Elul 17 – Awaken

There are days when I don’t even know. The best I can do sometimes is the next thing, just trying to get through a moment. I wake up with a list of tasks already buzzing through my brain and I do some of them and I sigh about the ones I didn’t get to and I fall asleep in the middle of another one, because my eyes won’t stay open and sometimes I get to putting on my pajamas and sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and put my pajamas on then and then I sleep a bit more and then I wake up with a list of tasks already buzzing though my brain and…

I just exist. Is this living? I mean, of course it is. I get things done, I consume nourishment, I get older, I do work – that is living. But somehow, despite the cycle of waking and sleeping, it all feels vaguely asleep. Surely there’s a kind of waking I’m missing – the kind where you awaken to a quiet day, make a plan about some of the things you’re going to do today, making sure to balance positive self-growth activities with those that accomplish necessary tasks and those that bring more goodness into the world, complete the plan well, sighing at the most about that one extra thing you wish you could have gotten done, and then nicely getting ready for bed before going to sleep. You have those days all the time, right? Do you think you could share one?

If not, if we are all hurrying from one day to another, then what kind of waking can one aim for? There is a huge discussion in the Jewish “we like to talk about the tiny details in the words and letters of the Torah” community about the difference between “lived years” and “lived days of years”. Why throw in the extra stuff about days – you don’t need days to say a dude lived 500 years or whatever?  Because the days that one is awake – those are the important ones. One can live year upon year upon year without having a single day worth noting.” Say the Rabbis. They think we can have a day worth noticing. But how? The tasks still need to be done.

Maybe it’s really just a matter of being fully awake while doing those days – of noticing the moment of brightness in the middle of the task. It’s hard to remember, but there are moments – the smile someone, the absent-minded pat of the cat, the one lonely late blooming flower, the random singing in the kitchen – that make the day into a DAY, a day that’s lived fully.

(Yes, I’m reading Pollyanna to my daughter right now – and she goes on and on about being glad and just living, so some of that might creep in to my writing. It could be worse. What if I had been reading ‘goosebumps’ at the time? These blogs might be full of ‘and be very careful when you go down into the basement…’)

This year, “key moments” – seeing those important moments, appreciating them and living them fully seems to be the underlying theme of Elul. (No, I don’t have a theme for the month. I make myself write stuff every day and sometimes, a theme surprises me and hits me in the head and I go, ‘cool, a theme for the month.’) To have those key moments, one needs to look up from the everyday tasks, to notice the world and just notice the good bits. One needs to be awake.


Elul 16 – Pray

I pray for you today. I pray that you wake up happy, and that your heart is full and you have the energy to meet the day. I pray that you’re not too tired, not sick, not too depressed for the day. I pray you have plenty of spoons to deal with everything you need to do. I pray that you have all the things you need  for today, and that you get done at least the top half of your to-do list (those bottom items on the list are there for decoration, right? No one actually expected us to do those!)

I pray that you think you look good today. I pray you like your hair, your eyes, your body, your thighs, your arms, your muscles, your teeth and everything else you have. I pray you know you’re beautiful. I pray that you find a way to navigate the social complications of each day and relate appropriately to every person you meet. I pray that you go further, and actually make firm connections with others, building relationship, touching hearts, and thus connecting the broken pieces of the world one gossamer strand of love at a time, until a web even brighter and more extensive than the internet holds it together.

I pray you succeed in learning something new, whether by following your chosen course of study or by being surprised by a wonderful new discovery. I pray your learning is deep and meaningful, and that you can utilize what you learn to make the world a better place. I pray that you will find a spiritual path that works for you, and if that spiritual path is atheism, that’s fine and if it’s Judaism, that’s fine and if it’s a worship of the Spaghetti Monster, that’s fine too.

I pray you find a way to express who you are – whether through creative words, or painting, or sculpture, or song, or dance, or any other kind of being you. I pray you skip as you walk or bang doors or otherwise burst forth with joy. And if you don’t art, don’t craft, don’t dance, don’t sing and don’t bang doors – I pray your heart breaks, and that shell around your feelings falls apart and you have too much to say not to say it.

There’s a song called “I hope you dance” that says it better than I can. And if you think my tastes in music are cheesy or mawkish, you might be right, but there you go. Some days I’m drippy. And if you think that song is creepy and my post is creepy and who am I to pray for you, and you don’t like it and want me not to, no problem. This post isn’t for you. Also, I can change songs for you – we’ll go with “you probably think this song is about you”.

I guess these are the prayers that I need. This what I want to be and to have in my life. And so I pray you have them too. May this be a day in which God hears your prayers and mine. May it be a day that ends with prayers of gratitude.

Elul 15 – Intend

I always intend to do the right thing. I never mean to be behind on anything, to forget anything, to be mean to anyone, or to otherwise miss those important marks that an adult is expected to hit. My intentions are solid, really. However, the more I teach the more I realize that everyone’s intentions are solid. Most people I meet seem to want to do the right thing. Kids in particular. But intentions don’t count for much – they’re important and thinking and feeling a certain way is definitely necessary sometimes for doing the right thing – but they’re not key. Actions and results are what counts.

It’s hard to explain that to kids – they say “it was an accident” and don’t ask themselves the questions of “why did the accident happen?” and “what could I have done to prevent it?” Kids have trouble admitting responsibility for something when it’s obvious and there’s no other way to interpret a situation. Those cookie crumbs on the face didn’t get there by magic! It’s a tricky step to go to even further and think about the responsibility that comes from poor planning, inaction, or innocent but risky action. “How could I have known that bouncing the ball in the middle of the living room would cause the vase to break? It was an accident!”

When one gets older, that sphere of what a person should be able to predict and be responsible for and act on gets bigger and bigger. Tikkun Olam says we’re responsible for the whole world. Jewish teachings say that seeing a neighbour in trouble, it is our duty to help. With electronic media, the world becomes our neighbours – we see people in trouble in all sorts of places. Our hearts ache to help and we truly intend to do the right thing, whatever that might be.

But now, the number of ‘potential accidents’ have spread too. “I didn’t mean to run up that huge debt. How could I have known that buying that one little whatever-it-was and that other thing and I’m not sure what else would have led to a negative balance?  It was an accident!” Sounds extraordinarily pathetic, even more so than the kid with the ball does. We are expected to know, to predict, to think through consequences, to care and to act. Some days, I can’t imagine a way to live up to the level of competence the average person is expected to attain. (For my big kids: yes, the song “I hate being a grown-up” still applies, even in one’s late 40’s.) I intend to get it right – I just don’t always succeed.

So how do I bridge the gap between intention and action? Mostly, I don’t. Sometimes, I can do it by breaking it down into very basic very small activities and checking each of them against intention. Sometimes, I do it because of input from others, the words of a prayer or song, something I read in a book. Sometimes, I do the right thing because I write about it first! Putting my intentions into action is terrifying – but as I take each action that matches my intention, I feel like I’m finally reaching adulthood. Today, I will try to make my intentions and actions at least somewhat connected.

Elul 14 – Learn

It’s funny. I’m very smart. I expect to be able to look at the pages in a book and to understand them, extract the useful information, and remember it. Very few people can do that with the alacrity and easy I can. I expect myself to be able to sit down and write an essay or article quickly and without much difficulty, and I expect the result to be good. I expect to be able to understand a topic under discussion even if it’s in a field I am relatively unfamiliar and I need to use context to figure out word meaning. I expect to learn foreign language and to communicate, write, and utilize them. Most of the time, I meet my expectations.

On the other hand, when it comes to people, to getting things done, to dealing with emotions or everyday life situations, I’m stupid, stupid, stupid. I still have trouble staying within a budget or a meal plan. I still have trouble turning off that video game or better yet, not turning it on in the first place. I still struggle with basic elements of acting in a kind, honest, respectful way and that’s after years of trying. I have been working on some of these skills my whole life! Surely, by now, I should be a bit more capable in the areas of life I find myself struggling with. A little bit more capable? An iota?

I wish often I could give up! I wish I could stop trying to relate to others, to be honest and straight forward, to be sweet and kind, to be competent and capable. I wish some days it was an option to say “f*** it!” and just be a fat comfortable slob who sits on the couch playing video games. It might not be that different from my life now, and at least I wouldn’t have to grimly fight so hard. It’s funny – sometimes my students will say “miss, you’re good at math; you have no idea how hard this is” and I think “I’m good at math but I have some idea of how hard this is.” I see your twelve attempts at a set of math questions and I raise you hundreds of checklists, journals, meetings, emails and conversations about extra chocolate!

I can’t give up. I have family and friends whom I love, who depend on me to be good at life, not just at books (in fact, mostly, the book learning doesn’t matter much and isn’t good for a heck of a lot). So, I watch my students learn and I try to learn from them. They’re making another attempt? Maybe I should too. This one is seeking multiple sources of information. That one is asking questions. Here’s one highlighting key words. Can I use any of this? Can I learn the way they are, accepting that it may take me as long as that young man who just cannot math, no matter how hard I try – if I was still able to teach him concepts, surely I can learn too.

I listen to the things I say to the kids too. Sometimes my life advice to them is stuff I should take. Try again, I say. Ask questions. Make a diagram. Look for a similar example.  I need to listen to the words I myself am saying and try to do them

Elul is the time to try again to learn the basics of living. As well as listening to my students, to my own voice, to those who are better than me in an area, I can try listening to God. I can do a bit of Teshuva and realize that missing the mark – there’s a simple method for that that totally comes from a book. I read the book, I follow the method, and I try again to learn not just factual information but the spiritual facts of everyday living that I need.

Elul 13 – Remember

We say that every year, and we say it to people, about events and in so many other situations – “I will never forget”. But what we remember may be really different from one situation to another, from one person to another. Whether it’s “I will never forget that horrible thing you said” or “I will never forget the way he looked while standing there” is totally dependent on situation, on personality, on so many small things that we all remember – but so differently that we may as well have created a whole alternate world.

People are like that when it comes to the Holocaust. We say, “I will never forget” but we remember different things. Do we remember the individual stories we read about people and their lives at the time, and so honour every member of our family and friends as being one of those who survived and holding the memories of others? Do we remember the evil of the Nazis, people who may at one point have drunk tea with Jews, worked with them, learned with them and then – tortured and killed? If so, we probably don’t trust anyone, especially not if they are successful goyim.

Do we remember that the effects of prejudice and exclusion were death and destruction, or do we remember that hose people hurt us and we have to hurt them back, hurt them first and hurt them hard so that they never mess with us again? Do we remember the titbits of kindness that shone like pearls in mud through those awful times, or do we remember the wanton cruelty of some and give up on humans altogether? Yes, we remember the Holocaust. But what is it that we remember?

We need to look at each and every one of our memories and ask ourselves, not just what we remember but why and what does it mean and so on. It may surprise us and even discourage us to find how many of our memories are nasty negative versions of our best selves. We need to sometimes fix our memories. If we do, we might find ourselves truly able to remember, not just the facts but he feelings ideas and choices that can help inspire us to do our best too.


Elul 12 – Count

We had such a good time singing last night. Maybe it isn’t a real “Slihot” service to sit around singing songs of change and renewal – everything from “Eli, eli” to “simple gifts”, from Christian hymns, to Jewish rounds, from High Holidays poetry to campfire songs – but it’s my way of marking that changing season, that changing time. Fall is when everything is in flux – plants needing to come in from the gardens, kids starting school, leaves changing colour and falling, and of course, the High Holidays. Now, one chapter of the book of life has ended, and another is beginning. So, it’s important to put one’s heart in the right place, and to look at everything I did over the year, and to make plans for the next year.

Mostly, it’s a bit overwhelming. The amount I haven’t done is so much bigger than the amount I did. It almost doesn’t seem worth trying – there’s just too much to do, too much to think about, and none of it seems to mean anything because it’s the same thing, year after year.

I have to remind myself – everything counts. Singing with friends and family – that COUNTS, that gets written into the book, and looked at when determining what kind of year I’ve had. Teaching a kid well – that counts. Writing an email to a friend, making a phone call, marking a quiz or typing in a lesson plan, washing a dish or putting out the garbage. These are all things that count.

There is a feeling when you do the right thing – a moment of connection through others, a snap like the universe has aligned itself and like the broken pieces of the world have stuck together. When a group of people is involved, that feeling can be super clear. It’s the place where one feels an interconnectedness among people that suggests a higher level of being, a more perfect expression of the love we feel for each other. That’s what those sweet moments with children and other family members are about. We create that moment for us and for them.

The moment passes. It’s a rare person who never doubts her self worth, her place in this world, her connection to others. Most of the time we muddle towards mediocrity and worry we’re messing even that up. (If you feel like you’re doing it right most of the time, and the people around you agree then you are an exceptional human being. Please don’t come over – I’ll probably just feel jealous and that will be another trait for me to work on through Elul. If you feel like you’re doing it right all the time and the people around you don’t agree, maybe you need to check in with others from time to time. That’s dangerous psycho stuff.)

That’s what our Slihot singing is – an opportunity to make the world stronger and more whole for each of us, if only for that moment. Every time I sing, I connect to others and build or rebuild the bonds between us. It’s beautiful. That’s why we do it.

Heck, that’s why I do religion in general – it builds those moments, and although we are not supposed to do good things even for emotional reward, I’ll step onto a lower rung of spiritual growth for a moment. I’ll say that it makes all the effort worth while. That feeling of doing something that counts, that matters, that connects, that repairs – that’s what I want to have and hold on to in my life.

Elul 11 – Trust

Sometimes, the way my kids and my students trust me is awe inspiring. They really think I know stuff and they react to me like I should be able to fix the problems they’re having. Even when I’ve made it patently clear that I know pretty much nothing, I still know so much more than them that they all look up to me with these big trusting eyes, asking me impossible questions that Solomon never had to answer. That man couldn’t have possibly been all that wise! Legends say he had 1000 children and every parent knows that would not be a wise idea. No wonder the kingdom fell apart after his death!

Trust in adults is harder to win. It works hand in hand with its sister-trait respect. If I don’t respect someone, there will be an area where I can’t trust them. However, it’s just a starting place, not a final one. Even if I respect someone, I still might not trust them if they lie a lot, don’t keep promises, gossip and otherwise make untrustworthy decisions. So, if I say there’s someone I trust, that’s a big deal.

Of course, I do trust God. It’s tricky – it feels like each bad thing that happens, in my life or in the world, is a broken promise between God and the world that the world would remain a good place. But I respect God a great deal and I remember that God never promised a rose garden.

I wish I could trust God the way a kid trusts me – that googly eyed, it’s going to be OK because she says it is trust that. The one that holds no wariness, no calculations – but I don’t any more. The best I can do is treat God as an adult – someone whom I trust because we’ve gotten along, there’s respect and the broken promises are much fewer than the kept ones.

I hope that as my kids become adults, they can trust me the same way. I have to be someone worth respecting for that and someone who doesn’t break promises. Neither will be simple – but trust is the cornerstone of love – so it’s as good a set of traits to work on as any other.

Elul 10 – Forgive

OK, but I can’t. I mean the big things – those I can forgive. (Although, I admit, for those of you who can’t – I’ve not had a lot of horrible big bad things done to me which makes it easier.) It’s the little things, the little daily mosquito like things that people do completely unconsciously – those, I can never forgive. I can never forgive them because they’re still there, still filling the air with that nasty buzz, still causing nasty little pinpricks of pain, still causing me to swell up and itch and want to swat them and crush them flat! (Which is not something I would do, really but sometimes when I’m frustrated…)

How am I supposed to forgive that? I can’t. I can’t think of any good ways to forgive them. I’ve tried praying to have the anger gone, and it does go away – and then it comes back in full force the next time that person says that thing, or has that look or whatever. I’ve tried praying for good things for them – same problem! I’ve tried praying that those words wouldn’t matter – that they wouldn’t affect me. I’ve been more effective at praying for real mosquitoes to not affect me. At least there I could use after-bite. (Hmm…after-bite for people – there’s a winning product that would totally sell.)

Focusing on the positive aspects of the person helps sometimes, as does sharing good times with that person. Other times it’s easier when I’m not around them (although that is more rare – generally when I’m not with someone who annoys me, my mind keeps replaying that nasty mosquito bite over and over, itching at the sore spot until it bleeds.)  Even saying “I forgive you – in my head, by my self, with no one there – causes me grief. It’s amazing how hard my teeth can clench. And of course, that forgiveness isn’t real, and we all know there’s nothing as empty as grudging forgiveness. (It was one of dad’s phrases – “as empty as grudging forgiveness” – I’ve always been so impressed with the man for being able to use a phrase like that in a language not his own.)

Still, I keep saying the words, again and again, focusing on the appropriate thoughts, and finding the healthy ways to make the relationship a better place (never mind the world). Sometimes, it’s even successful. I manage to keep coexisting with the people who annoy me, after all, and finding healthy ways to relate. It’s never fun. It’s work, it’s annoying and I don’t like it. But hey, there’s Elul in a nutshell right there! I pray to keep doing the work of Elul – just after I itch that infernally itchy spot right behind my…

Elul 9 – See

This hasn’t been a year in which people see clearly, it just hasn’t. In this year, so many people have yelled “can’t you SEE that…” that we’ve become jaded. But being jaded is not safe. We must see what is actually going on. We must be aware and we must be careful about our choices.

These days, one of the sins I am working to do Teshuvah for is the sin of pride and self-righteousness. Because I have spent a lot of this year thinking – and mostly not saying, I’m neither that dumb nor that nasty – “can’t you see how wrong you are???” to tons of people.

First, all those people on the right side of the political spectrum who preach intolerance and hate for others while asking for tolerance and acceptance for themselves. I don’t get how they can make that kind of mistake – how they can miss that mark so badly.  Surely you see that you are using the same words to say “for us, people must make allowances; and anyway we’re better than that; and we deserve decency and equality and kindness and support and a humane place to be and …” but “for them, they are bad to the bone and there’s no allowances to be made, and they are evil, and think they’re better than that but they’re not, and they need to be limited, to be restricted, to be kept from acting out, to be treated as they deserve and sent to where they belong and…” Can’t they hear their own words? Can’t they see what they look like? Why not?

Then, the people on the left side of the political spectrum who preach intolerance and hate for some while asking for tolerance and acceptance for others. I suppose that’s better on the surface – they’re doing it for someone else. They intend well – but the road to Hell is still paved with good intentions. (Of course it’s a Jewish saying! Yes, they attribute it to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, but everyone knows he got it from Shmuel, his tailor, who was just paraphrasing Proverbs 14:12 😊) They are Rah-Rah-the Revolution people.

As someone who came from the result of a revolution – please, people, try to see where you’re going? Try? When you preach tolerance, but say violence is OK, but only against those vicious people who attack others, when you say that intersectionality is fantastic, but some people are more intersectional than other people, when you exclude certain groups first because you find their talk offensive, and then because you find some symbolism of theirs offensive, and finally because they’re the type of people who…you remind me of the communists in my old country. They too wanted equality and tolerance for the people. They were only against the rich – those bourgeoisie who lived off the sweat of their workers. But that meant they were against anyone who owned land or a small business, and so Farmer Joe and Aunt Bessie with her small bake shop were both in trouble – they were petty bourgeoise. What? It won’t get to that point? You’re sure it’s not like that? Rah-rah-the-revolution?

People, this year, someone was kicked out of a Pride parade for wearing a Jewish Star of David because stars of David are on the Israeli flag and that makes people uncomfortable (I hope to heck they kicked out anyone wearing a crescent moon, a sickle, a hammer, or heck, stars or stripes or the maple leaf – because all of those make some people uncomfortable; hey, I know! Let’s cut down all the maple trees! Then the offensive maple leaf need never be seen by those it makes uncomfortable…)

Me, why should I care? I haven’t been to a Pride parade for years. I haven’t felt comfortable. Because I’m Jewish, and visibly so (I wear a kippa at all times,) Pride parades became, for me, a time of being jeered and poked and questioned and threatened. There was a clear assumption that I was, if visibly Jewish, a Zionist, pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian, against free speech and in favour of violence. And I thought I was just going to celebrate Pride with my kids. I have become the petty bourgeoisie of our times. I don’t fit into the ideology. I have to go. So much for intersectionality. Doesn’t look like it includes me. Who else will you exclude, people? Why can’t you see?

And that’s when you are all acting from the best intentions ever sold at a paving store. Do you really think that’s going to last forever? How long will it be until your fervor and naivete are co-opted by a man as evil as Stalin? Open your eyes – please! It’s never going to happen, you say? Of course not! Long live the Revolution. Rah!

It’s enough to make a woman cry. Which is another way of blocking sight so I can’t see. The best I can do today, though blinded by tears and a feeling of being squeezed – of being trapped in the center of Satan’s plot – the best I can do today is pray. I pray that all those who live with prejudice and fear in their hearts, with impulsive decisions and propensity to violence on their tongues would open up their eyes and see how God really wanted them to be. I pray that I too can see more clearly, to avoid the pride and self-righteousness that cause me not to see my prejudice and fear and impulsive decisions and propensity to violence. May God let all of us see…

Elul 8 – Hear

Twice now, my daughter has summoned us all to the dinner table using a shofar. It is Elul, after all, and since we must use a shofar every day, using it as a dinner bell seems like a great way to ensure it isn’t forgotten. Also, she likes it.

The Shofar – the blast that reminds us of the worlds creation, and the sound that will usher in the time of the Messiah, the horn made out of Abraham’s ram that sounded spontaneously at Sinai to announce the giving of the Torah – the wordless, non-musical blaring of sound, that sounds like wailing and crying – that has been compared to the wailing of Isaac’s mother Sarah, and of Sisera’s mother, Sisera being an enemy general. Our alarm clock that tells us to waken our souls, that summons us to repentance (and in our house, to dinner).

I really like that – the Rabbis chose those two women as the two best described by the Shofar cry. One was the foremother of our people. She was the first woman to recognize the existence of God and she had the Patriarch Isaac when she was 100 years old.  For her, the Akeda, the sacrifice of Isaac might have meant the end of everything, of anything she believed in, of anything she cared about. No wonder she died at that moment. The shofar is about that – the cycle of birth and death and rebirth, of joy and despair and joy, of life and death, of loving God and losing God signified by different notes and different sounds.

But the shofar is also, simply, the sound of a mother mourning her baby – it doesn’t have to be a Jew who she mourns, it doesn’t have to be a friend or a good person – it is simply somebody’s baby, and the Shofar’s wailing is the wailing of Sisera’s mother at hearing her son, a successful powerful, potentially evil and cruel general had just died. Because to her he wasn’t evil and cruel – he was her baby boy, grown up to a fine young man successful and strong, with his future ahead of him. And then, all of a sudden, he was gone – taken, vanished in a moment. These cries transcend language. They transcend faith, they transcend the ideas we know. They are emotion, pure and raw designed to strip away the rationalizations we feed ourselves and the language we use to hide our fragility.

I like to think that God is the Mother wailing every time we blow the Shofar. She is mourning us – all of us who have made choices that distance us, that take us away from God, that leave Her alone and broken and wishing it could have been different somehow. Wishing that She didn’t have to stand in judgement over Her children and decide that some of them, for one reason or another wouldn’t make it this year. Being broken hearted over each child lost, no matter how essential to the workings of the universe that loss is.

The sounds of the Shofar are supposed to rouse us to Teshuva, turning, repentance and show us the way. The long clear note of Tekia, a whole soul, reminds us of who we should be. The broken sound of Shevarim (which means breaks or cracks), reminds us of who we have become – broken, bent, choosing ways of being that take us away from God, and leave us in pieces. The Terua sound of ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay – that is the sound of weeping; God’s weeping as She yearns for us and our weeping, as we yearn for God. Together, we come together in repentance, crying in each other’s arms, connecting to each other and to God. Then, the crying can transform us and recreate us anew as on that first creation of the world, that first ram in the thicket, that first moment at Sinai, that first dance, that birth – and so, renewed and whole as one community with God, we sound the Tekia Gedola and start again.

I look forward to really hearing it when the Shofar is blown again.