Welcome to our Elul issue.

In this edition:
New and Enduring Meditations for Elul

High Holiday Preparation -- or All Jews Are Pregnant

Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin

More Tools to Prepare & Repair

Engage Debra as a Scholar-In-Residence

Thank you

Love and blessings,
- Rabbi Debra Orenstein

New and Enduring Meditations for Elul
These meditations are dedicated to Rebbetzin Geula Newman,
who introduced me to Chai Elul.

In this E-Newsletter, I wanted to provide a simple and powerful Elul meditation, which traditionally begins on “Chai Elul,” the 18th day of the Hebrew month. Chai Elul is said to be the birthdate of both Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of its Chabad branch. "Chai," of course, means “life,” and is an auspicious day for conducting a “life review.”

The custom is to use each day from Chai Elul until Rosh Hashanah to review and meditate on one month from the last year. On the day of Erev Rosh Hashanah, you review Elul, the month just gone by.

I have created a calendar for this year and questions for reflection for each of the twelve days. You will also find some recommendations about how to use and prepare for the “Chai Elul” meditations. You can access these materials on a special subscriber page (click here).

On RabbiDebra.com you can also find Elul meditations and quotations & commentaries of the day that I have prepared in previous years.

Although the High Holidays always come right on time (by definition), they seem to me to come earlier and earlier (or at least faster and faster) each year. The first day of Elul fell on August 21, when many rabbis and congregants were away on vacation. There is a sense, I think, that we are still catching up with each other and the calendar. Beginning a meditation on Chai Elul, which falls on September 7, may allow us the sense of spaciousness we need when engaging with spiritual work. “I called out to God from my narrow place; God answered me with great spaciousness.”

Please stay in touch and let me know how you use these meditations. I hope you find them helpful.

Wishing you the fulfillment of all your heart’s desires, for the good,
- Rabbi Debra Orenstein

High Holiday Preparation -- or All Jews Are Pregnant

When my grandfather prepared his High Holiday sermons, my grandmother – a daughter, wife, sister, and mother-in-law of rabbis – used to tip-toe around the house, urging quiet with a finger lifted up to her lips. With her patented combination of sarcasm and reverence, she would lean in close and whisper, “Shh. Saba is pregnant.”

My Safta’s words came back to me this year, as I, together with Rabbis Jeffrey Salkin and Peter Knobel, led a class for clergy on preparing for the High Holidays. Even with all our training and experience, rabbis at this season are indeed like prospective parents: full of both hope and anxiety; wanting, above all, to reach, teach, bless, and connect with people whom we may not know yet, but truly love.

It’s not rabbis alone who are pregnant at this time of year. Yes, rabbis have sermons to write, and we are busy conceiving and incubating, in preparation for delivery. But all Jews are pregnant at this time of year. That is what makes the High Holiday season so full of promise – and so demanding. We are truly pregnant with possibility. Forgiveness and repentance, done fully and well, constitute nothing less than rebirth. Rabbis and cantors can help as spiritual midwives, but each of us is carrying – and must deliver on – our own intentions.

This metaphor is not only for women, or parents, or those who wish to become parents. The Torah and Haftorah portions on the High Holidays deal with fertility and infertility, pregnancy and birth, permitted and forbidden sexual unions, because these are rich and common experiences where human and divine meet. Therefore, all Jews are pregnant, regardless of gender, age, fertility, or procreation.

The metaphor is particularly meaningful for me, because I have (literally) been either pregnant or nursing during High Holidays for four of the last six years. Giving birth taught me a lot about Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world. It taught me about the nature of creation, transformation, and at-one-ment. I have always believed that God and humanity are partners in creation, but I have never experienced it so deeply as when I was pregnant.

I also experienced the paradox of preparation. On the one hand, there was no way I could prepare! I ate my spinach, took my prenatal vitamins, and went to water aerobics, but I couldn’t manage or control much of anything about how my body was changing. God was in charge, not I. As the pregnancies progressed, I read countless books on getting ready for the new baby. I had to prepare the layette … and the college fund… and the birth plan… and the plan in case the birth plan went wrong… and I sometimes panicked and wondered why I ever thought I was ready to be a mom.

On the other hand, I was strangely, completely competent. Though I felt (and was) out of control, my body knew just what to do. Like pregnant women the world over, I sensed when a pain was the wrong kind of pain. I went in for emergency treatment, though my doctor told me I was fine and should stay home and rest. He was a good doctor, prepared with years of medical training. But I was divinely prepared, so I knew. By going for treatment in time, I saved my son’s life. There was no way I could prepare for motherhood, because I was already prepared.

Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, titled his book about the Days of Awe This is Real and You Are Completed Unprepared. The title is arresting and powerful. Like a Shofar blast, it sounds the alarm. But it tells only one part of the paradox. Yes, we desperately need to prepare – with apologies, accountings of the soul, and meditations. Yes, from one perspective, we are inadequate to the task and wholly dependent on God’s mercy.

But we are also already perfectly prepared. We have been made ready, sometimes by suffering, sometimes by grace. With or just below our conscious awareness, we know. Operating from the highest self, we know our purpose; we know how to forgive; we know how to do teshuvah. Confusion is a cover, a form of denial.

The truth is: transformation happens in an instant. The burst of energy and growth we experience during Elul and High Holidays could happen at any time, with the proper focus. Preparation is a game we play with ourselves. That’s why I always advise that if you are going to forgive someone eventually, you might as well do it now. This also explains why the High Holidays can be transformational for a disaffected Jew who comes to synagogue reluctantly once a year, or for a committed Jew who is too sick or distressed to engage in preparation.

The most important thing to remember about transformation during the High Holiday season is this: we have literally been preparing all our lives for this moment.

- Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin

The pregnant grandfather Debra mentions above is Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz, with whom she wrote the book, From Generation to Generation.

Debra talks about each of us carrying --and delivering on -- our own intentions. This prompted me to return to the CD Reb Zalman Teaches, and listen again to “Keeping True to Intentions.” Here’s a clip of this masterful teaching, so we can all remember to do just that.

Get In The Game

It’s NFL pre-season, and I am very much in tune with what I am seeing and reading on the sports page. Imagining I’m a seasoned player, I can feel that the real deal is coming, but I still don’t know all the plays, and I’m not sure that I am in condition for “the big game.” This happens almost every year. The date is on the calendar, but I arrive for the contest without having studied or trained enough to do my best. I don’t want to end up just “sitting on the bench.”

I’m not really talking about football; the Jewish Super Bowl is upon us with the High Holidays, and once again I gaze at that looming date on the calendar, worrying that I will waste the opportunity. I don’t want to be a Jew who just shows up and checks it off my to-do list. Too many years, I set aside the “10 Days of Repentance” to do my needed spiritual work, but it takes me nearly all the way to Neilah, the final closing prayers, to realize and feel deeply the power of the holidays. It goes by so fast. In contrast, I know that when I have meditated in the preceding weeks, when I have taken time to reconcile with my peers, when I have blown shofar during Elul - with Makom’s Shofar Corps, with my friends & family, and especially just by myself - that I arrive at Rosh Hashanah with more focus, more energy, and more readiness. It just makes sense.

These precious few weeks right now are where the difference can be made for my High Holy Days – and for yours. Let’s not wait. Let’s blow shofar tomorrow morning and wake up. Use the liturgy that works for you; use the tools from Debra that we have worked to provide you: exercises, meditations, powerful Torah teachings. I know people have bought Transformation Now, put it in their car, and listened to it repeatedly as a meditation to help them focus on the work at hand. Engage your friends and family with the very hard tasks of contrition and forgiveness. Work those muscles. Do the reps. Build the strength for deeper and deeper self-examination.

Of course, an important difference between professional sports and davening is that only elite athletes compete at the highest level, while every Jew has equal standing before God as we wrestle heart and soul to be fully present, open, and forgiving. We all get to participate in the big game. Let’s start training and getting into shape – so we arrive on “day one” at Rosh Hashanah ready to play.
- Craig Weisz

More Tools to Prepare & Repair

As noted above, our audio CD's by Debra and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi provide teachings, meditations, and prayer explanations that you can take with you, listen to, and meditate with during this crucial period of preparation.

Earlier in the year Debra taught an Internet course entitled: Meaningful Jewish Ritual: What Works, What Inspires, and What’s Next? The full course and all the bonus study items are available for download.

Last month Debra and Rabbis Peter Knobel and Jeffrey Salkin taught an Internet master-class on preparing to lead High Holiday services. While geared for rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators, the session offers powerful advice for everyone on spiritual preparation and how to make the most of the Days of Awe. Full information is at: www.AskTheRabbis.com. Don't miss this timely offer.

Engage Debra as a Scholar-In-Residence

Would you like to bring Debra to your community or event as a lecturer or Scholar-In-Residence? She is currently booking dates in 2010 and looks forward to meeting groups and communities across the country.

Testimonials and more information about Debra’s popular speaking topics can be found on the RabbiDebra.com Scholar-In-Residence page. Or you may contact her directly at: debra@rabbidebra.com.

Thank You

Thank you for your interest and subscription. We always enjoy your feedback about the newsletter and the website. We invite you to forward this E-Newsletter to anyone you think may enjoy it, and we always appreciate links to our website on your own site or listserve.

Shana Tova,
- Debra & Craig