Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Elul Tools 2016 - 26 Elul 5776

Elul Tools 

Building a Strong Foundation 
for the Days of Awe


Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

I really want that!
What should I do to get it?
Maybe give up this!

26 Elul - Create Intention, Make a Plan...

Yesterday we made a concrete goal for 5777. In order to get there though, we should have a plan. Otherwise we run the risk of floating around with our good idea in our head, but never really manifesting it in our lives. By actually constructing a plan, we are setting an intention for reaching our destination.

In Judaism the term Kavannah speaks to this type of intentionality. The goal we set for 5777 undoubtedly stems from a desire of the heart. But without the clear planning abilities of the mind, we may not achieve it. Additionally we have to throw in some Ruach (spirit or passion) and Chutzpah (courage, gutsiness) to make it all happen. Aligning all of these things creates authentic focus. This is exactly what our Sages impress upon us about reaching a state of Kavannah.

The word Kavannah is often reserved for Jewish prayer. Our minds, bodies, hearts, and souls must be precisely aligned to achieve divine union with God. This is a difficult task. We are humans and scattered in all sorts of ways. Sometimes our bodies are present but our mind is wandering. Other times mind and body are ready, but our hearts are aching. Kavannah is the place where it all comes together and we achieve, even if only fleetingly, oneness.

It’s possible to apply this idea of Kavannah to our heart felt goal for the new year. Whatever our target is for 5777, we  can think of it as a holy intention to produce positive change. We can treat it as a prayer to God and to ourselves. To achieve “oneness with our goal” we have to get ourselves into the proper alignment, the appropriate Kavannah.

Ushering in new behavior and change is very difficult. We are habituated creatures seeking comfort and respite whenever we can. Creating meaningful, positive change that will last, undoubtedly includes making a sacrifice. We have to pinpoint those sacrifices and ask ourselves if it’s really worth it. We have to assess if it's actually attainable. If we want a particular result, a particular change to be manifested by Rosh Hashanah 5778, (just about one year from now) it’s time to make uncomfortable changes and give up some things to which we are accustomed.

A quick diversion. When making challah for Shabbat, it is customary to pull off one small section of the dough and recite a special prayer. The small piece of dough turns into a crisp, hard, black ball as it bakes alongside the golden challah loaves. Why? Originally “challah” referred not to the loaf but to this small piece of dough that was set aside for the Kohen (priest) when making bread. In modern times we separate, bless, and burn a small piece of dough when making bread in remembrance of the portion given to God. It’s a small sacrifice we make to remind us that sustenance ultimately comes from God. In this way we can transform the baking of bread into a spiritual act.

So to, we can make our goal setting a spiritual act. Our goal for the new year is like a beautiful golden challah. It’s a change, ambition, or pursuit that will provide us with sustenance and pleasure in the year ahead. We can elevate our setting of this goal to a holy act by aligning all the different parts of ourselves to attain it. Kavannah. Yes, we will need to make some sacrifices. We will need to separate out our symbolic piece of dough and offer it up to God.

Today’s Elul Tool:  Getting to where you want to be next year requires some forethought. It’s a bit like following a map to get to the “treasure chest.” To help you find your treasure, consider these questions regarding your goal for 5777. They are inter-related. It may help to answer all three, or perhaps just stick to one. By aligning your mind with heart, body, and soul, you are creating a Kavannah for manifesting what you want. The treasure is there and in sight, but what is the path for getting there. What are the steps you must take? Write this down. Make it real.

My Goal for 5777 is:

To achieve my goal for 5777, I need to...

Stop doing:

Start doing:


Psalm 27

It is customary to read Psalm 27 twice daily during Elul.
Here is an online version of Psalm 27 for easy access. 

For Families and Kids!

Junior Tool Box: 
As a family, talk about how changing and growing require us to let go of certain things. We also have to be open to adding activities and actions to our lives that are healthy and positive. With your family goals and the goals your children make for Rosh Hashanah, discuss how to make them happen by both letting go of something and adding something.

Make a treasure map to depict your biggest goal for the year. The “X” on your map represents the “treasure box” or the goal you want to reach. Figure out your path or route to get there and depict it on the map. Of course there will be obstacles along the way. These are the challenges and hard work involved. You can depict these obstacles with things like mountains, trees, streams that need to be crossed.

Talk about the importance of picking goals that are challenging. Working hard toward something is healthy. Being uncomfortable at times is good and growthful. Remind your children they are strong, hearty, and resilient. HOWEVER, at the same time we want to make sure our goals are realistic. Realistic does not mean easy and comfortable. Realistic is within reach, but requires consistent and vigorous stretch.

If you haven’t already, this is a good time to call relatives. Have your children call grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Remember to greet them with High Holiday phrases.

• Shanah Tovah or L’Shanah Tovah:  A Good Year 
• Shanah Tovah U’metukah:  A Good and Sweet Year 
• L’Shanah Tovah Tikateyvuh V’tichatemu:  May You Be 
     Written and Sealed For a Good Year

How about a couple more YouTube videos to get in the High Holiday mood?

•  This one is by the Maccabeats. It’s short, shows many of the High Holiday symbols and practices (wearing white for the holiday, shofars, preparing for the holiday with study, giving tzedakah, eating apples and honey). The whole thing is set to the traditional High Holiday nusach (prayers during the holiday follow this tune rather than their usual tune during the rest of the year.)

•  Here's a an upbeat, feel good Rosh Hashanah version of a popular tune, put out by You'll feel inspired!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Elul Tools 2016 - 25 Elul 5776

Elul Tools  

Building a Strong Foundation 
for the Days of Awe

Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

What you water grows.
How much water do you have?
Focus. Pour wisely.

25 Elul - Focus on Your Bulls Eye!

Okay! Rosh Hashanah is ever so close. We are wishing our friends and family a “Good and Sweet Year!” We have done lots of soul searching and lots of inner and outer repair. We’ve pondered how to improve our lives in the year to come. Now is the time for clarity and resolve. What specific intention can we set to ensure that 5777 is indeed a good and sweet year?

It is common at times like this to be very ambitious in our quest for self-improvement. We are inspired by the renewal this time of year offers and want to make sweeping, positive changes. Many of us declare we will make remarkable progress in every area of our lives. Our appetite for growth, change, transformation is ravenous. We pledge to stick to a long list of life enhancing activities all year long. We tell ourselves something along these lines,  “I will...

Lose "X" pounds 
Join a book group
Volunteer in my child's classroom
Eliminate junk food from my diet
Attend synagogue services weekly
Plant an organic garden
Meditate daily
Invite neighbors for meals regularly
Spend quality time with my spouse
Exercise daily
Take up yoga
Bake more with my  children
Cook all meals from scratch
Ride bikes or walk instead of drive
Stay in touch with distant friends and family regularly
Never lose my temper
Cease gossiping

     Blah, Blah Blah..."

In that quantity, none of these lofty aspirations are reachable. Real, meaningful change comes when we are both sincere AND we focus intently. Fractured attention to multiple things will result in frustration and early failure. We have our whole lives to attack a list like this.  Of course this is not to say that we shouldn’t dabble in many areas. Obviously we have multifaceted lives and all of it requires our time and attention. However, to really make a lasting, significant, and positive change in our lives, we must zero in on one “burning issue.” What is the one thing that will truly transform our lives? What can we will give our heart and soul this year? See your future self one year from now. What is the one thing you want to make sure you stuck to and made a change for the better?

The experts say the most common mistakes people make when setting goals are the following:



Let’s not fall prey to our own good intentions for positive change. We would benefit more by setting a single meaningful, though realistic and achievable, goal - one we can look back on next year at this time and feel that we truly made a positive difference. Remember the word for “sin” in Hebrew is Chet and has to do with losing focus, missing the mark. God is most unhappy with us when we stray from who we really are, what we’re meant to do. So, let’s keep our vision clear. Stay on target. The key is to hit a bulls eye in 5777 with one clear intention. Think back to all the different areas we covered during the process of chesbon hanefesh (earnest soul searching). We delved deeply into all the different facets of our inner and outer lives. Is there one area that really needs your attention this year (mind, body, soul, intimate relationships, community?) If you really gave time and focus to this one area, how might the quality of your life improve?

Today’s Elul Tool:  Articulate your number one intention for 5777. Don’t get distracted by having more than one goal. You can always involve yourself in other pursuits, but focus on one thing. Make sure you strike a balance between stretching yourself while also being realistic. Don’t be vague or general.  Make your goal very specific. Some time today WRITE YOUR GOAL DOWN.



Psalm 27

It is customary to read Psalm 27 twice daily during Elul.
Here is an online version of Psalm 27 for easy access. 

For Families and Kids!

Junior Tool Box:

Talk about individual and family goals for the new year.  Distinguish between hopes, dreams, and concrete goals.

Since children don’t have as many demands on their time as adults, they can easily manage a bigger goals list.  Brainstorm ideas and then help your children crystallize a few realistic goals.  One idea is to have a “Self Goal,” an “Others Goal,” and an “Environment Goal.”  For example:

The goal for myself is to learn to tie my shoes.

The goal for others is to remember to say thank you to them.

The goal for my environment is to not run the water when I brush my teeth.

Help your children strike a balance between goals that are too easy and goals that are to difficult. Help them come up with very specific language. Also remind your children that when we take on too many goals or activities we can become frustrated and stressed. Post your goals somewhere prominent in your home so that you can be reminded and stay on track!

Talk about how Rosh Hashanah, the new year, is a special time to create new things for the year ahead. Perhaps your child can take on new chores. Maybe your family wants to come up with a new ritual or activity. Is it time to re-arrange your room or clean out the closet? Concretize the idea of the New Year with new things in your family!

Tie in the idea of newness and renewal with the round challah we eat during the High Holidays. We make them round to symbolize the continual cycle of life, the cyclical nature of time. Rosh Hashanah comes back around again, every year at this time, during the Fall, the start of school etc.! Every time around, we get to renew ourselves and clean the slate for a new year.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Elul Tools 2016 - 24 Elul 5776

Elul Tools  

Building a Strong Foundation 
for the Days of Awe

Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

No one else can be
the me I am meant to be. 
I better nail it.

24 Elul—Ponder This...

We are about to bid adieu to the Jewish year 5776. The year has brought us many gifts and many challenges. Over the past three weeks, we have spent time considering the kind of person we WERE in the last year. However, with 5777 on the horizon, we shift our perspective to the future. We begin to think about the person we want to BECOME.

Fast forward twelve months. Who do you want to see this time next year? The same person with the same negative habits? The same complaints and frustrations? Or do you want to see someone new and improved?

In order for a finer version of ourselves to emerge over the next twelve months, we must first acknowledge this will not happen without intention and hard work. But how do we get started? Set a goal? Yes, a clear goal is a critical component. However, a goal often emerges after asking ourselves important questions, focused inquiry that gets to the meat of something. The goal then is the final statement or mantra we place before us after reaching clarity about our deepest yearnings.

There is a beautiful Hasidic story that challenges us to continually evolve into the person we are meant to be...not some frustrated illusion of who we ought to be. It goes like this:

     Once, the great Hasidic leader, Zusia, came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.

“Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!”

“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’”

His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”

“And I have learned,” Zusia sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’”

One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”

“They will say to me, ‘Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you Zusia?’”

Today’s Elul Tool:  Below are a few poignant questions to consider for the year ahead. Ask them of yourself and see which one has the most resonance. They are all inter-related to some degree. But which question seems to get at the core of the type of change you want to make? Spend today pondering this question.

•  Consider the Zusia story. Ask yourself, "What keeps me from being exactly who I am, from settling into the real, authentic me?"

•  What single thing can I do to improve the quality of my life in this next year.

•   What brings me the most joy? How much time do I actually spend pursuing this joy? How can I increase the time in 5777?

•  What project, goal or, or issue needing attention, if not attended to, will I most regret next Rosh Hashanah?

•  If I knew I could not fail, what would I undertake in the next year?

(Note:  Last two questions are from Ten Questions to Ask Yourself, Especially at Elul, by Rabbi Dov Heller, from

Psalm 27

It is customary to read Psalm 27 twice daily during Elul.
Here is an online version of Psalm 27 for easy access. 

For Families and Kids!

Junior Tool Box:  Introduce the concept of the New Year and how it differs from the secular New Year. We are moving from the year 5776 to the year 5777 on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of  Tishrei, 5777.

Post the current Jewish year in your house (5776). Make it big and visible.  Have a countdown calendar until the new year starts (sundown on Sunday, October 2).  When the year changes, replace the 6 with a 7!

Purchase a Jewish calendar and keep track of the Hebrew months in the year 5777!

If it seems appropriate, share the Zusia story above with your children. Use this as a springboard to talk about how everyone is special and unique in their own way. Our job in life is to be exactly who we are. This is what God most wants from us!

A popular way to celebrate the New Year with young children is to have a “Birthday Party for the
World.”  Brainstorm with your children the ways we celebrate birthdays?  Cake, song, presents! How could you incorporate those ideas into a party for the world? You can tie in many Rosh Hashanah themes for a party. The cake can be decorated with the year 5777, or even get numbered candles. Sing Happy Birthday to the world. Give the world a present! This could either be tzedakah to a cause, or a present in the form of becoming a better person. Everyone in the family can write a Happy Birthday Card to the world and include concrete behaviors to work on. This could be personal behaviors (i.e. share my toys more often) or actions in the world (ride my bike more).  Another fun way to do it is to write your idea on a piece of paper and wrap it up like a present. In explaining to your children you can suggest that this is not necessarily the birthday of the Earth, in geologic time, but the birthday of the “Jewish World” as we know it.

There are three great children’s books incorporating the theme of the World’s Birthday for Rosh Hashanah. See info below:

Happy Birthday, World 
by Latifa Berry Kropf
A sweet and simple boardbook for pre-schoolers.

The World’s Birthday:  A Rosh Hashanah Story

by Barbara Diamond Goldin

For ages five and up.

Today is the Birthday of the World
by Linda Keller. 

This book was also mentioned in Day 17 of Elul Tools. A nice perspective this book offers is one similiar to the Zusia story above. We all essentially have our own unique gifts to offer the world. We are here to be ourselves, completely. Our life's work is to explore, enhance, and offer our authentic "me-ness" to others. This is the best birthday present we can give to the world, to God.

If you haven’t already, get into the festive nature of the Holiday by baking a honey cake or round challah. These are excellent projects to do with kids.

Keep eating your apples and honey! Wish each other a “Sweet New Year!”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Elul Tools 2016 - 23 Elul 5776

 Elul Tools  

Building a Strong Foundation 
for the Days of Awe

Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

Regrets, misdeeds flow
seaward. Gone now. I am free
to begin anew.

23 Elul—Tashlich:  Casting Off 
What We Don’t Want

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, it helps to envision the coming year as a journey. All great voyages require some planning and forethought, including what to bring. In terms of our lives, which things (behaviors, attitudes, ideas, perspectives) do we want with us in the New Year? What should be on our checklist? Right alongside what TO bring is considering what NOT to bring. What could weigh us down? What might create problems? What pesky habits, harmful behaviors, troublesome experiences from this past year should we leave behind? Which mistakes and transgressions got us off track? How can we “unpack” them and make sure they don’t accompany us on the trip?

Wouldn’t it be nice to bundle up all our sins, all those ways we missed the mark last year, and just leave them behind? Fortunately Judaism provides us with precisely this opportunity during Rosh Hashanah. The beautiful, ingenious process of letting go of unwanted “junk” from the past year is known as Tashlich. Translated as “You will cast...” Tashlich is usually performed as a community in the afternoon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This ritual gives us the opportunity to symbolically cast off our “sins” by throwing bits of bread into a body of flowing water.

At the root of our “sins” are bad habits, harmful behaviors, intolerant attitudes. Tashlich allows us to toss all of that into the ocean, a river, a creek, any living body of water. We fill our pockets with small pieces of bread. One by one we start letting all the struggles, the mistakes, the hurts, the challenges of our past year, drop into the flowing waters.

Our Sages teach us that the water must be alive and moving. This provides us with the cleansing transformation we are seeking. Recall that water in Judaism is often referred to as Mayiim Chayiim, which means living or life giving waters. The flowing currents take away our sins, which are then processed and transformed by the inherent purifying properties of flowing water. Tashlich allows us to empty ourselves of unwanted behaviors. Additionally, the process of doing this into a body of cleansing water, creates space for new life and growth within us.

Tashlich is a powerful exercise because we are DOING something. So much of our preparation during Elul is internal and involves THINKING. At last we can take all our soul searching, our deep thoughts about who we have been in the past year, and turn it into a tangible action. It may seem that this is only a symbolic act. Yet when our bodies, senses, thoughts, and feelings are engaged, subtle change occurs--something is integrated, deeply. Change is possible.

There is additional power and meaning if this ritual is done with a community. Again we see that “to err is human.” Everyone gets off track. Everyone has stuff they want to leave behind, to cast into the water. Tashlich is a concrete step toward getting ourselves back on track.

Today’s Elul Tool: Think about the sins/midsdeeds you would like to leave behind from the past year. What mistakes would you like to chuck into the sea? Which transgressions would you like to see flow away, downstream in the river? What callous behaviors would you like to wash away? Naming our sins specifically, in preparation for casting them off, helps ensure they won't follow us into the new year. Make a check list of the things you DO NOT want to take with you as you journey forth into 5777 (the new Jewish year). This should be an actual list. No need for explanations or rationalizations. Just a simple list.  Keep this list handy. If you either attend a Tashlich service on Rosh Hashanah, or find a place to do this ritual privately, it’s nice to prepare yourself ahead of time. That way you can cast concrete, specific sins and transgressions, rather than general crumbs of regret into the water.

Note:  Tashlich is pronounced Ta-shleech, with the guttural, throat sound at the end. This sound does not exist in English but is the same sound as in Bach (the composer).

Psalm 27

It is customary to read Psalm 27 twice daily during Elul.
Here is an online version of Psalm 27 for easy access. 

For Families and Kids!

Junior Tool Box:

Discuss the concept of Tashlich with your children. Talk about how water has the ability to cleanse and purify our mistakes.

Consider taking your family to Tashlich services (usually the first day of Rosh Hashanah afternoon) OR make a plan to perform Tashlich as a family. Children REALLY like this process. It is a tangible way for them to be involved in the renewal this time of year offers.

There are many other Tashlich related activities for children. These are nice activities to do in preparation for the actual ritual of Tashlich. One idea is to have each member of the family write down all the mistakes and misdeeds they have committed in the past year. Do this on one piece of white paper with WASHABLE markers. When the page is full place the paper in a tub or large bin of water. The words in marker will begin to run and blur.  Explain that this is how Tashlich works. Water is cleansing. It has the power to wash away things that get in the way of us being better people.

There are two great books about Tashlich for children.  See info below:

New Year at the Pier 
by April Halprin

For ages five and up

Tashlich at Turtle Rock 
by Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman

For ages five and up