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E-Newsletter - Elul: Preparing for High Holidays
August 08, 2013

Elul: Preparing for High Holidays

Happy Elul! Elul is the Hebrew month that precedes the Days of Awe. This Elul E-Newsletter offers numerous resources, including new meditations for each Shabbat in Elul, to help you prepare for a powerful, truly transformative High Holiday season. This year we are focusing on Shabbat as both a time - and a paradigm - for reflection and renewal.

All our CD’s are edited from live High Holiday recordings; so they are especially relevant and powerful at this time of year. These albums, available on the website and by download on iTunes , contain sermons, Q & A, prayer explanations, stories, and meditations. And be sure to check out the website for recent additions.

In This Issue:

Shabbos & the New Year - An essay by Rabbi Debra (including a link to her recent address at the Chautauqua Institution on the future of religion, Judaism, and spirituality).

Feedback About The Power of Shabbos - A letter from a non-Jewish follower and an invitation to hear your stories.

Meditations - New Elul meditation exercises created by Rabbi Debra for each Shabbat of the month.

Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin - "A Lot of Hot Air"

Additional Resources - A guide to just a few of the resources for HighHoliday preparation on the website.

Treasures and Travel - Valuable updates.

Thank you - Our appreciation for your support.

Shabbos & the New Year

I have Shabbos on the brain. But it’s not a malady or a problem – it’s a joy.

For too many liberal Jews, Shabbos is associated primarily with restriction and judgment. It’s all about what you can’t do, and why you are wrong and ought to feel bad for doing it. But in fact, Shabbat is called oneg, or pleasure, because everything you do and refrain from doing is meant to be a delight. All the Thou Shalt Not’s are meant to create a holy boundary, to “keep Shabbat [Deuteronomy 5:11],” so that something different and holy can enter.

It is commonly said that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year – and that is only because it is a form of Shabbos. Yom Kippur is called the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” and as such it holds a place of high honor in the Jewish calendar. This year, when the Sabbath of Sabbaths actually falls on Shabbat, it seemed like an auspicious time to launch an exploration on the true meaning of Shabbos.

In truth, my recent obsession with Shabbat began several months ago, long before Elul, when I was asked to speak on “The Future of Religion” at the Chautauqua Institution. The honor came to me, in part, because my friend and mentor, Rabbi David Gordis, recommended me as an innovator.

So, imagine my hosts’ surprise when I titled the talk “Back to the Future” and spoke about Shabbos as a radical idea and our best hope for the next generation. In some ways, I surprised myself, too. In the course of preparing for the talk and thinking deeply about the future, I realized that religion’s greatest aspirations – justice, peace, joy, love, harmony, stewardship, gratitude – find expression in Shabbos. In other words: much of what I wanted to say about the future was already established by the time the world was a week old. (I spoke about other issues, as well, including the specific challenges of the next generation. To view the lecture, click here.)

In May, Shabbos came up frequently – and sometimes longingly – in an Adult Education class I taught on Self-Care. This summer, in my own home, with extra stresses and busy-ness of the season, Shabbat has become even more precious – and vital. Looking ahead, my home synagogue, B’nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is planning to take “Shabbos” as its theme throughout the year. One of our mottoes is: “May we suggest - you give it a rest?”

As we approach the High Holidays, it’s traditional to conduct an accounting of the soul. In this process and throughout the Holiday season, we confront many of life’s most important issues. Our Holiday liturgy is concerned with nothing less than “what do we believe?”; “who shall live and who shall die?”; “who are we, and what are our lives?”

Shabbos is not the answer to those questions, but Shabbos gives us the time, disposition, and framework to answer them.

In the past, I have created several different sets of meditations for the High Holidays, including Daily Meditations of the Viddui Prayer and Chai Elul Meditations . This year, I have created four new meditations, one for each Shabbat in Elul. I hope you enjoy them.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Feedback About The Power of Shabbos

Rabbi Debra received the following gracious email, which testifies to the power of the Sabbath in the lives of gentiles, as well as Jews.

My wife and I delighted in your lecture in the Interfaith Lecture Series on 7/3. You had me in tears - and laughing too - as you discussed the relevance of the temple - and, by extension, the church (and probably the mosque as well) in today's world. As Christians, we heard your observations as commonly applicable to the church as to the temple.

Particularly significant to me was the 'cost of faith' thought. I support the church financially as well as in a number of service applications - yet my personal devotional time of prayer and reading have dropped off during the past few years as my retirement has given way to a consuming encore career.

I decided to follow your advice and, today, got my toe back in the water of Shabbat experience. No work (although a few errands). After I wrote up a Facebook post a few minutes ago, I thought you might like to know that you are affecting people beyond what you know.

"Delightful day off! Church this morning with a wonderful service by friend, [the reverend], then a few chores and a nap and finally dinner with some wonderful friends! Chicken and veggies on the grill and [my wife's] fresh from the oven blue-berry cobbler. Good wine, wonderful conversations and wonderful friends. Rabbi Debra Orenstein, whom we heard at Chautauqua, had advocated the observance of Shabbat, noting that the 'do-nots' are to open the time for 'do's' such as this. Great observation, Rabbi!"

Thank you. And God's blessings on you!


We love getting letters like this and so appreciate your feedback on the E-newsletter, the website, the CD's, or any of Debra's speaking appearances. Please contact us to share any thoughts or questions you may have.

Elul Meditations

The following are new meditations, exercises, and questions for discussion created by Debra for each of the four Shabbatot in Elul.

Each Shabbat has its own theme, and each theme is featured prominently on the High Holidays, on Shabbat, and in that week’s Torah portion.

Parshat Shoftim: Justice
Parshat Ki Teytzey: Peace
Parshat Ki Tavo: Creation
Parshat Netzavim: Gaining Perspective

As with the other resources on the website Meditations page, please feel free to download and share these meditation exercises. Working with a partner or small group can enhance their transformative power tremendously.

Source text and ideas from Transformation Now

Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin

A Lot of Hot Air

I don’t look like the traditional rebbitzin. There are traditional – and rather daunting - examples to see in Debra’s scholarly family. I’m just trying to hold my own. I don’t bake hundreds of cookies for the congregation or do any quiet counseling on the side. And I don’t pretend to have a fraction of the scholarship or substantive connection to the congregation that my wife, the rabbi, does. I do, however, get to stand on the bimah on High Holidays and address the entire congregation in an effort to effect some positive change.

I’ve written before about how preparing for the High Holidays is like training for a football match or packing mindfully for a trip into the wilderness, and you’ll find no better resource for that preparation than the meditation exercises Debra has offered this year. What I get to offer on the bimah is something different, something akin to the NFL referee’s opening whistle or the first inspiring view you see a mile up the trailhead on an overnight hike. In front of 600 people I blow shofar.

Now, if you’ve been in temple on Rosh Hashanah and remarked to yourself or your neighbor that the shofar blower has a strong or a weak tone – or perhaps blew eight notes for teruah instead of nine, then the shofar blower’s effort – and your time – have been wasted. There are many times for introspection during the Days of Awe, but they can all go by quickly if you are not engaged in the real work of the occasion. It’s uncomfortable to look inward at what you might have done wrong in the last year – or decade, what relationships have you squandered, what decisions may have hurt others or yourself. It’s challenging to listen to the words of your heart about your true purpose and the action you most need to undertake. But I like to say that, as long as I’m sitting there, why not try to take it seriously? As a Jew, why not take to heart the oft-stated admonition: Shema, Israel!?

Last year just as I sat at the conclusion of one of the Amidahs, thinking I was “done,” I got a message -- from my heart or from Adonai, from the “still small voice.” It was two words. It was crystal clear. It was daunting, and I knew it was the right message for me. I was so thankful to get it. When I stand up to blow shofar I say a prayer that you, sitting in the congregation, will get your message too, that the physical blast, as if from Sinai, will trigger something in you to focus, to make heart space, to truly hear the message of the service. It’s a mitzvah because it is a hard-won gift, to find your opportunity for awe, to grasp that tool for your transformation, to hear.

Additional Resources - A guide to just a few of the additional resources on the website.

The Holidays page on the website holds resources for nearly every interest in Elul and the High Holiday season, including great quotations, bible commentary, prayer translations, meditation exercises, and an extended free audio stream of Debra speaking about the meaning and purpose of Shofar.

The Meditations page includes the new meditation exercises introduced in this E-newsletter as well as many popular meditations such as those Debra mentioned above in her essay.

Finally, our Links page offers some of Debra's favorite resources for spiritual growth and, lower down on the page, a list of charities and service organizations doing meaningful work who are worthy of your support. Elul is a wonderful time to give back.

Happy exploring! Please let us know what gems you uncover, what meaning you find, where your spiritual journey takes you.

Treasures and Travel - Valuable updates

Along with books and the teaching CD’s by Debra and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, our website also offers a treasure trove of used Judaica books. As many of you know, Debra’s father, Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein, recently passed away after struggling for several years with ALS. Among the collection of used books are many volumes from the elder Rabbi Orenstein’s personal library. Browse for something special that speaks to you, and we’ll send it right out.

Over the next year, look for Debra to be speaking in a number of venues outside New Jersey. Already booked on the Calendar page is a Scholar-In-Residence weekend in Wallingford, PA, outside Philadelphia, next March. And we will soon confirm dates in three other cities. Please check the calendar for updates.

If you are interested in bringing Debra to your community, please check out the Scholar-In-Residence page on the website.


Your feedback, appreciation, and participation always give us joy. We so appreciate your continued support. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments.

May you have a fruitful Elul. Shana Tova from all of us!

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