A Season of Change
As I look back on the last year, I am amazed by the amount of change that has occurred. On the world scene, “Arab Spring” began last fall and has lasted through the seasons. The stock market keeps rising, falling, and gyrating. The planet has endured catastrophic earthquakes and a major nuclear accident.
In my own, relatively quiet and peaceful corner of the world, my family and I have also weathered major changes. We moved across the continent, changing schools, jobs, weather, homes, and the people we see daily. I am serving a new synagogue, and we are building a new community for ourselves on our “new” coast. Before Rosh Hashanah last year, my daughter cried and longed to be in familiar surroundings. Now, she is the social butterfly of the neighborhood. Last Elul, the month preceding High Holidays, my father was walking. Now, with Elul a few days away, he uses a wheelchair. Change. Change. Change.
When we are busy with our daily lives, time and change move incrementally, and we barely notice. Then the Jewish calendar demands that we pause and reflect. Suddenly, we see the magnitude of what has transpired. We have endured and accomplished, neglected and persevered, succeeded and failed, lost and gained, beyond what we might have thought was possible. Yet here we are. It is a new year, and more change is in store.
If you are in tune with the calendar and with the changes in and around you that last sentence should inspire awe. The Days of Awe approach. It is a NEW year. MORE CHANGE is in store. How wonderful and terrifying! What a challenge and opportunity!
I look forward to staying in touch and learning about all the changes you make and experience.
“May all the deepest yearnings of your heart be fulfilled in this new year, for the sake of what is good.”
Rabbi Debra Orenstein
In this Elul edition:
Entering The Spirit of Elul: How Can We Prepare For The Holidays? - Guides and resource referrals from Rabbi Debra.
Listen and Prepare - Audio and chomer ladrush.
The Meaning of "Elul" - A new essay by Rabbi Debra.
Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin
Storefront - Find some rare treasures.
Upcoming Events - Join us!
Entering The Spirit of Elul: How Can We Prepare For The Holidays?
Guides and resource referrals by Rabbi Debra Orenstein.
The month of Elul ushers in the High Holiday season, with all its festivities and anxieties. We anticipate family meals, large communal gatherings, and the Day of Judgment. (Yom Hadin, Day of Judgment, is another name for the New Year.) Elul is a time of preparation. Jews traditionally engage in heshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). By taking a careful inventory of the last year, we can assess where we are, how we got here, and where we want to go in the coming year.
There are many resources for reviewing the past year, and they are, understandably, under-utilized. The task of “life review” can be overwhelming. This year, I am recommending several approaches that encourage a daily practice during the month of Elul. By breaking down the commitment to a reading, meditation, Shofar blast, or gift each day, we can coax ourselves forward.
The Way In: The Ashamnu Prayer
I have mapped the “Ashamnu” prayer and confessional, recited on the High Holidays, onto the calendar, reserving each day of Elul to contemplate one of the sins – and their multiple expressions and cures. Click on
to explore the meaning of this prayer, and opportunities for changing our patterns in the coming year. If you can set aside even 15 minutes per day, you can make an enormous difference in your High Holidays and your year.
The Way In: Twelve Days for Twelve Months
If you have gotten a late start, or feel overwhelmed at the prospect of spending 30 solid days in preparation, then consider the
Chai Elul Meditations.
During each of the 12 days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, targeted questions will guide you in reviewing one month of the past year.
The Way In: A Few Pages of Learning and an Exercise Each Day
60 days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays
by Rabbi Simon Jacobson takes readers through explanations and exercises for each day of the months of Elul and Tishrei from the perspective of a gifted, Lubavitcher teacher.
The Way In: A Contemporary Voice for an Ancient Psalm
Psalm 27 is traditionally recited daily during Elul. Dr. Joe Rosenstein, one of the founders of the National Havurah Committee and editor of Siddur Eit Ratzon, has a meditation on that Psalm, which delves into its meaning for our life reviews and our lives. The focus is equally on our relationship to our own past deeds and our relationship to God. You can order the CD at
or download the text of it at
The Way In: Shofar Blasts and Meditations
Another traditional practice during Elul is the blowing of Shofar on each day (except Sabbaths). You can blow and practice the art of listening to the sound and silence which follow. The website
offers multiple downloadable chapters by Michael Chusid, a “Master Blaster” and teacher of Shofar, including “My Shofar is My Beloved’s: Teshuvah and Preparation for the Days of Awe” and “Meditations for each Day of Elul: Warm-up Exercises for the Spirit.”
The Way In: Giving a Gift Each Day
Two resources from outside the Jewish community may also prove helpful. Cami Walker wrote a book called
29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life.
In light of Walker’s multiple sclerosis and attendant depression, an African medicine woman suggested that she give away 29 gifts in 29 days. Although the book is sometimes overly confessional, the gift-per-day prescription has proved to be healing not only to Walker, but to thousands of others, as well. Visit
to learn more and participate online.
The Way In: Live This Month As If It Were Your Last
Pastor Kerry and Chris Shook have written a book whose title is worthy of the Days of Awe:
One Month to Live: Thirty Days to a No-Regrets Life.
Thirty short chapters will carry you through Elul and to High Holidays. The perspective is clearly Christian, but people of all backgrounds can benefit from the simple, clear messages, images, and exercises in these pages. See also
the Shook’s OneMonthToLive website
and “30-day challenge.”
Listen and Prepare - Audio and chomer ladrush
The CD's available on RabbiDebra.com
download from iTunes
are edited from live recordings of High Holiday services. As such, they are full of information and inspiration to prepare for the days ahead. Pop them into your mp3 or CD player as you drive, jog, or work around the house, and the messages will help you to reflect, repent, and renew. For those who are delivering sermons or teaching classes, there is a great deal of chomer ledrush to draw upon. Click on the picture of the CDs below to order.
The Meaning of "Elul" -
A new essay
by Rabbi Debra on rabbinic wordplay around the word "Elul." What are the messages -- for for this season and for our lives -- contained in these letters and the way we read them?
Click here for the full essay.
Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin
As we enter Elul this year and start to contemplate what we might achieve and experience during the High Holidays, I am humbled and a little afraid. I don’t want to waste it.
I always enter High Holidays hoping for a boost of spiritual strength, some extra enlightenment. It is as if I await a gift wrapped in fancy paper, something I can, through prescribed prayer and focus, unwrap and hang around my neck as a magic amulet to illuminate the dark places in my world and my soul. I want that precise tool or recipe that will help me move forward in a more productive way. “Let me be more of a mensch,” I pray, “Let me push away distraction and find my path.” I need these things. They are my fervent wish, but I am stymied in calculating how to get there and visualizing what my life will really look like if my prayers get answered. It’s not so comfortable. Though I need these things, do I really, in my heart of hearts, want them?
This is the question that Elul can give us the time and focus to answer. As Jews we sit on the horns of a dilemma: We are an intellectual people bent on rationalism and analytics. Yet, within our tradition at a certain point this intellectualism must be set aside because there is more to life than the intellect. I can make all the arguments I want for how to be a better and more productive person; I can create schedules and to-do lists and new habits aimed at self-improvement, but if I don’t make a change in what I really want, I am just using my intellect to fool myself. And I will never accomplish that which I need.
I look at the change and volatility in my life and the world in just the last year. The rational argument for stasis and holding firmly to what I think I know cannot hold against the surging current of life. To be part of the world and close to God, I must balance an intellectual life with a stronger spiritual center, something nearly impossible to articulate intellectually. These non-intellectual practices of Elul - from prayer to hearing the shofar to meditation to giving away that which you don’t need - are a part of our tradition aimed at cultivating the spiritual foundation upon which everything else is supported.
“Let me make space for that still small voice,” I pray, “let me come to know just that.” And the rest will follow.
Storefront - Find some rare treasures!
In addition to the audio teachings available as
on the website, we also have an Amazon storefront with Jewish and other used books, including some that are hard to find. Please take a look:
- Join us!
We would love to see you for High Holidays at our home synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, NJ. Information is at the CBI website:
Debra will be a keynote speaker and instructor at this year's Rabbinic Training Institute, January 8-12, in Baltimore.
Information & Registration.
Click on the CD's above for more information on audio teachings you can have with you at home or on your way. Also available on
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