Daily Reflections for Elul in Anticipation of the Year 5781

By Rabbi Leila Gal Berner
woman sitting on branches outside

ELUL: אלול: אני לדודי ודודי ליani l’dodi v’dodi li
“I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.”

Who is “my beloved?”—usually we think in romantic terms—intimacy—a lover. I suggest that the beloved is the Holy One, and the Holy One within us—ourselves! Elul is a time to come back to the wholeness (and the holiness) of ourselves, to love ourselves so much that we seek to heal our broken parts, that we seek to mend the fissures with others, that we seek to be at one with the One. These days, when each morning the shofar is sounded as a wake-up call, we are meant to stir ourselves to the sacred work of renewal in all the four worlds of body, mind, emotion and spirit. Each day as the shofar wails its whole and broken notes, we are to listen, listen, listen with our heart’s song  to the stirrings of our own hearts. Let us listen well.


Friday – 1 Elul: When the Holy One spoke to Abram and told him Lech Lecha, "take yourself and go to a Land that I will show you," Abram set out on a journey to a terra incognita, an unknown land. As we begin our Elul journey, let us explore the new “lands” of the spirit and soul to which we will journey in this month. What territories of the heart do we need to travel through to prepare ourselves for the great Days of Awe that will be upon us soon?

Shabbat – 2 Elul: We are taught that on Shabbat we gain a neshamah yeteirah, a “second soul” with which to sense all that escapes during the work week. We can smell the pleasant scents of flowers more keenly; we can sense the emotions of love, joy and even sadness more palpably. How will we engage with our second soul this Shabbat as we journey toward a New Year?

Sunday – 3 Elul: When Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the Ten Commandments a little later than the people expected, he saw that the people had fashioned a Golden Calf and that they were dancing and cavorting around it. Enraged, he threw the tablets to the ground and they were smashed into pieces. After a while, and with the Holy One’s permission, Moses ascended the mountain again and fashioned a second set of tablets. When the people of Israel moved on in the wilderness, both the broken and the whole tablets were housed in the Ark. Let us explore what our broken habits are, our “dancing before the ‘Golden Calf’,” our worship of gods that are sick and unhealthy for us. How do we use this Elul time to try to break these damaging habits, patterns that can only hurt us?

Monday – 4 Elul: In the Aleinu prayer, concluding most services, we accept responsibility to work for the healing of the world—l’taken olam b’malkhut Shaddai—or “healing the world through the majesty of nurture.” In this month of Elul, let us be students of nurture—let us learn how to nurture ourselves, others and the planet better. How can we become more accomplished nurturers?

Tuesday – 5 Elul: There is a Hasidic saying that “there is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” Let us explore our own broken hearts—what wounds must we learn to live with, and from what afflictions of body, spirit or soul can we heal?

Wednesday – 6 Elul: Elohai neshamah she’natata bi tehorah hi . . . “My God, the soul that you have planted within me is pure.” On this day, may I see the good and the godly that is within me, and when I am disappointed in myself, may I seek ways to live up to my best essence.

Thursday – 7 Elul: Nakhamu, Nakhamu ami—“Comfort, take comfort, My People.” The first week of Elul is part of the seven weeks of consolation, which began with Tisha B’Av, and the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple. It is a time when the prophets like Isaiah comforted the people and promised that God’s love would return to them. In difficult times, we too, can take comfort in God’s love manifested in myriad ways—in the love of our family, friends and even in the loving glances of strangers. We are never alone. May I remember to seek the comfort and love of those all around me. How can I learn better to give and receive comfort?

Friday – 8 Elul: We are nearing Shabbat once again. When the sun sets, I will be enveloped in an embrace of supernal love. Carter Heyward once wrote: “Love is a conversion to humanity … the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life.” May I learn to dance on this day and every day with abandon, whirling to the rhythms of the world. And may I bring this freedom into the New Year with me.

Shabbat – 9 Elul: Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught that “during Elul, the king is in the field” and everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him, and he receives them all with a cheerful countenance and shows a smiling face to them all.” On this Shabbat, I will let God’s smile wash over me as I smile. I come to know that smiling reveals inner joy—and I will share joy with all I encounter.

Sunday – 10 Elul: Psalm 27: “One thing I ask of the Holy One, that I may dwell in God’s house, all the days of my life; To look upon Your glory and to visit in Your sanctuary.” What a joyous thing it would be to realize that at every moment of every day that we dwell in God’s house! One of my teachers says, “the best way I can work on myself is to work on my schmutz!” If we really understood we dwelt in God’s house all the time, we would try to “work on our schmutz” and keep everything CLEAN—our homes, our hearts, our speech, our relationships. As we move to enter a New Year, let’s give it a try. Let’s try to enter this New Year as sparkling and clean as we can—and keep it that way!

Monday – 11 Elul: “I offer thanks to You, Sovereign Source and Sustainer of life, Who returns to me my soul each morning faithfully and with gracious love” (morning liturgy). Each morning, an observant Jew wakes up with words of gratitude. In this time of Elul, let us awaken and do a heshbon nefesh (an inventory of the soul) about what we are thankful for and let this list stay with us during the day. When we remember our gratitude, it is easier for us to sustain the big and small blows of the day, and endure them, and walk into the New Year with a sense of purpose and thankfulness. What are we grateful for on this day?

Tuesday – 12 Elul: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement ... get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” So taught Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Let us ask ourselves: What amazes me on this day?

Wednesday – 13 Elul: “Whenever your mind feels clogged, or when you feel stuck in your process, do something that will bring you joy, for joyfulness frees up the mind, as it is written, ‘With gladness shall you go out’ (Isaiah 55:12)—that through joy you are made free and can go out from whatever is keeping you stuck…” (Reb Nachman of Bratslav). I ask myself: Do I sometimes have trouble feeling joy? And when I do, does it impede my ability to feel free to work on my problems? In this month of Elul, I will work on feeling more joy—in the little things of life, and in the big things, and in so doing may some of the challenges of my life feel less formidable.

Thursday – 14 Elul: “In the future, we will have to account before the Creator for all the pleasures that we wanted to enjoy, were permitted to enjoy, and had the opportunity to enjoy, but didn’t” (Rabbi Zechariah – Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin, end of ch. 4). In enjoying my life, my ability to face adversity is strengthened. Elul is a time to love myself, to face adversity and inner challenge and take account before our Creator. Let me try to enjoy life more and face what I must face with strength.

Friday – 15 Elul: “Join a community. Only in this way can your work be made universal and eternal” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch). What communities have I built for myself? On Shabbat, we are meant to spend time in community—in synagogue, with family, with friends. What do I need from community, and how can I offer the best of myself to my community? In what ways can I deepen and enrich my sense of community? In the coming year, how can I make my community a more sacred place for myself, for others?

Shabbat – 16 Elul: A dictionary definition of overwork: “Overwork is the expression used to define the cause of working too hard, too much, or too long. It can be also related to the act of working beyond one's strength or capacity, causing physical and/or mental distress in the process.” There is a simple, exquisite antidote for overwork: Shabbat! As I move toward a New Year, I will resolve to rest more into the embrace of Shabbat and to share it with my community – friends, family and synagogue.

Sunday – 17 Elul: The world you live in and the life you lead can be either Hell or Heaven. It’s totally up to you. In first-century Israel, during the violent and oppressive rule of Rome, the Israelites asked Ruchumai: "Rabbi, where is Paradise?" He replied: “Here” (Sefer Ha-Bahir, Mishnah 31). What will my attitude be in the New Year? Will I live in Heaven or in Hell?

Monday – 18 Elul: “Just as it is important for you to believe in God, so is it important for you to believe in yourself” (Rabbi Tzadok HaKohain in Sefer Tzidkat HaTzadik, no. 154). Do I believe in myself? How can I nurture more faith in myself as I enter the New Year?

Tuesday – 19 Elul: Sometimes I feel bored, even jaded with life. I think, as Ecclesiastes wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” And then I read the words of Reb Nachman of Bratslav: “Every moment is a new beginning, every act is your very first. Never regard your action as if it were the second or fourth or hundredth, but always as if it were the very first time you have ever done it” (Likkutei HaMaHaRaN, ch. 62:5–6). I wake up! My mind sparkles with a newness, a freshness, a small but palpable rebirth! May I learn this lesson as I take each step in this New Year!

Wednesday – 20 Elul: “When you encounter an obstacle to your journey toward God, know that God is hiding within the obstacle waiting for you” (Reb Nachman of Bratslav, Likkutei HaMaHaRan, ch. 115). When I encounter obstacles, I need to remember that I have the capacity to overcome them and that God is with me. I need to put one foot in front of the other and face the challenge(s) confronting me. Together, God and I will prevail.

Thursday – 21 Elul: Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that “love is a verb.” How do you love people? You do things which don’t necessarily benefit you … In this sense, every favor can be the beginning of love or at least its repair. Each favor is a gift of self that says “You mean more to me than me. It may not understand your motive; it is enough for me to know that you desire it.” In these waning days of Elul, I will resolve to offer more love into the world.

Friday – 22 Elul: Shabbat will soon be with us! Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, taught (after the teaching of Rabbi Elliot Ginsberg) that we should intend to cast from ourselves the otherness in which we dwell most of the time. When we put on our Shabbos garments we then draw upon ourselves an additional level of holiness. Reb Zalman continues: “The lawyer or broker who wears jeans on the Sabbath is making a statement about resting. [She] has taken off [her] professional role and donned clothes in which [she] can loaf at [her] ease. Others might put on special garb to enhance the delight of heart, mind, and soul. . .” Dress in your most Shabbat-celebratory clothes! If I am in “formal” clothes all week, I will dress down! If I am in “casual” clothes all week, I will dress up! On the Days of Awe, we dress in special clothes as well—I will make garments my delight in the holy days and in the holy spark within myself!

Shabbat – 23 Elul: “It is good to thank The Holy One, and to sing to God’s celestial Name! To speak in the morning of God’s kindness and Her faithfulness in the night!” (Psalm 92)—if I “let go and let God” on this day, I can truly relax, and delight in the joy of a day of true replenishment of body, mind and soul. I can become a playful being, a soulful being. What a gift indeed is Shabbat!

Sunday – 24 Elul: Rabbi Lewis Eron once wrote:

Rosh HaShanah never comes at the right time;
It is always too early or too late.
Rosh HaShanah always comes before we are ready
To put aside our past and lay our burdens down.
Rosh HaShanah always catches us by surprise.
Showing up with a Shofar blast
So we stop, turn and listen
To the arresting voice within and around us…

May I listen to the “arresting voice” within me. May I listen deeply, and may the lessons I hear teach me well, so that I may act on their truths.

Monday – 25 Elul: There is a Jewish teaching that God created the world a hundred times before the one in which we live. It’s kind of like our own selves. We invent and re-invent ourselves all the time. May the “self” I invent this year be authentic, honest, loving and caring. May it be true to my best essence. So help me God.

Tuesday – 26 Elul: Reb Nachman of Bratslav counseled: “Seek the good in everyone; reveal it, bring it forth.” When I look into the face of another, do I first look with critique or love? In the year that is waning, have I truly sought the good in all? In the year that is soon to be born, how can I gaze through a more gentle-spirited lens?

Wednesday – 27 Elul: We are taught in the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Bava Metzia 58b): “If a person is truly penitent and sorry, one must not say, ‘remember your former deeds.’” Do I have trouble “letting go” of old hurts? Do I have difficulty forgiving and putting past events aside? Do I stubbornly remain locked into the past? What inner work must I do to be able to release the past into the past and accept God’s gift of the future?

Thursday – 28 Elul: Rav Kook, a great rabbi and mystic, once taught: “It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the person and the people, the world and all the worlds, the whole of existence, will return to their Creator to be illumined by the light of life.” Have I strayed far away from my inner self in the year that is waning? How do I return to my essence? How do I find my own divine spark?

Friday – 29 Elul: As Jews, we are taught that there is work to be done to heal our broken world, that working for mending the fissures in our society is a sacred obligation. We must work to bring an end to racial, economic and gender injustice; we must work to end war. This is called tikkun olam—the repair of the world. And as sacred an obligation as all this is, an equally important duty is to work on ourselves. All of Life is a quest for balance between these two types of repair. We are taught that there is work to be done to heal our own brokenness, that working to mend the fissures within our own selves is also a sacred obligation. We must work to heal our pain, our anger, and our biases. This is called tikkun haneshamah—the repair of the individual soul. Today is the last day of Elul. Tomorrow I will enter the New Year. May I enter with these two goals deeply embedded within me: first, tikkun haneshamah and then tikkun olam. May my work be fruitful in the coming year.

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