Friday, August 28, 2015

14 Elul - Draw a Breath of Rest! Shabbat Shalom!

Elul Tools 2015/5775

Building a Strong Foundation

For the Days of Awe

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

Shabbat, weekly gift...
Unplug from your distractions.
Turn to what is real.

14 Elul—Draw a Breath of Rest! Shabbat Shalom!

Even though Elul is our month to wake up, to pay attention, to do lots of deep soul work, Shabbat trumps everything. Time to rest, time to play. Let all your thinking and reflecting fade to the background. Enjoy a day off. As you do this, know that all your hard work is integrating, settling on its own, without effort on your part.

In this past week we have considered:

•  Our communities: do we reach out or retreat?
•  Our planet: do we take care of it?
•  Our body: do we honor it and keep it healthy?
•  Our emotional life: do we have a balanced and healthy relationship to ourselves, are we kind to US?
•  Our minds: do we keep our intellectual world alive and stimulated, or is it withering?
•  Our souls: do we have a sense of our selves as spiritual beings and do we nurture this important part of who we are?

In sum, are we balancing all these different aspects of ourselves and parts of our outer lives in a graceful and healthy way? If not, why?

Seriously...that's a lot to reflect upon!!

But now it’s time to put all that aside.

Our Earnest Elul Efforts will resume soon.  Even the shofar can wait. Sometimes we gain more by letting go, by pulling the plug, by taking an authentic pause.

It is time for us all to head into a peaceful, rejuvenating Shabbat.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

13 Elul - Did You Pay Attention To Your Soul

Elul Tools 


Building a Strong Foundation 

for the Days of Awe

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

Unknowable one, 
let's hang out. You're as close as
my breath. In and out.

 Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

13 Elul—Did You Pay Attention to Your Soul?

Teshuva, return, is a major component of the High Holidays. For the past year we have all lived full and complicated lives. Inevitably, 
whatever our goals and hopes were last year at this time, we have strayed from the path. The Hebrew month of Elul allows us time to reflect and return. It’s similar to the navigation system in an airplane. If an aircraft deviates even one degree off course, following that new trajectory will take the pilot completely off course, to an unintended destination. Elul is our ancient navigation system. The shofar sounds to alert us that we are off course. We assess the nature of our wandering. We make adjustments. Left unchecked, we would continue heading in the wrong direction. 

Today we will consider one last aspect of ourselves that may have detoured over the course of the year. Starting tomorrow, we will take what we have learned from our Chesbon Hanefesh (thorough self reflection) and begin the process of recalibrating. We will move from reflection to action. But before we do that, we cannot forget our relationship to our Neshemah, which in Hebrew means both soul AND breath.

Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, the soul needs attention. Many of us don’t know how to pay this kind of attention or even what we are supposed to pay attention to. Connecting with our spiritual life could include a recognition of the source of life. This will mean different things to different people. Some think of this as that which gave birth to the universe and all of creation. Other’s think of this as the pulsing life force that courses through every living thing. However you conceive of the ultimate reality that transcends all and connects all, that is your spiritual framework. 

If you go to synagogue only once a year, at the High Holidays, the primary image of God is that of
Avinu Malkenu, Our Father Our King. While this is a powerful image for the High Holidays, given the type of process we are going through, (accounting for our misdeeds, seeking reconciliation and forgiveness), it is not the whole picture. Yet, many do not connect with this image at all. So if we conclude that the conception of “One God” is that of a Fatherly King who judges us once a year, we may conclude that Judaism doesn't support our spiritual needs or fit into our spiritual framework. However, many are surprised to find out that traditional Judaism supports a wide range of ideas about God, reflecting the many facets of the divine and ultimate reality.

Because the notion of “God” is an incomprehensible, eternal reality beyond our human grasp, we are forced to create images and metaphors. None of them is complete. None fully accurate. But Judaism includes a fantastic array of metaphors. They each attempt to momentarily capture an aspect of God. These metaphors, fleeting as they are, allow us entry into the world of our soul. Depending on your particular perspective, some will speak to you more than others. Consider some of the classic Jewish ideas of God:

Holy Presence  •  The  Cause of Being  •  Tzur (Rock)   

Hamakom (The Space)  •  Ayla (Force)  •  El Ro-i (God Who Sees Me)  

Rachamana (Compassionate One)  •  Shechina (Indwelling Presence)

Rebonno Shel Olam (Master of the Universe)  •  Shaddai (Almighty)

  M’Kor Hachayyim (Source of Life)  •  Ancient Holy One

Mayan Raz (Mysterious Well)   •  Ayn Sof (Without End, Infinite)

The Unnameable  •  Elohim (Nature Power)

Echad (One)

This is actually only a small sampling of ways to conceive of the inconceivable, but it broadens the spiritual landscape of Judaism. However we relate to the mystery of life, the relationship is a legitimate one worthy of time, attention, care.

Today’s Elul Tool:  Carefully consider how you have cared for your Neshemah, your soul, this past year. What is the quality of your connection to  “The Source Of All That Is?” Have you regularly watered this important garden? Do you take time to pray or meditate? Are you aware of your breath and how it can connect you to this place? If nature is your way to connect to your soul, are you out in it, regularly? What has gotten in the way of strengthening this relationship? How might other areas of your life benefit and flourish if you spent more time nourishing your Neshemah? No judgement, just consideration.

For Families and Kids!

Junior Tool Box: Children are naturally spiritually connected! Build on this by encouraging their questions of what God is, the nature of the universe etc. Avoid promoting your own point of view. Share it if asked, but allow your children the space to discover their own ideas. Draw your children out with lots of questions. Quite often children come up with the most poignant metaphors for God without outside input.

•  There are some excellent books on the topic:  What Does God Look Like? by Lawrence and Karen Kushner and In God’s Name, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.

•  Talk about the Neshama (soul, breath of life) with your children. Encourage them to connect with their souls by way of their breath, feeling air and life in and out through their nose. How is this like the wind?  Like the ebb and flow of the ocean? Can they contribute other metaphors or ideas?

•  As a family discuss how you have nourished your souls this past year and how you have neglected them. Discuss ways to enhance your spiritual lives in the year to come. 

•  Concentrate on the Hebrew letter Alef below. What do you see? Can this symbol help us understand our souls?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

12 Elul - Have ou Nourished Your Mind?

Elul Tools 


Building a Strong Foundation 

for the Days of Awe

It's Elul. Time to Wake Up!

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

Pursuit of knowledge...
Is yours life long? Have you stopped? 
Learn stuff. Feed your mind.

Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

12 Elul—Have You Nourished Your Mind?

A helpful metaphor during Elul is that of “Missing the Mark.” It’s not so much that we have been bad people or sinners. Rather we should think of ourselves as archers. Because of the inevitable, inherent distractions of life, we simply don’t reach the bulls eye every time we aim. The goal over the course of our lives is to get closer to the bulls eye and to hit that target more and more. Our reflections now, regarding our conduct over the past year, help us adjust our aim in the year to come.

For the past couple of days we have considered our relationship to ourselves.  How have we short changed ourselves physically? How have we neglected ourselves emotionally. Today we think about how we may have disregarded ourselves intellectually.
This part of ourselves is easy to ignore. As adults, we aren’t students anymore. That phase of our lives is over. Or, we may consider our jobs as the intellectual part of our lives. While it is true that we may get some of our intellectual needs met through work, many of us neglect learning and growing outside of work. Time is the inevitable culprit. Taking care of our minds and creative impulses seems like an indulgence in our otherwise full and busy lives. Having a satisfying intellectual life may not seem like our most pressing need, but we must realize that it will always get pushed to the back burner when we treat it as a minor “luxury.”

Many of us forget that learning is a life long process, not just something for children and students. Our minds are built for constant input and stimulation. Yet many of us in our thirties and beyond begin to let that part of us atrophy. Quite often, we also let our bodies begin to sag and fade a bit too. But because we can tangibly see that part of ourselves, our bodies often get more attention than the wilting of our minds. We can’t forget to tend to our “intellectual garden.” Often times we don’t know that we need intellectual stimulation. All we know is that we feel blah or malaise. Perhaps that is the mind calling out to us, FEED ME. If only we could read the signals.

Judaism has a longstanding tradition of study and life long learning. While it is true that many equate this with the study of Torah and sacred texts, there is also a fundamental value of study in general. We are encouraged to question and critically investigate the world around us. Reading, gaining knowledge, studying and learning new ideas and skills are seen as keys to our overall vitality. When we are learning we are growing! Our sages, in Pirkei Avot (the Sayings of our Fathers) assert:

The world stands on three things: 
On Torah,
on service,
and on acts of kindness.
(Talmud - Avot 1:2)

Rabbi Shraga Simmons, in offering a more modern and accessible translation of this idea, understands Torah as the “Pursuit of Wisdom” and the world as people. So if this idea is true, that our lives are held up by three things, one of which is the pursuit of wisdom, how are you contributing (or not) to your own stability?

Today’s Elul Tool:  Think about your intellectual life over the past year. Have you nourished it, or have you neglected it? Do you read regularly? Do you keep your mind open to knew thoughts and ideas by learning and listening to others? Or rather have you been stuck more in “survival mode?” Is there something you have been wanting to learn for a long time (a language, a skill, more Torah perhaps). Did you put it off again this year? Why? What is the obstacle that prevents you from pursuing knowledge, from feeding your mind? Is the obstacle you?

For Families and Kids!

Junior Tool Box:  You Learned So Much This Year!

•  Elul and Rosh Hashanah are great times to talk about all the learning and growth that has occurred for your children over the past year. Have family discussions about the learning that has taken place for everyone in the family. Also discuss the importance of life long learning.

•  Since children are rapidly absorbing everything around them, it is great to visually document their successes and milestones. Create a “Learning Time Line” to chart the incredible depth and breadth of learning in the past year. Since these are the years where major life skills are learned (i.e. riding a bike, tying shoes, learning how to play an instrument, doing a cart wheel, helping with chores, learning to read etc) your children will be surprised to document how much they learned.

•  Make a “prediction chart"  for the year ahead. Next year at this time I will know/know how to...

•  Role model life long learning for your children whenever possible. It is wonderful for them to see you taking classes, reading, studying a foreign language, investigating the world around you.

•  Go to the library! Let your kids check out as many books as the library will allow!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

11 Elul - How Nice Have You Been to You?

Elul Tools 2015/5775

Building a Strong Foundation 

for the 

Days of Awe

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

I'd rather have yours.
Wait. Maybe I'd rather be
satisfied with mine.

Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

11 Elul—How Nice Have You Been To YOU?

Elul is our month to wake up. It is a month to detect unwanted routines that have begun to solidify in the past year or even over our lives. Before we charge into another annual cycle at Rosh Hashanah, Elul gives us prefatory time to pause and reflect. What kind of person have I been? How have I missed the mark? Are there any habits or behaviors I would like to leave behind this year? Where can I improve?

Some of our deepest habitual grooves are the ways in which we treat ourselves. Yesterday we focused on the treatment of our bodies. Today we examine how we treat ourselves as a person, emotionally and mentally.

There is a compelling Hasidic idea that we should walk around with two notes, one in each pocket. One should read, “For YOU  the entire universe was created.” The other should read, “You are like the dust of the Earth.” A healthy sense of who we are should balance between those two extremes. Quite often though we are hanging out at one of these two poles. Much of our emotional and mental disturbance stems from either harassing ourselves for not being good enough, or over inflating ourselves with an exaggerated importance of who we are.

Internal distress is often created through comparing and competing with others. Humans seem to be built with an inborn desire for more, for other than what we actually have, who we actually are. This is such a pervasive problem, that one of the 10 commandments addresses it: “Thou shalt not covet.” But covet we do. The wanting of other people’s stuff. The wanting of other people’s seeming sense of ease. The wanting of other people’s position or prestige. The wanting of other people’s appearance. How often are we in a state of complete acceptance and appreciation of what we HAVE, or who we ARE, regardless of those around us? Truthfully...not often. This place of dissatisfaction creates an internal climate where we don’t treat ourselves very well. 

Our sages know that suffering is often rooted in a general discontent with the quality of our lives. In Pirkei Avot, the famous compilation of wise and ethical sayings from “our fathers” we are presented with the following:

Who is rich?  Those who are content with their lot. 
(Talmud - Avot 4:1)

Easier said than done, for sure. There are all sorts of human details that create a sense of entitlement for being frustrated or miserable. When we are in this negative space, we don’t treat ourselves well. We begin to swing either toward a sense of “I don’t deserve to be happy, I am but a speck of dust” OR “I am entitled, the world owes me everything, the Universe was created for ME!” Contentment with our Lot is somewhere near the middle. Contenment with our Lot is a state of mind where we are at peace with what is. Seems unattainable most of the time, doesn't it?

It is customary for observant Jews to recite at least 100 blessings a day. This may seem impossible, strange, even ritualistic to those of us unfamiliar with the practice. However, there is an underlying wisdom built into this discipline. It’s similar to what is referred these days as practicing an “Attitude of Gratitude.” Perhaps our sages knew, thousands of years ago, that the secret to inner peace, is outer gratitude. The Jewish way to show this gratitude is through blessings. Even though our lives are full of challenges and difficulties and obstacles, there must be at least 100 things, each day, for which we are thankful. Expressing gratitude creates an internal atmosphere of peace. Shalom. 

Today’s Elul Tool: Think about how you treated yourself emotionally and mentally in the past year. Has your inner Shalom (peace) been out of balance? What is your role in creating this disturbance? How have you stirred up unnecessary misery and suffering for yourself by being “covetous” or “discontent with your lot?” While many circumstances are beyond your control, how have you created undue internal suffering? Try to see your behaviors in this area as a neutral observer. Try to fact collect rather than add a layer of self-judgement.

For Families and Kids!

Junior Tool Box:  Bringing Shalom to your Heart and Mind
•  Today’s theme is pretty abstract, but if you can, talk with your children about the idea of how we treat ourselves. Are we kind and loving to ourselves, or are we mean and hurtful to ourselves? A good gauge for this is how peaceful we feel inside. 

•  Create a “Blessing Jar.” When your child is in a negative emotional space (i.e. whining, complaining, jealous or competing with a sibling etc.) have them think of at least one thing they are thankful for in their lives, write it down, and put it in the jar. After taking the time to do this, you’ll probably notice a change in their mood. Point this out to them. Take the time occasionally to read everything from the blessing jar to remember how essentially good and wonderful our lives are.

•  For the rest of the month of Elul (or longer!) say thank you once a day for just one thing in your outer world (home, school, family, nature, friends etc). This is prophylactic “medicine” for maintaining the health of our inner world. 

•  Attempt to replicate some type of balancing structure like the one below. You can use rocks, other items from nature, or even different kinds of toys.  If it seems appropriate for your child, share the Hasidic notion of the two notes (from above). Discuss how to balance these parts of ourselves just like the rocks.

•  Make a "Shalom Meter." Draw a large dial zero to ten. Cut out the Shalom at the bottom of the page and have your child tape it to one of the numbers on the dial to indicate their inner Shalom. Zero is “no shalom”, no sense of inner peace. Ten is complete peace and contentment. Ask your child what they can do to adjust their internal ‘Shalometer.’ This teaches taking personal responsibility for our internal emotional state.

_  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  

10 Elul - Coming Back Home, to YOU


Elul Tools 2015/5775

Building a Strong Foundation for the Days of Awe

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

I think I forgot
to thank you, body of mine.
Your work never stops.

Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

10 Elul—Coming Back Home, to YOU
Chesbon Hanefesh. Searching our souls. Taking an
honest look, a thorough accounting of our conduct in the past year. This is a major component of preparing for the Days of Awe. We have examined many areas of our outer life in the past ten days. Now is the time to examine our relationship to ourselves. Just as the outside world has many levels through which to navigate, so too does the inside world. Diving into our inner universe, and tackling it whole, would be too much for one day, so we will investigate one layer at a time.

Today’s focus is the personal home: Our Body. This outside structure is often referred to as merely a shell, a container for our neshemah (soul). The image of a “container” for our life force definitely creates a desire to take care of it! But our bodies are also complex, intricate machines. It’s actually inconceivable that all the body’s systems (skeletal, muscular, vascular, respiratory, neural, organ, sensory) work in unison all day long, even when we are asleep. Though we are very aware when something isn’t working (either from major health problems, or even minor ones like a sore throat), this impressively designed instrument keeps ticking and moving and performing with little thought on our part.

There is a blessing in Judaism that expresses both awe and gratitude for the gift of our bodies. This prayer acknowledges that our bodies, as intricate as they are and the precision with which they must function, ACTUALLY WORK!

Blessed are you, THE ARCHITECT, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who shaped the human
being with wisdom, making for us all the openings and vessels of the body.  It is revealed and known 
before your Throne of Glory that if one of these passage-ways be open when it should be closed, or blocked up when it should be free, one could not stay alive or stand before you.  Blessed are you, MIRACULOUS, the wondrous healer of all flesh.

(Kol Haneshamah:  Shabbat Vechagim, Reconstructionist Press)

Today’s Elul Tool:  Think about this Jewish blessing for the body. How often do you feel the complete amazement this prayer expresses? If you’re like most folks, not even one minute of the day!  Your body is working for you constantly. But how much time do you devote to taking care of it? To giving thanks for it? Consider these questions:

•  How have you taken care of your body, this sacred vessel, over the course of the last year?

•  Did you keep it fit and flexible with exercise?

•   Did you nourish it with healthy, wholesome foods?

•  Did you get enough rest?

•  Of equal importance, did you experience enough physical pleasure (dessert, intimacy, baths, massage)

•  Did you take pride in and have fun with your appearance (dressing up, changing your hair-style, manicure, pedicures etc.)

•  Were you aware of your body as a gift. Did you say thank you?

Avoid judging yourself right now!!  Instead be curious. See if you can neutrally investigate your relationship to your body this past year.

For Families and Kids!

Junior Tool Box:  

•  As a family, discuss how you have taken care of AND neglected your body. This is a good time to talk about sleep and the importance of rest as well as healthy, balanced eating habits.

•  If you have a large roll of paper, do a full body tracing. If not you can draw the outline of a body on a regular piece of paper. Label all the parts of the body. Discuss the wonderful things bodies can do with all of these parts.

•  Discuss the different senses and the gift each of them give to us, everyday.

•  Discuss the different systems and organs of the body.  Share your wonder and amazement about what these systems and organs allow us to do.

•  Make a drawing, collage, or other depiction of wholesome and nutritious foods. Discuss:  Which did you eat a lot of this year?  Which did you not eat?  Did your body need those to be healthy.

•  Do the same activity as above but change the topic to exercise.

•  For the rest of the month of Elul (or longer!) say thank you once a day for just one incredible thing about your body.