This post is from a letter that I sent to my congregants. You’ll see that it is built on some of Organic Torah’s core ideas: first, the way that God emerges from us, from our hearts, and from the world. The emergence of God is a huge and really important topic and I’ll come back to it soon. And second: the ecology of our psychology: the way that we are all so connected that when we search for our deepest self, we find that we need to beyond ourselves. To understand ourselves is to understand how we are all connected.
Enjoy, and send me your thoughts and comments.
We have entered the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh HaShana and the rest of the Days of Awe. This month is traditionally taken as a time for preparation. How can we best use this time?
For my family, as the summer winds down, the kids are no longer in camp, and school hasn’t started yet, we have found the time to spend good days together on the beach, in the woods, or just playing in the backyard, and . . . we try not drive one another crazy. Being all together at the end of summer without the crutch of school, day care, or summer camp actually is a perfect combination for Elul. We feel the sweetness of our love because we get to spend so much time together, and we get all our buttons pushed and our Achilles heals scraped — because we get to spend so much time together. And that is the point that I want to make about Elul: it is a time when we notice that it is love that draws us to look more deeply at ourselves and to do what is necessary to be our best selves.
This goes along with a word-play that the rabbis of old created for this month of Elul. They took the Hebrew letters of the word Elul (Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed) and made an acronym: Ani L’dodi, Ve’dodi Li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 2:16). This is the month to draw close to those whom we love, to what we love in the world, to what we love in ourselves. When we do that we are drawing closer to God. But this isn’t always easy, and it involves examining our actions, being real, and admitting when we are wrong. I know that I couldn’t break through all my thick-headed excuses and self-delusions if I wasn’t pulled along by the vibrant aliveness that is the experience of love.
I also get a little push by following the custom of reading Psalm 27 every morning during the month of Elul and though the High Holidays and Succot.
There is one verse in this psalm that always draws me in: “On your behalf, my heart says, seek my presence (or face). Your presence, I do seek.” I think it is fantastic that the psalmist writing so long ago saw that God speaks to us through our own hearts. It is not only we moderns who understand that we hear God not in booming baritone voices from heaven but in the quiet promptings of our own hearts.
The psalmist is saying that when we feel love, vibrant energy, when we perceive beauty or, on the other hand, when we feel the call to action on seeing injustice or suffering, our heart is calling on behalf of something more. “On Your behalf, my heart says, Seek My Presence”: go deeper, find out how this tug of your heart connects you to a part of yourself that is really beyond yourself. This is one of the trickiest parts of being a human: Our true selves do not end at the borders of our skin. When we really dig deep, we find our deepest selves point to our connectedness. We are in our very essence intertwined with other people, all living things, this planet, the stars, the Soul of all Souls that binds all of this together.
This month of Elul is a time to connect to what and whom we love: our families and friends, of course, but it also includes ourselves, our truest selves in all of those moments when we are fully alive, whether we are with our families, at work, helping a stranger, playing tennis or sitting quietly watching a sunset. That call to love is the starting point.
It is the starting point, but then we run into obstacles, and it is in the obstacles that the action really gets moving. Maybe I feel embarrassed to call my friend because I haven’t called for so long already. Maybe I should apologize to my co-worker for some careless remark, but I’m ashamed to admit it. I know I should exercise more and eat better because I feel so much more alive in those moments. So why do I avoid doing it? Why do I make excuses? Instead of dwelling on these points of frustration, we can listen to the call of love, of our deeper Self, God, or whatever we choose to call it, that gets us, especially in this month of Elul, to simply notice our obstacles, and maybe move past them.
Elul is “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” but as we all know, living day to day, even (especially) with the ones you are closest with, can be as deep a challenge as it is a pleasure because it calls upon us to venture beyond our barriers and our excuses and find our true selves. When we do that in Elul, we can go into the New Year a little closer to fulfilling another beautiful verse from psalm 27: “One thing I ask of God, this is what I request: Let me dwell in the house of God all the days of my life, gazing upon the pleasantness of God, visiting God’s palace.”
Wishing all of you a good month of Elul, and a sweet New Year, L’Shana Tova!