Elul 7 – Understand
It’s hard to understand the kids. They use different words to mean different things (like “sauce” to mean pass – really?) They present things in different ways. They don’t share my goals or my dreams. Things that I strongly dislike or that make me uncomfortable are perfect for them. And each different too! I can’t even say “kids these days” because all 3 of my big “I left home and I’m grown up now” kids are so different. Frankly, my small kids aren’t that small any more. With one already Bar Mitzvah and one about to hit the double digits, all my kids are “grown up” in their own very different ways.
And so my relationship with them must change – I hate change, but this year, it seems to have shown up as a theme. I need to listen more carefully than ever to them. I can’t assume anything except that I’m often wrong.
In particular I have to think the best of the kids. I must replace “they are lazy” with “they are taking the time they need” and “they are shiftless” with “their ambitions are different.” It’s easy for me to see very little things – a mess left in a room, a brusque comment, a delay in texting back – as a sign that their differences are wrong, that they’re careless and self-focused, that they need to be corrected and taught and advised.
It’s what I did for so many years! I tried hard to give good advise, set useful rules, teach correct lessons. Now, they don’t need that. They just want to be understood and accepted and loved. It’s confusing! How can I be there for them when sometimes that means giving them a great deal of space?
I know part of it is to keep reaching out, keep communicating, keep connecting. Building a bridge with my kids – I can’t imagine a more important activity. It’s also very rewarding. They are infinitely interesting, intelligent and successful young people. They are excelling in ways I never could (and making mistakes I never made, but that’s growth, right?)
Part of it is letting them set the timing, the content and everything else about our conversations. I need to be there for them – but just in the way they need me. If I push, I lose that connection. That’s a bridge I treasure – the fact that my kids can confide in me is what I feel one of my biggest successes is.
Most of it though is about understanding. I listen to them, I work to understand them, and I recognize the divine shining through them. It’s hard work – but it’s the work that I have before me. I may as well enjoy trying to understand.
So, wants – we all have them, they’re not needs, most religions agree they should be left to God, or at best sought in moderation. But what I want – at least what I want to talk about in this blog, is what happens when wants clash.
And what happens is anger. We don’t understand why the person we are trying to spend time with, communicate with, or work with in some way won’t simply do what we want. It would, really, be best for everyone. It’s just that they have a similar idea and so poof, anger, conflict, ick.
Now, don’t get me wrong – Anger is useful. It’s sort of like oxidation. It creates energy, sparks change, removes blocks. It’s powerful and effective, or at least – it should be. But oxidation is also rust and fire. It can destroy, slowly, one tiny bit of rusty nail at a time or rapidly in a huge conflagration.
Most people (myself included) are really bad at dealing with anger. We are way more likely to create rust and flames than change and energy. There seem to be two ways of dealing with anger – you can hold it in and keep it to yourself, or spew it out all over everyone. Holding it in – that’s my specialty – and that leads to rust. Soul rust is when the foundations of your dream temples are slowly eaten away, and you are unwilling to build, when you find yourself putting more and more walls on that temple to hide the rusty spots and to keep the collapse at bay. It’s ugly. At the totally wrong moment, the temple – now looking much more like a fortress – collapses anyway and in the process, self esteem and relationships have been destroyed.
Others (and I know them too – and you know who you are) light the world on fire with their anger, making sure everyone knows that they are UPSET. This is not much better, as it not only burns bridges between us and other people, but actually, it’s almost impossible for our own soul temple to not catch on fire, leaving ethics and priorities, courtesy and breath as a pile of ashes.
So what to do? God seems to frown on anger, sending plagues and swallowing people in the earth if they let it out – except when God encourages anger and tells us to fight for this or for that. Confusing. The Pirkey Avot says that they are strong who are slow to anger and can master their own spirit. Hmm. So, the first thing one must do is accept that one is angry – because our wants will not always be satisfied. We’ll get mad. We’re going to have to notice that and slow it down, and not react immediately. Then, it’s a matter of analysis. Is this the kind of case where our anger is due to a misunderstanding, an unhealthy want being unsatisfied, something we can fulfil some other way? Then we find ways to deal with that anger privately, to scrub the rust off the foundations, and do a bit of internal restoration here and there. We could write and tear up angry letters, punch pillows, go for a brisk walk, find a distant and private location and scream, visualize, make art – whatever turns the anger into something productive for us.
If the anger is motivated by something being truly wrong, on the other hand – an injustice, a lack that reflects a need rather than a want, someone’s cruelty or disdain – then we have a responsibility to act. The Torah is big on warning someone who is about to do the wrong thing and rebuking someone who is acting badly. The trick is to do so calmly, to ensure that our goal is improvement and not destruction. Embarrassing a person, using cruel pointedly sarcastic remarks to wound, pointing out flaws in public – these are totally against Jewish precepts. (If you ever were in Jewish Junior High with the Rachels, you wouldn’t know that and would actually think the opposite, but hey…) You need to find a way – a gentle but powerful way to use your anger to create change.
How can we help each other repair our soul temples instead of burning them down? It’s a daily challenge. Learning to work with anger – to neither swallow it into myself as the earth swallowed Korakh, nor throw it out to destroy others – that’s a challenge for this year. And getting that skill – now, that’s something I definitely want.
Elul 4 – Choose
This year, I’m making choices. For years I’ve said, “I don’t have enough time for that” and “I don’t have enough time for this.” I read something this month however that said, “I don’t have enough time” is synonymous with “This is not a priority for me.” That is a very different way of looking at the universe.
“I don’t have enough time to contact my friends” sounds believable, and almost valid as an excuse. “These people are not a priority for me” – that’s different. “I don’t have enough time to go hiking or canoeing or camping or enjoy any physical activity at all” – that’s just a bit sad. Poor thing. She doesn’t have enough time. If only time had been nicer to her. “Hiking, canoeing and camping aren’t priorities for me” however, sounds horrifying. Of course they’re priorities! What? What kind of life am I building here?
Every day, I have the same 24 hours. What will I fill it with? How much time am I losing to activities I didn’t choose, activities I “fell into” because of lack of time? It’s a bit scary to think that every little thing I do – from taking a drink of water to typing this very line is a choice of how I spend my time – a choice of what my priority is. And Judaism tells me I should think hard and deliberately about that choice. Judaism is big on acting with intention. There’s a whole word Kavana for acting and praying and doing whatever you do with intention. We are supposed to put all of ourselves into what we do, not simply skim the surface.
Sometimes, I need a rest! A break! And here too I have choices. I can pick breaks that meet my priorities or breaks that don’t, that waste some of those 24 hours. It’s easy to go on default – heck, not going with the flow, not going on default – that takes brain power and focus. (For most of us, walking along to the musac in shopping malls is automatic, it’s breaking that pattern that’s the challenge – for me, well, let’s just say that thing doesn’t work for me when it comes to music. When it comes to activities, however…) I get tired of that too and so I fall into patterns in which I’m doing things that are easy rather than things that are important or fun.
So, this year, I want to push slowly but firmly to change those patterns. I want to create new patterns in which, when I look at what I’m doing at any given time, I can say “this is a priority; this is exactly how I want to be spending my time.” That way, when I say “I don’t have time for this” I’ll be able to add “because it’s not a priority” without flinching. That way, I know I’ve made the choice and not whatever random dude picked the musac playing at that shopping mall.
Elul 5 – Commit
I should be committed! For thinking I have enough time to get any of this done…which I don’t. We’re moving tomorrow. However, this is one thing I do. I do it every year. It has become a habit, now in its 6th year. I think it’s a good and necessary part of my life. So, I make time for it – not a lot of time (I’m 3 days behind) but some. I find really tiny slivers of time and write one more line – put in one more concept and ideology.
Otherwise it doesn’t happen. You let something important to you go once, twice and all of a sudden it’s no longer a habit and you’re saying, “I used to do that back when…” It’s hard to maintain good habits – even if they seem routine, it takes work. And to do it when all is chaotic and crazy – that’s more than just work, that’s commitment.
I’ve always been committed to other people. If someone asks me to do something, I try to do it. If we have a regularly planned activity or outing, I try to participate. Doing my part in the flow of everyday is an important part of who I am. It’s been harder to commit to God – keeping up with prayer, with religious observance, with seeing and treating everyone as a reflection of the Divine – and I’ve had more trouble prioritizing that. Hardest of all has been committing to myself.
If there’s one place I need to do serious tshuva for, it’s the way I’ve treated myself. Basically, I either saw my body as a useful tool that did what I wanted, or an annoying piece of malfunctioning equipment that didn’t. I would never treat another person that way! (I know people who do.) So, I must not treat myself that way. Because the consequences have been dreadful. One’s body does not like poor treatment. It gets weaker and less functional. The heavy breathing, the lack of nicely fitting clothes, the difficulty moving, the difficulty sleeping – these all point to a body that needs help.
They make it less likely that I can meet my commitments to God and to others also. I can’t do as much with others if I’m always tired or unable to keep up. I can’t think about God if I’m busy thinking of a comfort or indulgence that will satisfy an incidental craving. Even a tool, to be useful, needs to be maintained. And my body is more than just a random meat sack which I can treat any way I want. In many ways, it’s who I am, it’s where I live. To continue the theme of the month, it’s the temple that houses my soul.
Caring for the physical is a very Jewish character trait. Judaism is extremely physical (I found) as a faith, and the idea is very much to have the body be a holy temple. Eating, sleeping, dressing – everything is supposed to be a holy task. That’s why most of them have prayers for before and after. Now, it’s my turn to do that – not just through adding prayer, but through mindful care for my body.
So, it’s time to commit. To find the time, to make it a priority, to do it for the sake of myself, for the sake of God, for the sake of other people. I commit to eating healthily this year, to fun physical activities, to changing my sleep cycles, to helping my body look good, feel good, and be a holy temple for my soul.
Elul 3 – Prepare
Well, we’re preparing for a move! That’s exciting. And appropriate – after all Jewish people wander, pretty much by definition, so the fact that we’re on the move is perfect. I, on the other hand, hate moves and change and everything associated with them. God thinks this is funny, and so, I, personally, have moved 32 times so far in my life. This is my 33rd move. Given that I’m 50, that’s less than 2 years a place, on average.
So, I should be prepared for this one. Yet a new environment is always a shock to me. There are little things that not everyone notices. The stairs aren’t where I expect them to be. The windowsills are too big (or too small). This room faces the wrong direction. The sink is on the wrong side of the shower. The bed is against a different wall. It takes me forever to figure out my paths to and from work, to know how long to allocate for putting out the garbage and recycling (important; I’m slow) , to figure anything out. It is uncomfortable and I’m never really ready.
In some ways, every Elul is a move. I’m leaving an old year and starting a new one, and the point of this month is that the new one is supposed to be different. Even if I do nothing, however, it is still different. The schedule for each week isn’t what I expect it to be. People are too close (or too distant.) This aspect of my life is going in the wrong direction. The politicians are on the wrong side of the spectrum. The children’s programs are on a different day. It takes me forever to figure out my paths through work, home, and shul, to know how long to allocate for self-care or for contacting others (also important; I’m lazy), to figure anything out. I’m still uncomfortable and I’m still not ready.
But it happens. No matter how much or how little I want to, I move both in time and in space, I change. So, all I can do is prepare. Look at every item in the house. Do I need this? Really? What about that? Look at every belief system in my heart in the same way. Do I still believe in this? Really? Is that idea still working?
I use wrapping paper to protect things important to me. I use ritual to protect ideals important to me. I appreciate the beauty of items I haven’t seen for a while. I appreciate the beauty of concepts I haven’t used for a while too. I get movers to help lift the heavy things, and I get help from friends to help deal with the heavy feelings. I label and categorize, plan new locations and try different spots. How can this year, this move, this set of changes be incredible? I invest in me, financially and emotionally.
I feel I did a lot of prep for this move. Not that I’m ready – I am, like an excellent book says – completely unprepared. But the move is happening. Elul is happening. All I can do is prepare to the best of my abilities and cope with the results.
Elul 2 – Seek
(Psalms 27:4) “One thing have I asked of the Eternal, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of God all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Eternal, and to seek God in God’s temple.
In my head, I’m always see my daughters singing this to a tune written for them by their Cantor and it makes me smile. The tune is gorgeous and it’s moving and it really helps the words be felt. ’s kind of confusing though, with lots of contradictions. What is this one thing? Because three things are listed. And is this something I’m asking for, or something I’m doing? If I ask for one thing, why am I seeking it? A mess, right? So, how to reconcile it all? What does this person want?
We’re supposed to read this psalm during Elul, so it’s topical to discuss the meaning of this verse, which to me seems like the best one in the entire psalm (no enemies being murdered.) So, this isn’t supposed to be some other person, this is supposed to be me reading it and so me doing the asking, the seeking, the dwelling, the gazing.
What is the one thing I have asked of the Eternal, then? If I follow the words of the psalm then the one thing is to dwell in the House of God, to seek God there, and to gaze on the beauty of the Eternal. Listed in that way, it’s easier to see it as one thing – and since I talked about Temples in Elul 1, it only makes sense to have temples again today.
What would it mean for me to live in God’s temple and seek God there? I’d always be encountering beauty, wouldn’t I? Temples are beautiful. I’d be doing my best to look for the beautiful and Godly in everything – to change how I see the world so that I’m gazing at the beauty of the Eternal. That would be a way to seek God and to live in a temple of God, to see the world that way.
It wouldn’t be easy – the world can be very ugly and every day living can feel nothing like a temple. For me to be living in a temple means that I see the beauty of the everyday. I can see how beautiful the world is and appreciate it. It means I treat the world the way I would a temple – I am careful and gentle and polite and I participate fully. A temple is a place where I know I need to be engaged. So, I am engaged, interested in the things I do every day.
I am actively working when I see the world as a temple, to be engaged, to perceive the beauty, to find the divine in everything – to seek God. That’s why this is a seeking – it requires work from me. But it is something I pray for too, because I know that I need all the help I can get in this task, so it is what I ask for.
That perspective – the world as a temple – changes everything. It changes relationships, landscapes, activities. It’s the right pair of glasses to wear to see the world with and it’s the one thing I need to help me live happily. I ask for and I seek this perspective this Elul, so that everything I see and do may be my looking for God in God’s house and perceiving the beauty therein.
Elul 1 – Decide
(Proverbs 24:25-24:26) But to them that decide justly, life shall be delight, and a good blessing shall come upon them. God kisses the lips that give a right answer.
What’s the first step to getting a new dress? A new car? A new life? No, not research. No, not pricing or budgeting. The first step is a decision. My old dress isn’t working. I need a new one. The changes themselves can be as small as going for a 5 minute walk or as big as moving to another country – the point is that once a decision has been made – everything is different.
The car stops being the family car and starts being “that old car, the one we’re about to get rid of.” People start looking at cars on the street to see if one of them will work. The budget is examined and the cost of a new car is factored in. Little by little, the decision is played out until it becomes actual.
So, God approves of decisions that are just, that are right – especially when it comes to our lives. The right decisions even feel different – they make one feel empowered and stronger instead of uncertain or confused. And Elul is an opportunity to decide.
What will I choose today? What kind of person do I want to be? That’s a question that looks like it has no answer – but clearly it does, since if I state the right answer, I’ll get a kiss – God’s touch, strength, joy – all that. (I love that image – God’s kiss on the lips. I know it’s metaphorical, but it’s so beautiful.) For me, Elul is again a chance to try to bring myself closer to what God wants me to be. My correct choice has to be to follow God’s will as much as possible.
I have been making little decisions for myself this month – decisions that look forward, decisions that involve my health – and they’ve been making me happier and they’ve been making me healthier and I think they’re the right ones. Because while the decisions have been a challenge to make – acting on them has been pretty easy. And for someone who’s always struggled with willpower and commitment, that feels a lot like God’s kiss.
Now, it’s Elul, and I am scared. I’m scared that I won’t remember the decision I made, the path I’m on. I’ve forgotten so many times before. Heck, if I had a pencil for every time I’ve restarted, I’d be able to supply every one of the many forgetful students I teach, and that’s a lot of pencils. I don’t want to be just making this decision again next Elul. I want to have moved further – I want to be making new decisions based on the foundations of this year’s. Maybe – I want to be able to build a temple.
Not a third temple in Israel, but a temple of my life, a beautiful sacred life that has strong decisions supported by strong actions. And Tisha B’Av is the time I remember that temples fall, and they need to be cleaned up – but then comes Elul and life temples – they need to be rebuilt. Now, that’s a process that takes time, one that requires cooperation and trust and new ways of looking in the world. Imagine what it would take to build a temple in Israel, without annoying the neighbours? Building a life temple has way less challenges, and they’re on a much smaller scale – but they are there! So, rebuilding is scary, especially knowing that some time during this year, before Tisha B’Av, some of what I build will be knocked down. This decision is a scary one.
All I can do today however, is make my decision, hope it’s the right one, and if it comes – appreciate God’s kiss.
“I put before you the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life.” is one of my favourite lines in the bible. It is also a very beautiful song. But what is a blessing? Some see it as just a wish – like when we say “bless you” after someone sneezes, to wish them health. But people are very clear that a curse is more than a bad wish – it can actually cause a bad wish to happen. So is a blessing a good wish that can actually happen? The dictionary takes another view. It says that blessing is making holy. Except – I don’t need holy sneezes. None of it makes a lot of sense.
The line above makes sense however. It makes sense on a visceral, emotional level – the level at which Yom Kippur, if done right, should make sense. Yom Kippur is supposed to make the blessing and the curse just a bit more obvious – to peel back the layers of common sense and every day living and let me see what behaviours of mine cause good wishes to myself and others and which do not. If it doesn’t do that – if it doesn’t make me feel abashed, determined, sad, excited, humble, proud, ready and willing, then it hasn’t done its job.
What did I learn from Yom Kippur this year? I have a short attention span, and am easily bored. I enjoy repetition – but only up to a point. We went to a more religious service – and I didn’t always have the God connection that I rely on Yom Kippur to bring. So, I’m not sure that it did the job and heled me to choose blessing rather than curse.
I will have to keep trying. I see my bad habits glaring at me since I started watching for them – “ha,” they seem to say “you chose the curse that time.” It feels almost impossible – not through the many repetitions of song and story, not through checkmarks on a page, not through earnest prayer – to be rid of them. In fact, all that happens is, over the course of the day, I get more and more defensive and less and less able to accept my errors and I start justifying the most ridiculous things in the most ridiculous way.
Luckily, there is another holiday that follows Yom Kippur and that one worked better at helping me choose the blessing. Sukkot was beautiful this year. It was exactly what Sukkot should be – a holiday where love of God and love of goodness brought so much joy that choosing blessing was easy. During Sukkot, sometimes, I forgot about everything and just chose to do the right thing because it felt good. That’s a rare thing. When I can do the right thing – not because I have to, but because it feels fantastic. So, I will try to use that – to hold on to that blessing throughout the year. This year, for the first time, I understand why those books of right and wrong, good and evil, aren’t closed until Simkhat Torah. Because if it didn’t happen through the gritted teeth hard work of Yom Kippur, one can still choose life through the joy of Sukkot.
This post – probably my last Elul blog of the year, as it’s Kheshvan tomorrow – took me a month to write in snippets. It’s disjointed, and has more flaws than most posts do. It reminds me of our sukkot. It reminds me of my family. There may be rough or ill-fitting bits. There may be confusion, it may take forever (most things that I do take forever), it may not make perfect sense – but it expresses joy, and it reaches for blessing.
It is an awe-inspiring thing to be created in the image of God. People forget the responsibility that puts on them. Because God is a creator. If we are created in God’s image, then it is incumbent upon us to create. We are, by that act of being, creators. We create with every breath we take. If we aren’t careful, however, what we create won’t be fit to be sold in a government-issue store in a communist country. It will be dull, colourless, badly stitched together and ill-fitting. When we review our years as part of the Yommim Noraim, one of the things to do is note the badly made things we have created and get rid of them. Another thing to do is to plan this year’s creations.
That’s right – plan. Because it’s easy to create garbage. Peel a banana and there you have it – a banana peel, done. But to create something worthy of being in God’s image, that takes planning, it takes determination, it takes creativity, and it takes love. Without planning, it won’t be possible. You know the saying, “the devil is in the details?” Picture him there – waiting to drag you down with him, tempting you to waste time and do things that are not creative in any way. So, I plan what I want to have next year. As part of that, I celebrate this year’s creations.
I taught full time all year. Yes, that’s a creation – all those students who know math better, who like math better and more importantly, who know that cheating gets caught, that prioritising work leads to success, that they have ability, that they can’t ride on that ability but need to work – that is a beautiful creation, and I played a part in it. A family who love each other, who grow together, who learn from each other – and who think that being Jewish is fun. That’s my creation too. I’m not the only one on this creative team, but at least I played a small part. I wrote a lot. I blogged Elul, I counted the Omer, and I prepared tons of interesting, creative materials for math classes. Although most of my writing is a bit cheesy, repetitive and mediocre, occasionally, I write good stuff and I’m proud of what I write. So, this year, I will continue to create in the areas of family, teaching, writing. What else?
Fighting for a better world? Maybe – that could be a neat creation. Increasing connections with friends? Improving the appearance of my surroundings? (I don’t HAVE to be a slob, right?) These are all things I could create this year. These are all goals around which I could make plans. And once I’m done the planning, I’m just started. It’s going to take a lot of determination for me to continue. I’m a procrastinator and little things take me forever. I’m going to want to quit. Anything that could distract me probably will. For instance, I have decided that there will be 29 Blog Elul posts this year. It was NOT easy to get my butt in this chair to write this one.
I need creativity to do the things I do – and creativity hurts, because it means I am invested in the work I do. I want – no, I need it to reflect my emotions. Which means I pick at emotional scars every time I sit down to write, I prod at relationships to see which bit hurts – and then I use that bit to write from, because it is the one that will add the colour and texture and make sure I’m not producing boring material. I know many people say you’re either creative or you’re not. I disagree. We are all created in God’s image. We are all creative. You are either willing to face the pain or you’re not. If you’re coming from a place of shame and embarrassment, you won’t be and you’ll find that the words don’t come, the paint won’t flow, the conversation will end abruptly as you walk away from those you should be with, and you will be completely unable to create.
And that’s where the love must come in, because if I don’t love it, I won’t do it – or I’ll do it mechanically, keeping my self insulated from it. I love what I do – and I’ve tried doing stuff I don’t love, and I’m so good at faking it that lots of people thought it was good creative work. I knew however, and God knew that it was just nicely painted garbage, and not worthy of being seen, especially during the High Holy Days.
So, to create is …well, here is an image. To create, plan to build a fire. Get the supplies and build it hot. Now stick your hands in it. Yes it’s supposed to hurt, that’s the creativity. Use determination and love to keep your hands in the flames. No, you don’t get burned up in this fire. Instead you pull out something incredible, whose beauty reminds you that you were made in God’s image with the power of creation.