Friday, September 30, 2016

Elul Tools 2016 - 28 Elul 5776

Elul Tools  

Building a Strong Foundation 
for the Days of Awe

Today's Elul and Shabbat Chai-Ku:

A break while awake.
Rest is not just in slumber.
Lounge in a soul nap. 

28 Elul - The Last Shabbat of 5776

One of the greatest gifts of Judaism is Shabbat. Every week, no matter how hard or important our work, how numerous our chores, how full our plate, we are granted a day of rest. But how many of us actually seize this opportunity for respite and regeneration? The professional work week may have ended, but many of us dive into projects, errands, chores.  We think in this way we are keeping our head above water. But are we?

In keeping with this time honored tradition, even our preparations for the Days of Awe cease. There is nothing to work on or think about. No reflecting or goal setting. Everything is perfect as it is. Just being. We don’t even blow the shofar on Shabbat. It’s a day of doing-nothing-ness. Let all the vigorous soul searching and amend making fade to the background. See how much of an opportunity for rest and relaxation you can take for yourself this last Shabbat...before Rosh Hashanah.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Elul Tools 2016 - 27 Elul 5776

Elul Tools  

Building a Strong Foundation 
for the Days of Awe

Shofar Blast 
(press the arrow below)

Today's Elul Chai-Ku:

Fractured, we unite.
Merging, even if only 
for a little while.  

27 Elul - Getting at the Heart of Atonement

Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, is commonly referred to as the “Day of Atonement” (yom meaning day and kippur meaning atonement). The month of Elul, followed by the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are the lead up for this day of non-stop prayer, fasting, reflection, and meditation.

You may have heard this special day referred to as the Day of “At-One-Ment.” While this may have a simplistic, New Age ring to it, that’s really what it’s all about. On this one day of the year, we align, completely, with the Holy One. We want to be so present and so available to the renewal this day has to offer that we forgo many of the usual, daily routines of life (working, eating, drinking, bathing, intimacy, chatting, hanging out). We fast because we want to achieve a place of emptiness, in order to be filled anew. Additionally, the act of preparing and eating food is a distraction from the focus of the day.

We have thought a lot about the word Teshuvah which means both repentance and return. Coming back to us. Coming back, if even only for a day, to our essential nature, to God. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, metaphorically refers to this as acquiring our “New God Interface.” He explains that during the year, our operating system gets sluggish. After awhile, daily living clogs the filters. Our systems slow down, having acquired too much extraneous and inefficient data. Keeping with Reb Zalman's metaphor, the Days of Awe allow us to run diagnostic software, perform upgrades. The goal is to get our internal hard-drives functioning at their highest level again. With a completely upgraded system we charge forth into the new year as a finer version. Of course this version will be outdated too in a year’s time.

The definition of the word atone is to reconcile, to be in harmony, to make amends. Keep in mind that on Yom Kippur we are reconciling and making amends with God as we ideally have cleaned up all our messes with others already. When we do this with God, we come back into balance. Our relationship is calibrated. We are in harmony with the Divine energy of the universe. So in essence we truly are in a state of at-one-ment.

Consider the word reconcile, like bringing our checkbook into balance. When the statement balances out, there is a feeling of peace and perfection. Everything lined up and worked loose ends. Yom Kippur is much like balancing our accounts with God.

One last thought about At-One-Ment. This is a little far out, but is a traditional concept in contemplating the unity we seek on Yom Kippur. Consider the oneness, unity shared by lovers. There is a beautiful poetic phrase from the Song of Songs, usually recited at weddings and inscribed on the Ketubah (Jewish Wedding Contract): I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine. The image invoked is that of complete unification. In Hebrew the phrase is: Ani l'dodi, v'dodi li.

Our sages have decoded the fact that the Hebrew letters in the word Elul (alef, lamed, vav, lamed) are an acronym for this phrase in Hebrew. The image here to the right depicts this coded connection. During Elul we move ever closer to our beloved and our beloved to us. On Yom Kippur, we meet and attain a true sense of At One Ment...

Today’s Elul Tool:  Think about Atonement and At-One-Ment. Reflect on Echad (Hebrew for one). Consider all the different images for achieving oneness (harmony, balance, unification, the computer metaphors of the New God Interface, the accounting metaphor of reconciling, the image of lovers united). Which of these resonate with your own ideas for attaining Atonement. Begin to integrate this image, this idea into your mind and soul as you approach these transformative Days of Awe. If it helps, consider the image of the Alef (above, left) which is the first letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, with the numerical value of one. Can you see ideas of harmony, balance, or unity in this symbol?

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 ideas of Atonement and Oneness with your children. What are ways we feel connected to others, to ourselves, to God? Some ideas may be to talk about how we feel in nature, how we feel when we perform kind acts, when we sing Jewish songs and say Hebrew blessings, how we feel in the warm embrace of our families.

Explain how in Hebrew, every letter of the Alef-Bet has a numerical value. The first letter of the Alef-Bet is Alef and represents the number One. Discuss the symbol of the Alef and find ways that it represents oneness, balance, unity, and harmony. Remind children that this is a nice symbol to think about when they feel lonely, anxious, or frightened. It can remind us that we all are connected, we all are one. We touched on this idea a couple of weeks ago, but now begin to connect the idea of Oneness with Yom Kippur. Bonus:  Can you find something in the Alef that looks like a shofar?

Have an apple and honey tasting. Purchase different types of apple and honey and take a family survey on which everyone likes best!

Can you see the shofar in the sky???

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!”