is for us to do OUR OWN inventory, not someone else’s. Oh those 12 Step Programs. They are so wise.

So what can we do with those wounds when the balm of atonement is not available?

Remembering that tshuvah is literally a return to our original state—which is wholeness and ease—and that it is not atonement or repentance, we can live into the literal invitation and undertake a path of healing on our own.

Many Jewish practices support that, like:

Diving into Judaism’s invitation to recite 100 blessings a day, filling our soul with all that is right with our world/life.

Reciting our favorite psalms every morning to connect us to Spirit and to comfort.

Taking our anger and pain into our prayers and meditations and asking for help from HaShem to release our pain.

And then of course there are the more general strategies that are also very effective:

Screaming into and punching pillows to fully feel and release anger.

Crying, journaling, taking long walks to get in touch with and release other feelings.

Going to our favorite healers to support us.

We might also take the situation into our own cheshbon/inventory and see if there was a way that we created or co-created the situation and clear ourselves up.

If we know that we are safe from further harm from the person who hurt us we might want to adopt some practices that help us shift our experience of them or even support their healing. Those include:

Growing our compassion for them, feeling into or seeing their wounded soul.

Releasing them from expectation and wishing them the best as they move forward. Trusting the universe and HaShem to take care of their growing self-awareness.

Blessing them with abundant health, ease and success.

Focusing our thoughts on their strengths and assets and perhaps even working to support their success

Questions: Have I ever tried to force someone else to comply with my idea of what atonement was when they didn’t want to? How did I cause harm to myself or to them in the process? How can I remedy that harm?

Elul 24 Another question I am frequently asked is, “I’ve tried to apologize, make amends, complete all of the steps of tshuvah and my efforts have not been accepted. What do I do?”

The tradition is clear that after three attempts to atone you no longer carry the weight of the chet/misstep and you can release yourself. The misstep officially transfers to the person who will not engage with your efforts to remediate the harm.

But that is a legal/technical response, and does not (at least for me) do anything for my sorrow at having caused harm and frustration at not being able to make someone whole, not to mention the burden and inner turmoil I feel over my actions that had consequences I did not intend.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of yesterday’s advice is right on target for today. Remembering that tshuvah is literally a return to our original state—which is wholeness and ease—we can live into the literal invitation and undertake a path of healing on our own.

Then remember from two days ago that tshuvah has three phases. After repentance comes shinui ma’aseh (resolving, committing and planning how to do things differently in the future) and tshuvah gemurah, resisting temptation to repeat our mistake when temptation returns. These two steps are still wholly our responsibility and within our ability to execute. Our growth, awakening, learning, wholeness and ultimate return is not impeded by someone else’s refusal to engage.

Despair not, and dive into the work that is ours! Sweetening the process by sending blessings and prayers for healing and wholeness to the one you have harmed supports whole system return.

Questions: Have I ever allowed my own healing to be impeded because I thought it was dependent on someone else participating? What harm was created in doing so? How can that harm be repaired?

Elul 25: While for millions/billions (including me!) religion has been a source of hope, comfort, wisdom, strength, enlightenment, peace and connection to all that exists, it has also been the source of much wounding. From anti-LGBTQ ‘clobber texts’ which appear to prohibit same sex love, to the general use of scriptures to denigrate the holiness or correctness of those who adhere differently to them, to the belief that my religion is right and yours is wrong, to the sometimes subtle and sometimes horrific abuse of authority by some religious leaders, to the lethal violence done by governments and institutions in the name of religion. There is so much harm for we religious people to atone for.

And at the interpersonal level I must add… atheists aren’t immune from creating this harm either. How many times have people of faith been called stupid, ignorant, etc. from those who didn’t believe?

And those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ are also not immune. How many times have I heard a self righteous declaration that ancient religions are dogmatic, violent and idiotic, or simply stale and irrelevant, while new age thought is enlightened and loving?

And those who dwell in the progressive lineages of ancient traditions aren’t immune. I see wholesale rejection of serious Jewish observance by Jews who are not in relationship with the practices and don’t know what beauty they hold.

Of course many (the vast majority?) of us are absolutely curious and kind and excited and honoring of one another. I for one dwell in the depths of deep ecumenism, teach across traditions, co-create remarkable ritual with people who practice differently than I do and delve into the richness of as many other tradition’s texts as I can.

But still…

Questions: How have I used religion/spirituality/or lack thereof to dismiss, negate, ignore or diminish the worth of another, whether intentional or not? How have I disregarded the importance of someone else’s practice, perhaps in the way I scheduled a meeting or spoke about G*d or elevated my beliefs over the beliefs of others? What harm was created? How can I remedy that harm?

Elul 26: Tonight many communities gather late into the night and collectively pray a liturgy of apology-Selichot. At the center of these penitential prayers is the Thirteen Attributes. It reads: “Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’chanun, erech appayim v’rav chesed v’emet, notzer chesed la’alafim, noseh avon vafesha, v’chata’ah v’nakeh.” “Ya, Ya, merciful and gracious G*d, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness and truth, offering kindness to thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin and pardoning.”

As we offer up our regret we are met with the reassurance, with the beautiful truth that G*d, that the Universe is forgiving.

But are we?

In this culture where hate seems to have seized the public square, where call-out culture applauds harshly correcting others in public, where some incredibly powerful people are forgiven everything they say and do, but those who share a beautiful vision of a world beyond hate devour each other for every mistake, are we forgiving? Can we be?

Questions: Have I refused to forgive someone when they fully atoned and made sure they would never repeat the mistake? Have I allowed my attachment to what I considered perfect to get in the way of manifesting the pretty good (if not great.) Has my righteousness resulted in achievement of my goals, or is there a way that my intolerance of missteps or even a diversity of approaches has maintained the status quo? What harm has this caused? How can I remedy it?


Elul 27: Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, quoted in Pirkei Avot 3:17, said “Ein kemach, ein Torah; ein Torah, ein kemach.” “If there is no food, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no food.”

If we are too weak to think of anything but basic survival, our spiritual lives cannot flourish. This seems obvious to us at the individual level, but do we heed this message at the societal level? Because of course this just as true for us as a collective as it is for each of us. When there are so many whose basic needs are not met, peace, appreciation of difference, connection, intradependence and ease are nigh impossible. The Isaiah haftarah on Yom Kippor makes this abundantly clear.

On the flip side we are advised: without Torah we won’t have enough to eat. Without a book of teachings we will not be able to feed us all???? This declaration might seem less obvious to those not immersed in Torah’s teachings.

Let’s take a look at what Torah has to say, what recipe Torah gives us to achieve universal sustainability. Here are just a few of her hundreds of mandates on how to live in right relationship with Creation and one another, creating a rising tide that lifts all ships. We are instructed to:

  • Guard and honor the land (e.g.: let her lie fallow every 7 years to support her productivity)
  • Ensure that all are fed (e.g.: leave the corners of the fields for the poor, the widow, the orphan)
  • Honor those who are different from us (e.g.: 36 times welcome and honor and feed the sojourner/immigrant and in some instances treat them as you would your family)
  • Treat the worker honorably (e.g.: pay them at the end of every day and give everyone a day off from work every week)
  • Prevent the accumulation of wealth and release debt regularly (every 50 years the land returns to proportional distribution and debt is released)
  • Not harm animals (e.g.: don’t yoke an ox and an ass together, lest you hurt the ass).

Ein Torah ein kemach. No Torah, no food. If we as a human collective cannot ensure that ALL are fed and housed, given health care and education, there is and will be NO peace, no ease for ANY of us.

Questions: How have I, through my daily chooses, contributed to practices that did not feed, empower, educate, heal and ensure full employment for ALL? What harm was caused? How can I remedy it?

Elul 28: Tzedakah part three: You may have noticed that when I speak about the obligation to generosity in the Jewish tradition I don’t use the word charity. I use the word righteous giving. That is because tzedakah literally means righteousness or justice. This is important to me because it directs the majority of my giving to justice seeking organizations.

And yet there is a second recipient of my giving, and that is the spiritual organizations that nourish me. Without their infusion of insight, inspiration, heart connection, etc. my well would run dry, and I could not continue my own work. When those spiritual organizations are themselves engaged in justice work, my donations are all the more generous.

If a spiritual organization or teacher also nourishes you, this invitation is to give generously today to the one who fills your well.

I have been inspired by appreciations I’ve received to date to mention that if my offerings have nourished you, whether through these Elul posts, https://www.asthespiritmovesus.com/blog/, other writings, my public street rabbinate, or my spiritually led social justice work, I would be honored if you offered your appreciation to As the Spirit Moves Us and Portland’s UnShul through PayPal today: http://bit.ly/2uFu9N1

Elul 29: Tefilla, part three: Our High Holy Day liturgy reminds us over and over that we will be inscribed (or not) into the Book of Life on Rosh HaShanah and sealed (or not) on Yom Kippor. The general motif of our Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) and the grammar of prayers seems to be saying that G*d will be making these decisions. It is logical to deduce that our fate is not in our own hands. I know Jews who have left the tradition over this.

HOWEVER! This is NOT like a pop quiz where we arrive to school and didn’t know to study for it and so it’s easy to fail. This is NOT like one of those nightmares where we arrive at the Spring concert and we haven’t ever practiced our alto sax solo in the jazz band because we didn’t even know that we had a solo and we are terrified and wake up in a sweat. (A window into the psyche of my younger self.)

For me, this season is more like we are going to court and the judge wants us to succeed so much that we are given gobs of incredibly detailed directions and practices that coach and support and love us into the place where we know exactly what to do. And success isn’t telling the story in such a way that the judge will find for us, it is being the best human being we can be, cleaning up our messes and working for the common good. So when we listen to the Unetanatokef and we hear the refrain, utshuva, utefilla, utzedakah, maavirin et roah ha gazera (and return, and prayer/connection and righteous giving avert the severe decree) we KNOW we have done all we can do.

Today, in the last hours before Rosh HaShanah begins, and 11 days before Yom Kippor ends, an invitation to sing this refrain as a mantra 5 times a day until the end of Yom Kippor and then be quiet for a minute after each refrain. See if in the silence it occurs to you that there is another action you can take to write and seal yourself into the book for a beautiful life, being the best you possible.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’tichatemu May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

B’ahava uvracha rabbah,

With so much love and so many blessings,

Rabbah D’vorah