Recently I had the opportunity to study a deep and profound teaching from Rabbi Berezovsky, the last Slonimer Rebbe, who passed away around 18 years ago. In this teaching, the Slonimer focuses on a verse from the book of Deuteronomy: ‘And now, Israel, what does the Source of Life require of you, but to fear the Eternal One, to walk in all God’s ways, and to love God.’ (Deuteronomy 10:12)
What is this fear that God demands from us? This is difficult for many of us. Many of us don’t relate to a God that demands to be feared. If I want to praise the creative force in the universe that manifests all the diversity, all the beauty and the elegance and even, sadly, all the suffering, do I want to do so from a place of fear?
The Slonimer, though, states that a person cannot be in a state of devekut—‘closeness to the Divine’—without it! For the Slonimer, fear of God comes first. A person’s capacity to love is predicated on it.
Both yirah and pahad are Hebrew words that for ‘fear’. But pahad describes a fear that invokes anxiety and terror, whereas yirah, in addition to fear can also mean awe and wonder. Yirah is used to describe a feeling ofwonder and awe that penetrates the very core of our being when we are overwhelmed by the magnitude and mystery of existence.
We have all had these moments. I remember one such experience when travelling in India. I arrived at a little town in the foothills of the Himalayas, late at night. There were no street lamps or lights of any sort. I sat down, in a field, and looked up at the sky, full of stars. And then it happened to me: time stopped; there was no separation between me and all of Creation. I understood intuitively that I was made from the same material as the stars, the sky, the earth under my feet. It was a very deep knowing—of interconnectedness; a kind of breakthrough—an interruption. My concerns, worries, anxieties, all ceased in that moment that felt like eternity. Something very important was gained by that experience and it changed me. It led to the realisation that there is some inexplicable force beyond and within all phenomena—a force that we are all a part of, all connected to.
This is the fear that Hassidic masters refer to as ‘yirat adonai la chayim’—fear that sustains life. This kind of fear is considered to be a very deep form of connection with the Divine. ‘Yirat adonai la chaim”—a sense of fear transformed into awe—is an awakening to the life-force that sustains all of Creation. My whole existence is dependent on this awesome life-force that is constantly creating, renewing, birthing, destroying. What’s more, I will never really comprehend it.
And now, O Israel, what does the Source of Life demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God…’ May we all be blessed to cultivate a sense of awe that shakes the very core of our being and inspires a sense of wonder and amazement as we approach these the Days of Awesomeness.
— Cantor George Mordecai, Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, New South Wales
I think of teshuvah a bit backwards.
I know we are supposed to make teshuvah – a turning of the soul – and then experience forgiveness. But for me it works the other way around. Turning follows fore-give-ness.
I find myself astounded, sometimes, at the give in the universe: the miracle by which we survive an accident, risky surgery, or close call; the soul mate we discover in a city of millions; the lessons we learn when things don’t go our way and what we really wished for would have proven a disaster. There are, of course, plenty of people for whom these situations don’t work out so well – but that’s just the point. When they do end well for us, we experience a degree of humility and gratitude that turns us and makes us live differently—more aware of our very tenuous hold on life, love, and luck, and itching to make the most of each. It is the “give” in the cosmos that leaves me bowing in awe and wonder before the mystery of my life and the Mystery of creation.
Why by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
I don’t know who. Or why. Or when. But I do know that here I sit, safely in a sanctuary, reciting these words, despite the many, many threats to human existence. I don’t understand the mystery of fore-give-ness. I only know that in light of it, I must turn and live differently.
This is teshuvah.
— Rabbi Nicole K Roberts, North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, New South Wales
A month of Love and Soul Gardening:
The phrase “I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me” (Song of Songs) is an acronym for “Elul”, (the Hebrew name for this month).
It’s a time to reflect on Love in your life. I write it with a capital L because as part of our teshuvah process, there is an opportunity to reflect on those loving connections that really nurture us to the core. Dodi, “my love”
Consider the different aspects of Love in your life – Love for and from a partner, a friend, a family member, a pet and there are so many other aspects of Love that may nurture us –the connection with a loved one who has passed away, Love for nature and more.
As we take stock of our lives this month, give yourself a present and journal about Love.
Write out the various aspects of Love in your life, remembering that there are aspects of giving and receiving.
Give gratitude for the dodi — love connections — and have some time to discern which ones really nurture you.
Consider which relationships you would like to strengthen and enliven in the year ahead.
There is a Talmudic prayer that is said when a friendship is rekindled, it is mechayeh ha-metim: a blessing for revival. It points to the idea that when we foster Love, it is like watering a seed and allowing it to grow.
Wishing you a beautiful month of soul gardening.
It was said to me recently that including the Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” as part of the Unataneh Tokef was too honest. It was too graphic in its wording. My response was a bit of confusion. Cohen speaks about death and life, and yes, he does it in a remarkably honest manner. Using contemporary language. The liturgy for Unataneh Tokef in the Machzor is also rich and honest and doesn’t hide a thing. It talks about who will live and who will die – nothing is hidden, all is transparent. Yet, the hair pricks up on the back of our necks as we read Cohen’s piece. To me, it is more real, more immediate for us today. Perhaps we have become complacent with the traditional words – are we too used to them? The Unateneh Tokef is meant to force us to the reality that life is fragile and death is certain, and we know not when things will change at an instant. I believe the Cohen piece is more relevant at times, and can speak more to us in the 21st Century than our liturgy. But, we must not lose the tradition of the original words, which I’m sure were quite candid, straightforward and awakening for the times. The words were written in language of the day to be meaningful. They are still meaningful for us today, but Cohen’s words, too ring loud and clear. Let us hear the message, whether through traditional words or through contemporary language. Who will live and who will die? We know not, but we are spiritually commanded to take advantage of its message and to live life with honesty, integrity and with uprightness.
— Rabbi Kim Ettlinger, Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
Slow emerging consciousness.
Looking without seeing.
Seeing then knowing.
Traversing the barriers.
Elul. As this preparatory month unfolds, smoothing the way towards the Yamim Noraim– the Days of Awe, we listen to the sound of the shofar. Each day, the sound rouses us, awakens our consciousness, calls us to look and see who we are, what we’ve done, what has been done to us? Each day, the sound becomes more familiar, penetrates deeper, touches our core, touches our soul, connects us to the Divine, connects us to self. Each day of Elul leads us one step closer to Rosh Hashanah. The sound builds until it breaks through the barrier, our defences, until we see and know, forgive and love…only if we let it.
— Rabbi Allison RH Conyer, Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue, Bentleigh, VIC
In his book, The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist analyses competing tendencies within each of us, and thus humanity as a whole, from the perspective of left and right hemisphere brain differences. For example, “the left hemisphere disposition toward the world is that of use; the disposition of the right hemisphere is one of care, rather than control. Its will relates to a desire or longing towards something, something that lies beyond itself, towards the Other.” In other words, each of us, and our society as well, has tendencies toward utilitarianism and toward altruism. This month of Elul, preparing us for the Yamim Noraim and the time of balance, is when we begin making personal adjustments. McGilchrist’s thesis is that we live in a world of left brain domination, undermining right brain holistic connectivity. Each of us and our society tends to be more utilitarian than caring. We can help begin this process of rebalancing as we shift our attention to the Other – human, animal, environmental and essential. One way of shifting attention is to seek within for our deepest longings.
Often we think of longing only in terms of nostalgia, a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. Part of the Yamim Noraim is reflecting on the past, including that which we have lost or and those we have wronged. But longing can also be understood as future-oriented, being towards something beyond one self, towards something better – towards reconciliation, healing and connection. Indeed, the Yamim Noraim call us to remember the past in order to improve the future.
Let us use this time to imagine the self, the relationships, the society for which we long. We can use the metaphor of God, the one who is within all and connects all, as that for which we long most deeply. The concept of longing for God, the ultimate Other that lies just beyond ourselves, is found deep in the Jewish tradition, especially in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 42:2-3, recited in some traditions as part of the Selichot, or forgiveness prayers said in Elul, expresses this kind of longing poetically: “Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God; my soul thirst for God, the living God, when will I come before God!” These days of Elul invite us to examine our longings, drawing our attention not just to that which we have done , but also to the deep desire, the longing, to heal, to reconnect and to reunite.
— Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, Emanuel Synagogue Woollahra
Elul 8: A poem for Elul: by Stacey Zisook Robinson
I stand here,
ready to begin
to follow this road
of dust, that stretches
before me, but I cannot
see where it bends
and splits and
turns in on itself.
I have walked this
seven times seven,
and then seven more:
again and again
and yet the road is still
David’s harp urges me
and the horns of Abraham’s
dilemma push me,
and Jacob’s ladder is crowded
with angels. They move aside,
not without some attitude,
so I may stumble up those
narrow rungs; still –
elevated though I am,
there is only dust
and a blaze of Glory
in the far distance.
I am meant to follow,
with open hands
and open heart,
to feel the quickening
of my blood
that moves in equal time
with my shame
and my joy, my fear and
love, my grief and my ecstasy,
So that i may claim them
all, as they have
so that i may dance
at the gates
and be whole.
Are you ready to begin? What will you do to begin?
Elul 9: by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance. It is not the same as rebirth; it is transformation, creation. In the dimension of time there is no going back. But the power of repentance causes time to be created backward and allows re-creation of the past to take place. Through the forgiving hand of G-d, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation. God brings about this creation for the sake of humanity when a human being repents for the sake of God. –
What will you repent for this year and how will you do it?
Elul 10: by Jacob Neusner :
The concept of teshuvah is generally understood to mean a returning to G-d. Teshuvah then involves not humiliation but reaffirmation of the self in G-d’s image, after G-d’s likeness. –
How do you see yourself in God’s likeness and what can you do to act more in the image of G-d?
Elul 11: by Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook
Teshuvah – repentance – does not come to embitter life but to sweeten it.
Why do you think repentence can help to “sweeten” your life? How can you “sweeten” your life with repentence?
Elul 12: by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
It was Judaism, through the concept of teshuvah, that brought into the world the idea that we can change. We are not predestined to continue to be what we are.
What would you like to change in your life and how can you accomplish it?
Elul 13: by Estelle Frankel
Teshuvah is not something one does once and for all; rather, it is a lifelong journey, a journey of spiritual homecoming.
How will you find your spiritual homecoming this year?
Elul 14: from Mishna Yoma 8:9:
“The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased”
Have you “appeased” and made peace with someone whom you have hurt in some way this past year?
Elul 15: by – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
In the Torah, sin is something more than a transaction in the soul, or even an act of wrongdoing narrowly conceived. It is an act in the wrong place. It disturbs the moral order of the world. The words for sin – chet and averah – both have this significance. Chet comes from the same verb as “to miss a target.” Averah, like the English word “transgression,” means “to cross a boundary, to enter forbidden territory, to be in a place one should not be.” Only when we understand this does it become clear why the deepest punishment for sin in the Torah is exile. Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden. Cain was condemned to be an eternal wanderer. We say in our prayers, “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” Because a sin is an act in the wrong place, its consequence is that the one who performs it finds himself in the wrong place – in exile, meaning, not at home. Sin alienates; it distances us from G-d, and the result is that we are distanced from where we ought to be, where we belong. We become aliens, strangers.
Have there been times when you have “missed the target” or “overstepped a boundary” morally? Can you atone and make amends for this? How will you do that?