In the Month of Elul and Looking to 5782

I always swore I would never write a blog. Who wanted the responsibility of providing content every week? Because once you start, you can’t go back. Well, here I am – what is this weekly eNews message, if not a blog? (This is why Kol Nidre warns us about taking oaths… making promises you can’t keep is NOT a good idea!) 18 months ago, I felt compelled to share messages of support and show how our text and tradition could provide comfort in such uncertain times. A lot has changed in 18 months, but that impetus for writing a message in the eNews still compels me. Although I often get stressed about what I should write, I find that the actual writing forces me to reflect.

Reflection is one of the main themes and goals of the High Holy Days. I was talking with a friend just recently, and I mentioned how it didn’t even feel like the month of Elul. We have spent so much time on edge about how we were going to deliver services, that I forgot to be in the moment of preparation – especially my personal spiritual preparation. I may have lost track of the day, the week, the time… but time still moves forward, with or without my consent. 

In rabbinic legend, Elul is the month in which the world was created. The Torah, and thus the story of creation, begins with the Hebrew letter “beit”. The midrash Genesis Rabbah asks why, and the answer brings insight for this time. 

Why was the world created with the letter beit (for bereishit, “in the beginning”)? Just as the beit is closed on all its sides but open at its front, so you have no permission to ask what is above and below, what is before or what is after, except from the day of Creation forward… Another answer: Why with a beit? Because beit begins bracha, the word for blessing. (Genesis Rabbah 1:10)

This is the month of Elul, and it is time to both be present in this moment and prepare to move forward. Although our spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days includes looking back at the year and our deeds, it is done for the purpose of achieving a better future. Just as the Hebrew letter beit is open in the front of the letter, we can be open to the future, to possibility, to change. Being both present in the now and able to look forward allows us to experience the beit of bracha, the beit of blessing. 

We are experiencing Elul, and we are blessed to be on our way to a New Year.

 

A Bright Future for Worcester and Temple Emanuel Sinai

I have always considered myself a realistic optimist, a person who sees the world in abundance rather than scarcity. Although the pandemic has caused a small dent in my outlook, something usually happens to bring me back.

This week, that something is Worcester. Exciting news from the recent census shows that in the past 10 years, Worcester’s population has grown from 180,000 to 206,000, which is over 14%! Worcester is one of the fastest growing cities in New England and has grown twice the average rate in the country. As the 2nd largest city in New England, we’ve left both Providence and Springfield far behind us.

Why is this important? It is a sign that people want to come to Worcester. We have a good quality of life with a decent cost of living – certainly much better than anywhere close to Boston. And there is much to attract people: beautiful geography and recreation; great restaurants; an impressive arts community; sports; colleges and universities; a medical school and great medical care; diversity and culture; innovation in biotech and other industries; an extensive non-profit community; and so much more.

When I first interviewed at Temple Emanuel Sinai, I did my research on Worcester. From what I read, Worcester was at a tipping point. With just the right push, Worcester could be propelled to greatness… or just tumble back to the past. I was convinced of the former. And we’re seeing it happen. Even with the pandemic, our city and its surrounding towns continue to grow and flourish. People are moving here. The Worcester “Renaissance” may have experienced a slight pause, but it is still moving forward.

Temple Emanuel Sinai is benefitting from that growth. For the past few years, we’ve had young families and young adults circling the periphery of our community: attending Pray and Play or Purim Carnival; commenting on our Facebook page about our diversity work; and asking me to officiate at weddings and baby namings.

Here is the most significant evidence of our growth: for the first time since Temple Emanuel Sinai began, our Religious School has more new students registered than those who graduated – almost twice the number! This is certainly something to celebrate as we look toward the New Year. In this way and many more, the future is indeed bright.

Kedusha in Unpleasant Times

So much of Judaism is centered around finding kedusha-holiness in the everyday. This is why the Havdalah service is not so simple for me: the separation between Shabbat and the other days of the week cannot represent a separation between the holy and the everyday. I don’t find them to be so separate. There is holiness in the everyday and every-day-ness in the holy.

Sometimes our “everyday” is not so pleasant or routine or mundane or anything except wildly disturbing. Even then, we are called to find the holiness in our experience. In other words, Judaism encourages us to find meaning in all aspects of our lives – the good, bad, and ugly.

The concept of kedusha-holiness surfaced for me as I contemplated our High Holy Days schedule. The schedule that has not yet gone out because it keeps changing. (It will go out soon, I promise, with the caveat that unfortunately, it could still change.) Just as we thought we were getting somewhere with this crazy virus, we get pushed back again. I wasn’t thinking about kedusha in terms of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or planning for transformational services… kedusha came to me because I realized that we – I need to find holiness in wearing a mask, or adapting my routine again, or managing being in-person and online at the same time… or peering into a future that may include all of these things for a very long time.

I know it’s there, the kedusha is in this mess somewhere. And when I receive whispers of the holy, or glimpse holiness in people and their actions, or hear holy words being spoken, I feel full, the shalom that is more about being whole than just at peace.

This afternoon, while meeting with someone in my office, I caught sight of a bobcat running in front of the temple with a squirrel captured in its jaws. “A successful bobcat,” I was told by the other person in my office. What an awesome sight of life and death and nature at work. A moment of kedusha.

May we all find kedusha-holiness in all of our varied life experiences, in both the pleasant and not so pleasant moments.

 

 

Balance, Life and Simone Biles

Balance is a main principle in Judaism. Jewish tradition has always warned about living in the extremes, whether related to food (gluttony), religion (being overly righteous), the amount of time we spend at work vs Torah study, and so much more. We even have an entire body of literature based on the concept of finding balance in our personality traits called Mussar.

One of my favorite Jewish texts says that we should spend one third of our day sitting, one third of our day standing, and one third of our day reclining. I find the text both silly and profound. Who would really divide up their day like this on purpose? Yet the lesson is all about balance. I don’t think I have to tell anyone the dangers of sitting all day long, especially in these days when are sitting in front of computers so much.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of balance as I reflect on the past couple of days at the Olympics. Gymnastics has always been one of my favorite sports to watch – the grace, power, and balance of the athletes is breathtaking. And when Simone Biles, the American Gymnastics “Superhero” withdrew from the team event, the world was shocked. It was clear that, for whatever reason, this athlete was not in the right headspace to complete these dangerous skills. And they are very dangerous, as many reminded us. Simone Biles understood the connection between mental strength and physical strength, and how both must be in balance for her to compete and perform.

What an important lesson for us! Our days may not be filled with physical leaps, twists, and somersaults, but they are still filled with leaps, twists, and somersaults of a different kind.

We wish for Simone Biles, and all who are suffering, recovery of spirit and body (refuat hanefesh v’refuat haguf), as both are needed for full strength and wholeness.