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.
Happy New Years! LeShanah Tovah Tikatevu…may you be written in the book of life. I only got to 24 #BolgElul again, and have no idea if I’ll make it to 29. I hope so. I will try. It will be a change from last year, and this is a time of change.
The year changed (it is now 5778), the school year started (oh, and my students all look so much bigger and smarter and more capable than they were last year), the days are shorter, and the leaves are turning colour. The last of the vegetables are coming out of our garden and the kids needed new shoes. What changes can I make?
As I stood on the Bima in services this year and heard the haunting melody of Avinu Malkeynu, I found myself in that space that Avinu Malkeynu always puts me in – that combination of humility and awe, of realization and yearning. I become aware of how much I need to do, how little I have done, and how I actually have no “good deeds” to offer, how I need God to be compassionate and kind because I come empty handed. It’s both horrifying and lovely and impossible to imagine or describe. The High Holidays are what they are because they break the boundaries of imagination to actually touch the heart. So, can I reach for deeds? Can I come from this place of nothing and try to become?
Nope. I don’t have a lot of willpower. I make promises to myself and break them much the way tiny children make sandcastles. In fact, many sandcastles last longer than my promises. So, I can claim that this is the year where I…but I might not. Notice, for example, that it is Tishrey 1, and I haven’t written the 29th Blog of Elul. So much for promises!
I go back to the feeling that Avinu Malkeynu inspired. It was echoed and amplified, through the Shofar call, by the overwhelming words of the Unetane Tokef (which was beautifully done in Hebrew and in Leonard Cohen in our Shul this morning) For a few minutes there, I had that realization – that knowledge of it not being up to me. That’s when I understood surrendering to God, and having God in the driver’s seat and letting God be in charge and all those other trite clichés that actually stop being trite or clichéd on Rosh HaShana. I saw myself as a vessel, designed to channel God’s light, broken at the beginning of the world. It was amazing.
Then my reality vs. cheesiness regulator kicked in and I realized that I was getting very close to magic mumbo jumbo and crystals and mantras and any minute now, I’d look someone deep in their eyes and tell them they needed more blue in their lives to balance their energy. (Note that if you are someone for whom crystals, mantras and blue work, more power to you. For me, they are mumbo jumbo is all.) Still, I think that feeling may have had something to it. How can I change? Maybe just by getting out of my own way.
I love doing the right thing. It feels good, it is its own reward, it brings me joy, brings others joy and connects me to other people. I don’t get there often, but it’s not hard to recognize. All I have to do is stop interfering with it. If I could just reach for that Avinu Malkeynu feeling any time that I’m trying to decide what to do, I bet that most of the time, I’d do it right. It’s a different goal and it’s not a promise, so I guess that’s a change. I’ll try to keep out of the way of God making the decisions and hope God knows what needs to be done well enough for the decisions to be the right ones.
We’ll see if it works. Whether it does, next year, I hope to be back at shul, saying with complete faith and clarity that “I have no deeds”. The difference is, if I can let God manage things this year, then next year, maybe the fact that I have no deeds will be less devastating.
Now, back to apples, honey, and most importantly, honey cake. We may have no deeds, but we sure have good honey cake!
I’ve been told to pray to know God’s will for me, and for the willingness to do it and nothing else. It’s a tall order. I prefer the other kind of praying. You know, that desperate ‘please God, let me …’ You left for the meeting late, and you must be there on time, so there you are, praying for green lights all the way, for the bus to be there just as you get into the station, for easy-to-find parking, or for an elevator that arrives right on time. You’re making deals. ‘Let me pass the test, and I’ll totally study from now on’. You’re providing explanations and making excuses. ‘I couldn’t work on that project – there were people over and I had to entertain them. I had no time at all!’ ‘This is a really important date – I have to make it on time! Don’t let me be late or my life will be totally messed up.’
I try to avoid the orders and self aggrandization of ‘God, you had better get me that raise! I had worked so hard on that task!’ I know that I don’t do half the things I say that I will do, and that I could do better on the other half. Still, prayers are a thing. I try to do the prayers I’ve learned, be it the Sh’ma or the Amida or any of the others. Sometimes, that helps. Most of the words we say are words of thanksgiving, praise, and very ‘give me strength to do your will and clear the obstacles in my way’ style petitions. They can get very formulaic, though and stilted. I find my mind drifting away from my prayers back to everyday concerns.
How do I get my ego out of the way enough to hear God’s will for me? There are ways I get into the right headspace – singing, being outside, walking. I think my prayers are purer when I do that than they are when I say any words. Sometimes, I can consciously clear my head enough of thought to actually connect to God (to love, to myself, to the universe – whatever works for you; don’t let the words get you.) Sometimes, it just happens – a strong enough emotion, and I cry, laugh, and pray truly from the heart.
Those are real prayers. Whether I’m asking for help or thanking God, whether I ask to succeed at something I’m doing or request God’s will for me, it’s when emotion overwhelms thought, when my mind is finally defeated in its effort to rationalize everything that I pray.
So, I use words – to say what words cannot:
When I’m feeling lost and broken
And I weep from ache and grief
When fear overwhelms, unspoken
When pain drowns out all belief
When each day is long and weary
And no one can tell me why
When the tasks seem pointless, dreary –
God, please hold me when I cry
When I yell with rage unbending
And cast stones instead of bread
When I swear a grudge unending
When the redness fills my head
When I cannot fix the error
And shards mock my broken dream
And frustration leads to terror
God, please hold me when I scream
When I laugh with friend and brother
And success comes like a treat
When we see God in each other
When a triumph ends defeat
When with firm determination
I find joy in every thing
When I smile with elation
God, please hold me when I sing.
Yesterday, I wrote about khutzpa – and as I was in a house with no internet, I couldn’t send it out, so you are getting two posts at once (how Shabbat appropriate is this? Remind me to do more Shabbat resting this year) and I figured I may as well stick with the topic. Why? Because khutzpa – that supreme self-confidence that powers our crazy but beautiful actions – khutzpa is necessary.
Last year was a hard year for me as a teacher. I wasn’t sure if I was doing a good job, if I was reaching my students. There was rarely the gratification of an explanation leading to sudden bursts of understanding and comfort with a topic that had seemed overwhelming. The feedback from students was limited and some of it, pretty negative. So, I lost my confidence in my ability to be that teacher – the inspirational one that one remembers 30 years later, the one that changes the direction of your life with his wisdom and the way he has of saying things, the one that inspires your writing. (Thank you, again, Mr. Waldman – you remain the best of the best.) I still had the need to teach, the need to give – but without the confidence that it was good.
And oddly, it became less good. I could teach less when I didn’t believe in myself. I found myself being more impatient with my students, being more confusing in my explanations, being more random in my preparation. I started doubting my choices of vocation, of life. I thought – well, I have lost my confidence and there is nothing I can do about this and I am stuck with this ugliness. Only, I am not.
Today, I know I am a terrific teacher. Yes, I can improve. Yes, I have much to learn. However, I am a great teacher. Furthermore, I am great at all sorts of things that up to now I thought I wasn’t very good at. Organization, cleaning, style, meeting people, dancing and singing – these are now things I am good at. I am not perfect, and I am not as good as many people, and there is room for growth, yes. However, I am done being weak in all sorts of areas. It isn’t working for me. As of today, I have no areas of weakness. I have decided so and thus it will be so. I have done so, simply by an act of will.
I didn’t believe the ‘act of will’ thing would work – but oddly, it does. When I say it, firmly, definitely, clearly – to as many people and as many times as possible – I get that khutzpa, and with that khutzpa, I can write. I can teach and work and learn and grow. I need khutzpa to function. I refuse to live in the land of humiliation for even one more minute. I am *good* at what I do. So now, when I apply to job after job after job (which I do), I treat each application as an opportunity – a chance to say one more time that I am terrific. The more I say it, the more I believe it – I *am* terrific. If the world gives me different feedback, I will use it solely as a tool to improve and become more terrific, not as information about by lack of talent or worth in an area.
This last week of job search and writing has been transformative for me. I found my khutzpa again. You, who were hoping for a more humble me – sorry. It’s just not happening. I rock. I’m good at what I do and I’m going to keep on doing it.