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Elul Kavannot 5778












In these weeks from Rosh Hodesh Elul through Yom Kippur, our community will wrestle with deeper understandings of teshuvah, as reflected through various rabbinic, Hassidic and contemporary texts. How do we recognize the spark of holiness, or point of goodness in ourselves and others, and return home to our purest essence? A different text will be highlighted each week, and on each day of that week, you’ll see responses and reflections from BJ community members. Through their voices, experiences, insights into teshuvah, and explorations of the many types of ideas, beliefs, and personal relationships with God, we hope that you too might feel a spark of inspiration in the spiritual preparation for the Yamim Nora’im. Discover last year’s Elul reflections here.

Abi Weber

וְע֣וֹד מְ֭עַט וְאֵ֣ין רָשָׁ֑ע וְהִתְבּוֹנַ֖נְתָּ עַל־מְקוֹמ֣וֹ וְאֵינֶֽנּוּ׃

A little longer and there will be no wicked man; you will look at where he was— he will be gone.

—Psalms 37:10

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Carol Offman

“One must take great care to be joyful always and to keep sadness at a very great distance.”

This teaching from Reb Nahman resonates with me as I reflect on my early years of parenting. Raising children, especially those who insist on ‘walking to the beat of their own drum,’ can challenge one’s feelings of worthiness as a parent and even as a human being. Those moments of strife, not knowing how my parenting decisions were going to affect my children in the long run, filled me with self-doubt, anxiety, and a host of other negative emotions. Read more »

Deborah Sacks Mintz

Each and every morning, the Jewish community sings “Kol Haneshama tehallel Yah, Haleluyah —Let all that has breath praise Yah” (Psalm 150:6). Just as the psalmist’s ancient text is sung anew each morning, so too are we faced with an opportunity to envision ourselves anew—should we only decide to grasp this sacred opportunity.

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Judith Plaskow

Rabbi Marcia Prager’s words remind me of an exercise Marcelo gave to the congregation during Ne’ilah a few years ago. As we came to the end of Yom Kippur, he asked us to take a few minutes to think of a quality we deeply value in ourselves. Then he asked us to reflect on how we could take a small step to strengthen that quality in the coming year. Then he suggested that whatever step we had come up with was undoubtedly too large and that we should think about how to take a small step toward that small step so that we had a meaningful and realistic way to cultivate our best selves in the coming year.

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Judith Trachtenberg

I grew up in a warm, welcoming Jewish home. As an only child and the daughter of a Rabbi, Judaism was central to my life–Shabbat, holidays, camp, daily living and more. Each brought learning and delight to me. Judaism was always present; I grew and it grew within me. My Judaism was also informed by  global, macro issues- World War II, immigration to this country, the “scare” of communism, the expansion of industrialization. Social justice and action was always part of my family: collecting newspapers for the war, accompanying my mom as she gave blood, welcoming people into our home as they arrived displaced from Europe. One day my father’s weekly chess partner disappeared. Jim had been arrested, we were told, by the government, for being a communist. I never saw him again.

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Kristen Kersey

I recently had the opportunity to study a more traditional translation of the Al Chet at my Shabbat table the day before Rosh Hodesh Elul. There was one line that struck me; a line I hadn’t noticed before: “And for the sin which we have committed before You by a confused heart.”

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Margo Hughes-Robinson

Breathe in, breathe out. As we take air into our bodies, we rejuvenate ourselves on a precise, but barely noticeable scale. Breathing out, we release air that we cannot use, air that has been transformed by our bodily interaction with the oxygen we just inhaled. Every moment of the day, whether we are aware of it or not, we subtly and minutely engage in an act of creation and re-creation that mirrors our own first breaths, and the “first breath” of our planet 2.45 billion years before us, when the atmosphere first began to support this process of respiration.

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Martha Ackelsberg

On its most straightforward reading, this passage from Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer tells us that teshuvah is necessary for the world to stand.  We cannot exist without the possibility of turning, of rethinking our behaviors. And why? Because we are imperfect. We all do—and will—make mistakes. And, therefore, we need the opportunity to recognize those mistakes, to change, and to make amends.

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Marvin Israelow

Reb Nahman invites us to find a little bit of goodness in each person—including ourselves. Finding the spark of goodness is the key to transformation. No matter how much darkness and evil exists, once we raise a single spark to awareness, we set in motion a process that creates the potential to ignite additional light, to enable additional goodness.

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Rabbi Adina Lewittes

Every life is shaped by two great love stories. The first, philosopher Alain de Botton explains in his book Status Anxiety, is our quest for intimacy with another human being: a story well known—the inspiration for art and music, literature and movies—a story celebrated across time and space.

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Rabbi Carole Balin

I’m fascinated by the Sefat Emet’s teaching that every single thing—even inanimate objects like trees and stones—contains not only the spark of holiness, but also the spark of sin. If so, even they must repent. It got me thinking about Rivka Miriam’s poem “Elul.” In the poem, she describes rocks being forgiven “because they didn’t move” and “the heights” receiving compassion “for being so distant from earth.”

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Rabbi Erin Glazer

We will fail, we will leave and go astray, and yet we will also return. Teshuvah is our path back home, our way back in. This is baked into the blueprint of the world, these “exits and entrances” have been at the foundation from the very beginning.

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Rabbi Felicia Sol

.אֱלֹהַי. נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ, אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי
My God, the soul which you have placed within me is pure. You have created it; you have formed it; you have breathed it into me.

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Rabbi Joanna Samuels

One of the (infinite!) gifts of being alive is to have constant opportunities for growth. Rare is the moment in which discernment and awareness is impossible! And yet Jewish tradition knows that despite this constant potential for betterment, human beings inevitably grow sad, stale or or self-satisfied. We become stuck in patterns that prevent us from inhabiting our worlds with a full measure of kindness and purpose. We so easily forget the spark of holiness that lives inside each one of us.

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Rabbi Joseph Skloot

Starting anew is no easy thing. We accumulate so much over the course of our lives: We fill up boxes with resentment, yearning, and loss. We carry the weight of fear, disappointment, distrust, and shame. When the new year begins, the temptation is to make a yearly visit to the basement, the storage closet, surveying what has piled up quickly and then slamming the door shut. This is what Rabbi Prager calls, “a descent into self-degradation, self-scorn, or destructive self-criticism,” and rarely leads to real teshuvah.

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Rabbi Lisa Goldstein

The word in this teaching that describes the “tracing” of the foundations of the world is an odd choice. This word, makharit, has the same root as the word kharatah, or regret. Why would the author choose a word that carries with it the slightest tinge of that anguish-filled emotion that many of us spend our lives trying to avoid?

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Rabbi Marc Margolius

According to this teaching of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, as well as other classic rabbinic and mystical teachings, teshuvah (return) is an inherent aspect of the dynamic process of life. According to the Talmud (Pesahim 54a), teshuvah pre-existed the creation of the physical realm; it is woven in the fabric of Being itself.

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Rabbi Michael Boino

In our teaching from the Kedushat Levi, he guides us on the way in which our continual physical and spiritual renewal offer us open pathways to teshuvah. That renewal, he teaches, can allow us to discard the shame that can hinder or even stall this process. I offer this prayer on these themes from his commentary:

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

This teaching from the Sefat Emet begins with a central idea of Hasidism—that everything in the world contains a spark of holiness. This means that God or holiness is found in everything that exists. What then is holy within a sin? Even if we use the language of a wrong or a failure instead of sin, what is good about it? Read more »

Rabbi Neil Kurshan

Click here to read the text.

We think in terms of opposites. Evil and good; night and day; black and white. Reality is more subtle. Black and white are really different shades on a scale of illumination. The night is lit by the moon, and the day is dimmed by clouds. The Sefat Emet suggests that good is contained within evil.

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Rabbi Rachel Bovitz

I was initially fascinated with Catholic confession because it seemed magical. My appreciation deepened when a priest taught me what this sacrament of reconciliation really involved. I learned that reconciliation is a serious five-step process that has much more in common with teshuvah than its Hollywood depiction would have us believe. The first three steps correlate with how we can begin teshuvah: examine our conscience and search our deeds, have contrition for what we’ve done wrong, and confess to our sins.

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Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal

Would I be the best version of myself if I was never sad? Reb Nahman teaches: “It is known that a person must take great care to be joyful always and to keep sadness at a very great distance.” If we allow ourselves to be overcome with sadness, he imagines, then we can’t possibly examine our deeds with clarity and fairness.

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Rabbi Roly Matalon

“Renew our days as of old!”  How we wish we could go back, even if for a moment, to the happiest events in our life: when we felt fully loved and embraced, when we experienced the deepest joy, when we came into contact with our purpose, when we dreamt of a bright future.  Though we are capable of reliving those moments by remembering, the door to the past is forever shut to us. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak offers a radical alternative to our yearning for the past:  returning to the future. We may not return to the past, yet every single moment offers the opportunity of a new beginning. Every breath brings new life energy into us; we are in a constant state of rebirth and renewal. Similarly, every act of teshuvah breeds a new and renewed self, a new beginning, a new opportunity at getting it right, and at birthing goodness into the world.

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Rabbi Shuli Passow

In this text, the Sefat Emet puts forward an unsettling theological idea: that even in transgression, in sin, in evil, there is a spark of holiness. How can he possibly make such a claim? How can we possibly believe such a claim?

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Returning Home: Kedushat Levi

ספר קדושת לוי – מגילת איכה

Kedushat Levi, Lamentations

עד שלא נברא העולם, היה הקדוש ברוך הוא ושמו הגדול בלבד, ועלה במחשבה לברוא את העולם, והיה מחריט את העולם העולם לפניו ולא היה עומד. משלו משל למה הדבר דומה, למלך שהוא רוצה לבנות פלטרים שלו, אם אינו מחריט בארץ יסודותיו ומובאיו ומוצאיו, אינו מתחיל לבנות, כך הקדוש ברוך הוא החריט לפניו את העולם ולא היה עומד עד שברא את התשובה
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Returning Home: Likkutei Moharan

ליקוטי מוהר”ן, ס’ רפ”ב

Reb Nahman of Breslov, Likkutei Moharan, I 292

דע, כי צריך לדון את כל אדם לכף זכות. ואפלו מי שהוא רשע גמור, צריך לחפש ולמצא בו איזה מעט טוב, שבאותו המעט אינו רשע. ועל ידי זה שמוצא בו מעט טוב, ודן אותו לכף זכות, על-ידי-זה מעלה אותו באמת לכף זכות, ויוכל להשיבו בתשובה. Read more »

Returning Home: Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer

פרקי דרבי אליעזר

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 3:2

עד שלא נברא העולם, היה הקדוש ברוך הוא ושמו הגדול בלבד, ועלה במחשבה לברוא את העולם, והיה מחריט את העולם העולם לפניו ולא היה עומד. משלו משל למה הדבר דומה, למלך שהוא רוצה לבנות פלטרים שלו, אם אינו מחריט בארץ יסודותיו ומובאיו ומוצאיו, אינו מתחיל לבנות, כך הקדוש ברוך הוא החריט לפניו את העולם ולא היה עומד עד שברא את התשובה.
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Returning Home: Rabbi Marcia Prager

Rabbi Marcia Prager, “Teshuvah: The Spiritual Practice of Return”

Each of us, in our own private words, can do some rigorous soul-work… This is a time for soul-review and return. Be aware, however, that t’shuvah must not be a descent into self-degradation, self-scorn, or destructive self-criticism.  As a disciple of the great Seer of Lublin taught: “When you pray about teshuvah, express your hopes! Come into a state of teshuvah in joy and expansiveness of spirit! Not from sadness, stress and feelings of impoverishment. ” (Menorat Zahav)

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Returning Home: Sefat Emet

ליקוטים יקרים, ס’ פ”ג

Likkutim Yekarim #83; Sefat Emet, Shekalim 5655

,זה כלל גדול: בכל מה שיש בעולם יש נצוצות קדושה, אין דבר ריק מהניצוצין אפילו עצים ואבנים
.אפילו המעשים שאדם עושה, אפילו עבירה שאדם עושה, יש בו ניצוצות מהשבירה

ומה היא הניצוצות מהשבירה? היא התשובה. בשעה שעושה תשובה על העבירה מעלה הניצוצות
.שהיה בה לעולם העליון

:וזה שכתוב: (שמות ל”ד ז’) “נושא עון — פירוש נושא ומעלה העון למעלה. וזהו (בראשית ד’ י”ג)
.”גדול עוני מנשוא” — פירוש, להרימו ולהעלותו לעולם העליון

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Sally Gottesman

In this passage Rabbi Prager warns us not to fall into self-degradation as we do individual teshuvah preparing for Rosh Hashanah. My question is what can we learn from her–and from the Seer of Lublin–about collective teshuvah? I ask this because I am writing from Israel, a place I love dearly, and although there is no doubt in my mind the State of Israel was conceived of “as pure and good like a holy spark” and that many miraculous things have come to the Jewish people and to individual Jews because of the State, I also know there have been “tarnishes of hurts and errors” both intentional and unintentional, done to Palestinians as individuals and as a collective over the past 70 years in the name of the State and the Jewish people.

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Tobias Divack Moss

I’m going to mess up. I’m going to forget to call, offend you with my words or my actions, withhold the benefit of the doubt, lose my temper with you, hurt you, make the wrong choice. Even so, be in relationship with me. Let me know when I’ve done you wrong; I’ll try to do better. I’ll do the same for you.

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