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Elul 5779: Preparing for 5780 Together

The Hebrew month of Elul, the last month of the year before Rosh Hashanah, is a special time for us all to consider the ways we hope to grow and change in the coming new year. Please join us - virtually - in exploring some inspirational thoughts (we hope!) and words of Torah over the course of this month. 

Every day of Elul, starting motzei shabbat, Saturday night 8/31, we will be disseminating brief texts *once* per day in a WhatsApp group (information for joining can be found below). Please note that this WhatsApp group will only allow Rabbi Antine and Rabbi Cooper to post (the group is not intended as a forum for conversation, as we want to be sensitive to how many notifications everyone gets on their phones!). That said, please feel free to start private chats, virtually or in person, with Rabbi Antine and Rabbi Cooper or with one another, to discuss some of the ideas shared. 

We hope that this new initiative will play a small part in your preparations for the High Holidays.

שנה טובה/Shana Tovah!

Click here to join Beth Sholom's Elul WhatsApp Group*

*Note you will need to have installed WhatsApp on your phone in order to join the group. Click here to install Whatsapp. Please also note that if you join the group, your cell phone number will be visible to others. Joining a WhatsApp group does not conceal your cell phone number. Others in the group are able to view your contact information. If you would like to receive this daily messages in a forum that will conceal your number, please  feel free to leave this WhatsApp group and join our alternative Telegram group instead by clicking here (note you will have to download the Telegram app and sign up for an account - see here). We will post the same messages in Telegram as we will in WhatsApp.

Please reach out to Rabbi Cooper (rabbicooper@bethsholom.org) if you have any questions. 

Posts to Date:

Elul 17 5779

Today was Election Day in Israel! Votes are still being counted now, and we will know the result by tomorrow morning hopefully. 

The last (and I believe only) time an Israeli election was held in Elul was 1961, if I’m
not mistaken. 

The contrast between Elul and elections is an exciting one. There’s something inspiring and also challenging about so much “new” happening at once. A new Jewish year. A new academic year. And a new Israeli government. I’m sure we can all think of new things or situations we are currently or soon will be encountering. 

Newness comes with challenges, as well as an inevitable period of acclimation. It’s not always easy to embrace what is new, and sometimes, we feel the need to reject it (this is what happened in the last Israeli elections only a few months ago!)

May this new year be one where we embrace the excitement and opportunities that come with newness

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 16 5779

For the last couple of days I have been “solo parenting” our 2.5 year old and our 6 month old, as my wife Dita is away at a school trip with the Berman Hebrew Academy. 

While I’ve managed OK, it’s definitely been much much harder than co-parenting! Doing things by yourself, most of the time, is harder than in partnership with someone. 

The same is true for teshuvah. We are in partnership with G-d and with one another in this process of self-improvement. Even if we could theoretically get this job done “solo,” it is much easier when we reach out for help. (Relatedly this is one of the reasons why our viduy/confession prayers are in the plural- because we don’t only stand for ourselves on Yom Kippur, but rather we stand together as a community in partnership) 

As we continue through Elul (past the halfway point) it’s worth considering the ways in which we can help others and be helped by others in the teshuvah process. 

Photograph: me solo parenting yesterday

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 15 5779

My teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss argues in this beautiful article (see link below) that our Yom Kippur tefilot should not only have a confession of our wrongdoings but also a confession of the positive things we have done in the past year. He penned a special prayer, also using the alef, bet acrostic ( as we have in our classic prayer, “Ashamnu, Bagadnu”) and titled it “ahavnu, berachnu” (we have loved, we have blessed). In the article he encourages everyone to write their own “positive confession” and include it in our Yom Kippur tefilot. 

It’s an inspiring and bold suggestion that I hope to incorporate into my prayers this year! You can read the article here

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 14 5779

A verse in the parsha we will read tomorrow (devarim 23:22) says: 

כִּֽי־תִדֹּ֥ר נֶ֙דֶר֙ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תְאַחֵ֖ר לְשַׁלְּמ֑וֹ כִּֽי־דָּרֹ֨שׁ יִדְרְשֶׁ֜נּוּ יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵֽעִמָּ֔ךְ וְהָיָ֥ה בְךָ֖ חֵֽטְא׃
When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt.

Sforno comments that we all make promises in life, and while we should  try our best to uphold them, we should never procrastinate on delivering on the promises we make to Hashem. We cannot delay fulfilling the responsibilities we take upon ourselves. This is certainly a lesson to keep in mind during Elul: we will all make promises to ourselves and to Hashem for the coming year. Let’s be sure we can keep them and fulfill them on time without delay! 

Shabbat shalom!!

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 13 5779

When I was ordained a few months ago, I was also given a shofar. I've been spending time practicing, attempting to develop a new skill. I've been trying a bit each day- but I definitely need to  improve. I'm still not ready to blow shofar in front of a large group of people, as it's not perfect. Nevertheless I'm going to share this video with you of me practicing- even though I feel I'm not totally "there" yet. I think there are two messages here: 

1. First: Part of the teshuvah process, I believe, is opening up and feeling a bit more vulnerable than we are used to feeling. So I share this video with you, even though I still feel insecure about my shofar blowing. 

2. Second: practice never makes perfect- as nothing is perfect! The same is true with teshuvah. We can try our best to return to Hashem, but we will never do it perfectly. Hashem will accept us nonetheless. 

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 12 5779

The mitzvah of Tashlich, where we visit a body of water and say special prayers as part of our teshuvah process, may be performed from the first day of Rosh Hashanah until Hoshana Rabbah (the 7th day of Sukkot). In other words- there is a lot of time to complete this mitzvah! One message to consider, perhaps, is that teshuvah is so precious, such a gift, that we want to hold onto it for as long as possible. At the same time, these weeks will fly by- and we will be at Hoshana Rabbah, our "last stop" in the teshuvah journey, before we know it. In some ways it feels similar to a child (or adult!) at overnight camp. Each day is so precious, and the whole experience flies by. Let's try to be cognizant of this as we proceed through Elul. Every day of this High Holiday season is a gift- let's try to make the most of it!

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 11 5779

Today is the 11'th of Elul and it is also the 18th anniversary of 9/11. This morning in shul, we lit a memorial candle and recited a Kel Maleh in memory of the victims. Followed by shofar blowing. For so many of us, the memory of 9/11 is so tied into Rosh Hashana and the shofar which came a short time later. Who could forget the power of Unetaneh Tokef that year when we davened "who by fire and who by water" "who in the right time and who not in the right time".  9/11 changed us all in many ways in terms of security and many other issues. Perhaps today as we take a moment to remember the victims, let's also reflect on whether the events of 9/11 changed us as spiritual beings and as Jews. May Hashem bring comfort to the victims families. I am sure this is a difficult day for all of them. They are in our thoughts today.

-Rabbi Antine

Elul 10 5779

Another post about the letters that spell Elul: We have been saying L’david (psalm 27) each day in shul. The second to last verse saysלולא הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־יְהוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים׃
“Had I not the assurance  that I would enjoy the goodness of the LORD  in the land of the living…”

The word “לולא”, which means “had I not” is Elul spelled backwards. There are many moments during the teshuvah process in which we will tell ourselves “had I not”...that we should have or could have done something better. The inclination to feel guilt and regret is strong. But maybe this isn’t the right approach. Perhaps part of teshuvah, part of the month of Elul is accepting who we are even with our limitations. By reversing this inclination to feel too much guilt within ourselves- reversing the “had I not,” the “לולא”- we can fully and genuinely enter Elul. 

There is a great song by the group Lev Tahor with the words to this verse- listen here: https://youtu.be/0Rr66vgnPXw

–Rabbi Cooper

Elul 9 5779

On this day, the 9th of Elul, in the Hebrew year 5027 (752 years ago today on the Jewish calendar) the Ramban (Nachmanides) arrived in Jerusalem at the age of 73. The city he encountered was desolate and nearly empty. There was barely a minyan available for davening. The situation distressed him and he worked tirelessly to rebuild the city. Among other things, he established a synagogue (which still exists to this day, in the Old City). 

Ultimately there was a consistent Jewish presence in the old city of Jerusalem from the time Ramban arrived until 1948. He is credited with rejuvenating Jerusalem in the 13th century almost single handedly. 

I wonder what it was like for Ramban to arrive in Jerusalem during Elul, only a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah 5028. I imagine it took a lot of work to muster up the spiritual energy to connect to davening that year- in a destroyed Jerusalem without many people present to daven. I’m sure it took some degree of hope and optimism. I’d like to try and channel some of that hope and optimism into Elul this year. I’ll be thinking about the Ramban tomorrow!

To learn more see this helpful article.

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 8 5779

One of the central components of teshuvah, according to the Rambam, is a verbal confession of our wrongdoings (see hilchot teshuvah 1:1). It’s not enough to merely think about what we did wrong or say things that sound generic. If we do not confess verbally and specify the things we did wrong, we have not fully done teshuvah.

One potential implication of this teaching is that we should spend time in advance of Yom Kippur enumerating our sins so that we can be prepared to offer a genuine, verbal confession on Yom Kippur. The last few years I have kept a notebook during elul with a running list of some of the mistakes and wrongdoings I would like to do teshuvah for. I bring this list with me to my davening and say the things I have written as part of my viduy (confession). As we proceed through Elul, it’s worth not only considering the ways we feel closer to G-d and the holiness of this time period- but also how we can properly and effectively confess and do teshuva.

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 7 5779

It’s been really wonderful hearing the shofar every morning after davening. There are many understandings of why we blow the shofar during Elul, but one that resonates for me is that it is a wake up call. Each morning when we hear the shofar, it reminds us of the importance of this month, and the need to focus on teshuvah. The piercing sound of the shofar helps to awaken us to the task at hand! I will miss hearing the shofar this Shabbat (every once in a while I suppose it’s good to turn off our alarm clocks for a day). I look forward to hearing it again on Sunday morning. Here is a recording of shofar blowing this morning- for those who were unable to be at davening. Shabbat shalom to everyone!!

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 6 5779

This morning I was reading the introduction to Rav Kook's Orot Hateshuva. One line, about the connection between Teshuva and Hope, jumped out at me. Rav Kook says, "All hope, individual and communal, is built on Teshuva."

This really fits into Rav Kook's larger theme that Teshuva is not just something we do once a year (during the High Holidays). It is actually a way of life for the whole year. It is the idea that gives us hope when we face challenges. It enables us to see new possibilities and hopes for the future whether in our personal or communal lives. This tells me that we should not look at Teshuva through the feeling of dread of Unetaneh Tokef but also through the prism of joy of new possibilities to accomplish new goals for the coming year!

-Rabbi Antine

Elul 5 5779

For tonight something a bit different: In recent years the “Elul niggun” has become more and more popular. That’s right- this month has a tune named after it (not sure any other month has that distinction!). Elul is a time for introspection and contemplation but also a time for singing and spiritual expression! You can listen to the song in the link below.

https://youtu.be/9S6-7RxVw0Y

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 4 5779

A teaching attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of Chabad, states that “The King is in the Field” (המלך בשדה) during Elul. That is to say, Elul is a time in which we can encounter the divine more easily. As opposed to being unreachable or far away in the heavens, Hashem is more accessible, down here with the people. 

It’s a strange concept- as one might assume that G-d is always accessible- always in the field. Perhaps, though, it’s all about our attitude. G-d may always be “in the field,” but Elul is a time when we feel more empowered and able to look around, looking up from our day to day existence in “the field,” and find G-d in our lives. 

Alternatively, R’ Jeff Fox (Rosh Yeshiva at Maharat) suggests that the King being in the Field during Elul implies that G-d returns to a castle when Elul is over. Once Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah begin, Hashem retreats back to a more inaccessible place. How can we harness the power of increased closeness with G-d, knowing that this time period is limited to this month only?

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 3  5779
So we have been saying לדוד (ledovid - psalm 27) since the start of Elul. I am always amazed at how lines from that Psalm jump out at me. Today I was struck by this line:
לך אמר לבי בקשו פני. את פניך ד׳ אבקש. 
For You my heart has said “seek my Presence”. Your Presence, Hashem, do I seek

It’s as if our hearts are acting as agents for G-d and they are stirring us to seek out G-d! 
I think a lot of life is a struggle between our heart and brain. Our brain often times gives us rational reasons why we can’t do something. Why we can’t connect to G-d or to others or to do some radical act of kindness. But it’s our heart which is often the emissary of G-d. Maybe during Elul we should try to listen to it a bit more and do spiritual things we wouldn’t orherwise do. Things that logic tells us won’t work. The brain is important but let’s not forget the heart!

-Rabbi Antine

Elul 2 5779

A verse in B’midbar 30:3 says, “אִישׁ כִּי־יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהוָה אוֹ־הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל־נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה׃” (If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.) As noted by our friend and college Rabbi Dan Margulies, the last letters in the words לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל from this verse spell out the word Elul. 

We have made many promises to ourselves and to others over the course of the last year. It’s possible we have broken some if not many of these promises. As we embark on the long process of teshuvah, let’s try our best to set goals and make promises that we can keep!

-Rabbi Cooper

Elul 1 5779

Tonight marks the first day of Elul. As we begin thinking about the new year, perhaps there is no better place to start than the name Elul itself. Many have noted that the letters that spell Elul in Hebrew are an acronym for the verse from Shir HaShirim (6:3) “אני לדודי ודודי לי” - “Ani L’dodi V’Dodi Li” (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”). Framing Elul in this way - with love - helps remind us that no matter how we feel about the past year- whatever highs and lows we may have had in our relationships with one another and with G-d - we are still bound together in love. A first step in the process of teshuvah (return/repentance) and self improvement, perhaps, is to recognize and embrace the loving relationships that exist in our lives.

-Rabbi Cooper

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779