Monday, September 8, 2014

Embracing Elul

And here is the D'var Torah I delivered this past Saturday, September 6, the 11th of Elul 5774: 

Embrace Elul

I’ve never, ever been good with this time of year.

There’s something about the way the weather changes and the smells shift; the vision of children heading off to their first days of a new school year.

There’s something about the transition from the heat-ridden, dog days of August to the steadier, intense pace of September. Summer’s over, fall has turned its head. And here we are, preparing for a new year.

I’ve never been good with this time of year … never in my entire life … and when my mother comes for the High Holidays she can tell you stories about just how excited I was to be going back to school each fall.

I would like to think that it wasn’t just about the overwhelming nervousness with which I approached a new school year, or the anxiety of a new teacher, new classroom, or new expectations.

I’d like to think that at some point, long before I ever articulated a desire to become a rabbi, my body knew that I was supposed to get utsy and unsettled at this time of year. My Jewish soul – my neshama ­– knew long before my intellect did. 

Because this time of year – the Hebrew month of Elul – is a time in which we begin preparing ourselves – mind, body, and soul – for the High Holy Days … that rapidly approaching period of intense retrospection, reflection, and renewal.

Elul is our warm up; our soul stretch … it is our chance to look back before we look forward.

Elul – the month in which we now find ourselves … is a chance for us to take stock of our souls and our choices. And that’s not an easy thing to do. 

And yet … for some of us, that shift is intrinsic and natural. Whether we are intellectually ready for the season … or not … our bodies and our souls are.

The process of teshuvah begins now, in these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Teshuvah encourages us to make repairs to our relationships, to ask others to forgive us, and to forgive ourselves for the wrongs we have committed. Teshuvah requires that we turn; that we physically turn to focus our gaze on the past … to look back on a year in which we were not perfect; a year in which we made mistakes.  

It’s a chance for us to think about relationships that are now broken, losses we have incurred, friendships in need of repair … and things we have said that we cannot take back.

And that’s difficult. It is so difficult.

When I look back on the last twelve months of my life I am astounded by what I see … and by what I remember! A year ago I was beginning the rabbinic search process, uncertain of where my husband and I would land. The stress and the tension that placed on us and our new marriage … and our relationships with others … was immense, and it went deep.

As hard as we tried to navigate that process with integrity and kindness, there were moments when the uncertainty of it all got the better of us; when we said things to one another and to our families out of fear and anxiety. 

We are human, after all.

I feel grateful every single day that I was given the opportunity to serve this phenomenal congregation … and we could not be happier settling into a life here in Seattle. And we know our families and all our loved ones back in LA are thrilled for us … and happy to see us happy.

But we know that the road here was not easy … because no road towards change is ever easy.

Looking back on the past twelve months, I see and know and feel the teshuvah that I must do – for my soul, and for my relationships. And … I know NOW that I know things today that I did not know then.

But that’s the beauty of being alive, of being human … isn’t it? Our flawed perfections, our minor tears. The scars and stories we bring to each day help us navigate this bizarre world of impermanence … and help us learn how to hit the “refresh” button and begin again; begin anew.

As we head into these next three weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I encourage all of us to embrace this month in which we find ourselves; the spiritual warm-up that is Elul. Let us embrace the utziness that may be brewing inside us, pushing us to reflect and let us not be afraid to look back on the path that led us here.

Let us be unafraid to let go of what we hold onto.

There are a number of ways to help guide us in that process:

1.     You could read a book! The one I’m slowly making my way through right now is This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, by Alan Lew. Find yourself immersed in a book that will make you think; that will push you to turn and look back at the past year and, hopefully, think about your place in the universe.

2.     You can make a “teshuvah plan” for yourself and your loved ones, which could take the form of going back through the year and thinking about its various tough moments … and then reaching out to those relationships that could use a little bit of repair.

3.     You can sign up for “Jewels of Elul,” a daily reflection piece penned by an individual … it will go straight to your inbox – sign up at … or Reboot’s 10Q … … or any number of online experiments aimed at reminding us to reflect each day.

4.     You can visit the graves of those on whose shoulders we stand … as Elul is traditionally a time when we visit the graves of our loved ones, whether to pay our respects or ask forgiveness

5.     You can wake up each morning and ask yourself, how do I make today better than yesterday? How can I greet the world with a little more kindness, more compassion? How can I feed my soul and nourish the souls of others?

Finally, you can listen … for the sound of the shofar, audible or internal, calling us to attention, pushing us to act … encouraging us all to begin that difficult process of reflection … so that we may enter 5775 as the people we wish to be. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Be a Blessing

I've been a little behind with posting things I've written ... let's chalk it up to High Holiday brain!

Here is the D'var Torah I delivered on August 23rd, Parshat Re'eh: 

Choose Blessing

I don’t want to read the news anymore.

I know that I have to – that I need to; that NOT ONLY is it good to be an informed citizen of this city, this country, and beyond … but also that my success as a rabbi depends in large part on my awareness of what’s going on in the world.

But I DON’T WANT to read the news anymore.

It’s too hard. It’s too depressing.

Every day it’s something else … and if it’s not an assault on my psyche of negativity, oppression, torture, and war from the MEDIA … well, then it’s the exact same thing on Facebook and Twitter … from people I actually know.

Even reading what they share is hard.

I don’t want to read the news anymore because even when I remind myself that these horrible things going on in the world are exaggerated … even when I tell myself they’ve been blown out of proportion … well, I still know that there are horrible things going on … in the world, and even in this city.


I started working as a rabbi here at Temple De Hirsch Sinai on July 1st and these past eight weeks … it has been really difficult to be a Jew. Al achat kama v’chama … how much the more so a rabbi!

The week we moved to Seattle the three Israeli boys were kidnapped near Hebron. The global Jewish community went bezerk – and with good reason – calling upon the Israeli government to find the boys and bring those responsible to justice.

Then a Palestinian teenager was brutally murdered by Israelis as a retaliation measure … and suddenly we all took a step back … and thought to ourselves, “wait, is this what we’ve come to? Is this now who we are?”

Only a short while later, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge …  which, as we all know, is still going on.

And for the past eight weeks it seems anti-Semitism has once again reared its ugly, irrepressible head. Protests and riots across Europe and elsewhere … tumult and violence have shown their faces not only abroad but in our own city of Seattle, too.

We read every day about things … horrible things … happening to innocent men, women and children. Not only Jewish … but Iraqi, Syrian, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight, searching and stable, young and old, rich and poor.

No one is immune.

And so, you see, this is why I don’t want to read the news. Because it would be so much easier to bury my head in the sand and tune it all out.  


From a young age we teach our children that the Jews are the chosen people; that we were selected by God from among all the peoples of the earth and held to a higher standard.

There is a midrash that teaches that the reason we Jews are God’s chosen people is because neither party could do any better. The midrash goes something like this: when the Israelites are wandering in the desert, God is searching for a people to accept the Torah. Each of the nations of the world is asked if they will accept the Torah, and each and every one says no … because its teachings – no murder, no adultery, no bacon, etc., - go against the tenets of their own societies.

And so, the rabbis teach, God comes to the people of Israel LAST, this tattered and desperate people wandering aimlessly through the desert. God holds Mount Sinai above their heads and cries out, “will you accept the teachings of the Torah or be buried by this mountain?” The people of Israel, realizing they have no choice if they wish to live, instantly respond: “it is a tree of life to those who hold her fast.”


This slightly absurd midrash has always highlighted for me the inherent tension of being Jewish and being a citizen of a multi-faith world. In many ways our Torah teaches that to be a Chosen Person is to be elevated above all others … and yet, we know that we are not alone in this world … and our collective success as a people depends in large part upon how we engage with those who are not a part of our Tribe.

It’s hard. At times it’s theologically and emotionally exhausting.

And yet … I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.


Being Jewish is about so much more than this; it’s so much more than the pain and the agony, the heart-wrenching anti-Semitism and the violence we see. It’s about so much more than anti-Israel protests and the BDS movement. It’s about more than “us” vs. “them.”

We Jews have so much more going for us than what the news reminds us of every day.


In parshat Re’eh this week, Moses says: see, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. The blessing will come when you follow God’s commandments and the curse will surely come if you choose the way of other gods. As you enter this land that you do not know … choose blessing. Choose life.

Following the teachings of our faith is NOT easy. Even the rabbis knew this; they assert through their tongue-in-cheek midrash that no other nation in the world would be crazy enough to take on this burden; the burden of our sefer Torah.

And yet … (pause) and yet …  

The richness of Judaism … the beauty of community … the language of our sacred prayers … the melodies of our songs … the feeling (pause) of studying Torah together … the blessing of knowing our shared story, of sharing our triumphs and challenges…

Makes all of this worth it.

It reminds us that there is so much to be proud of. So much to love. So much to gain.


It makes getting up in the morning, coming to work, and touching the lives of those within this congregation … all worth it.


Nobody said it was easy … no one ever said it would be this hard. Oh, take me back to the start … sings the band Coldplay.

In about one month, we get to go back to the start when the sun finally rises on the new Jewish year.

May it be for all of us a chance to reconnect with ourselves and with our community.

May it be a reminder of the richness, the depth, and the beauty of this extraordinary religion.

And may it help us rise above the negativity, the pain and the uncertainty, the violence and the fighting.

May it be a new day for all of us … Kein Yehi Ratzon.

Shabbat Shalom.