Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Reject the Old Before Bringing in the New

So we’ve determined that it’s our responsibility during Elul to identify the pieces of our lives that aren’t working so well and that once we’ve identified it, regret is likely to surface. Articulating that regret allows us to reject the behavior for the coming year and make room for new, improved ones. In this third week of Elul, we look at rejecting.

“Make the following declaration before God,” the Torah tell us (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). This suggests that we say it aloud before God - or publicly - so that you can hear your regrets and then reject them for the coming year. If we can’t articulate our sins, then how likely are we to be clear about what we are rejecting?

A good reason to pay attention and join in with the congregation when we recite the 44 statements of the Al Chyet prayers during Yom Kippur services..

“For the mistakes we have committed before You under duress or willingly…”

“For the mistakes we have committed before You through having a hard heart…”

“For the mistakes we have committed before You without thinking (or knowledge)…”

This year, I’m thinking about the third statement, with a focus on the “without thinking” part.

I regularly donate to a number of health-related charities; public radio, environmental groups, the local high school and for natural disasters, by check or credit card. Lately these have come to feel more like paying bills than making donations. I’m removed from the people who will benefit from my contribution. And this is beginning to undo the good feeling of having given.

So I was very interested in a newspaper story that a friend sent me several months ago about a 63-year-old unemployed man who was giving away $10 a day for one year. Even toward the end of the year, when he still didn’t have a job, getting out there kept this man grounded. But more importantly, he felt really good about the giving part.

I was mostly struck by the face-to-face nature of his giving: He could have surely written a check for $3650 to one charity– but, he wouldn’t have seen the faces of the folks on whom he made this small, but oh so impactful, impression.

Years ago, when I taught religious school to our fifth graders at Beth Emet, tzedakah was one of the three primary curriculum subjects for the each year. We learned from Maimonides that there are eight levels of giving. The lowest of these is when someone gives after being asked or solicited, especially if the person does so unwillingly or begrudgingly. Of highest merit, is giving an interest-free gift or loan, finding someone a job or entering into a partnership.

From least merit to best, the ladder of giving looks something like this:

8. Giving begrudgingly and inadequately. LEAST BEST

7. Giving adequately after being asked.

6. Giving before being asked.

5. Giving publicly to someone you don’t know.

4. Giving anonymously to someone you do know.

3. Giving anonymously to someone you don’t know by way of a trustworthy person or public fund.

2. Giving a grant to a person in need.

1. Giving an interest-free loan to a person in need. BEST

Maimonides believed that any kind of giving is good. But there’s giving and there’s Giving. This year, I will be rejecting some of the previous ways that I’ve been giving and brainstorming new ways to bring me closer to those I hope to benefit.

What would you consider rejecting? And how will you articulate it?

Monday, August 16, 2010

No Regrets?

Step Two: Regret and Repentance

Today I sat down at my computer, ready to tap out thoughts about regret and repentance for this second week of Elul leading us to teshuva.

In the moments before my fingers hit the keys, I realized I couldn’t speedily transform the materials I had studied into an entry. I needed time to absorb them; time to allow my own understanding to come to the surface and then, time to translate it into words with some meaning. So that the words would be worth reading.

So I put on my Nike walking shoes and Chicago Botanic Gardens baseball cap and headed into the heat for a walk around my neighborhood. Those 30 minutes allowed me to breathe a little, reflect, and then gather my thoughts before writing this entry.

Which is, I concluded, the gift that Elul gives us. In the weeks before the Holy Days, we have to gather our thoughts. Doing so offers us a chance to go deeper than last year; get more from the experience than breath-catching or a few moments of sleep.

With this running leap into the holidays, we get a chance to sift through our regrets instead of hastily listing them to ourselves as we sit in services. Rushing to the synagogue without any preparation is not likely to move us much further when we walked in the sanctuary doors.

A story to illuminate the point:

Two merchants, one alert and the other less so, traveled together to a market to purchase goods and produce, each carrying a considerable sum of money. Feeling weary, they stopped at an inn to sleep and placed their money under their pillows. In the morning they awoke and got on their way, forgetting to take their money with them. When they discovered their loss, the simplistic merchant suggested, “Let’s hurry on because it soon will be market day.” His more sophisticated companion replied, “You stupid fool, what good will it do for us to hurry now that we are empty handed? The most sensible thing is to turn back and search for our money on every road we took and after we find it, we’ll travel to the market.”

If we don’t bring our money bundle with us into the High Holidays - our regrets, our repentance and our good deeds – we have nothing to prove our sincerity, not only to God but to ourselves.

How can we present ourselves before God with empty hands? According to Philip Goodman in the “The Rosh Hashonah Anthology,” the prudent one says, “We must first search out the ways that led us astray and expiate our guild. Only then can we return to God.”

Prompt #1

Reflecting on the past year, what is in your regret bundle? Have you made an effort to repair it? If you have, how was it received? What did you take away from this experience?

Prompt #2

What is holding you back from making the effort or changes for this year?

Next week: Rejection.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Steps to Teshuva for the Month of Elul

Welcome to “Our Stories, Our Journey” blog site – a space where we can gather electronically to share our stories through words, sounds and visual expression about our Jewish journeys.
The idea:
To share our spiritual journeys in a way that allows for exchange and exploration.

Here’s how it works:

Starting today, and each week during Elul until September 9 (Rosh Hashonah), I’ll provide questions in this space - we’ll call them prompts - to get us thinking about the themes that prepare us for the High Holy Days.

After Yom Kippur, I’ll offer weekly prompts related to a particular aspect of Jewish, spiritual or Beth Emet life -- anything from a childhood memory or something in the news or what the season has brought to you.

We are looking for stories from your life that have a pass-along quality, something that might move or enlighten or teach something to someone else, seen of course, through your own lens.

I urge you to spend some time in reflection and then you can either write in your own Spiritual Journal or blog in this space. The advantage of a blog response is that we can get a conversation going.

As your guide, I’ll introduce ideas for thought, facilitate the conversation and encourage exploration. If personal or spiritual questions or concerns come up along the way, as they most likely will, consider consulting our very gifted spiritual leader, Rabbi Andrea London. Think of this space as the electronic version of that post-services time on Shabbat where our hearts and minds have been stimulated by Torah study and we want to talk about it with others.

Check back in this space regularly for other expressions as well. “Our Stories, Our Journey” also welcomes poems, photographs, music and video.

Those of you wanting to utilize prose writing to tell your stories or express your thoughts and feelings, come join Ellen for an introduction to guided spiritual journaling at Beth Emet on Sunday, October 3 in the Weiner Room from 10:45 am to noon.

To get us started, let's focus on the first of the four steps of repentance: Responsibility. Consider the following tale, retold by Joel Ziff:

"Late one night, in the city of Chelm, known to be populated by fools, Shmuel happened upon his friend Avrum. Avrum was down on his hands and knees, underneath the street light, searching for something. Shmuel inquired as to what Avrum was doing. "I've lost my keys," he replied. "Perhaps you'll help me search."
Shmuel joined him. After half an hour, they still had no success. "Avrum, where exactly did you lose the keys? Maybe we can concentrate our efforts." Avrum replied, "I've lost them in that alley over there." Shmuel was dumbfounded.
So why are we looking here?" Avrum looked over at his friend. "Why are we looking here? Because the light is better here, that's why!"

Instead of focusing on our clearly-seen shortcomings, we can begin to take responsibility to look in our darker places where we might not feel so comfortable.

According to Tamara Cohen, the month of Elul offers us "a structured opportunity to examine what is holding us back from being who we really want to be." The t'shuva process operates on two levels: one involving human relationships and the other involving our relationship with God.

What would it be like to dig a little deeper this year when we reflect on the year and the ways we could have done better? Not to bring out the "reruns" from the year before but to be an innerspace archeologist, searching for another layer of ourselves.

It may be easier to look in those spaces with God's illuminating presence, which is said to be especially strong during the month of Elul. It's customary to read Psalm 27 each morning in preparation for the Holy Days. The first line refers to this light of God: "The Eternal is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Eternal is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?"

Prompt #1:
Think about your difficult relationships with people or organizations, the ones that drain you or get in the way of you being or doing your best. What concrete action can you take work out this relationship or move forward into next year?

Prompt #2
Write a letter addressed to whatever you conceive of as the Divine Presence. Speak as truthfully as you can, as you would to a dear, trusted friend. How would you articulate a way for you and this presence to be closer or more intimate?

I look forward to the conversations we are sure to have in this space!