Elul 29: A Favor We Do Ourselves ~ Rabbi Harold Kushner


One year, my Yom Kippur sermon was on the theme of forgiveness. The next day, a woman came to see me, very upset about the sermon. She told me how, 10 years earlier, her husband had left her for a younger woman and she has had to raise two children by herself for the past 10 years.

She asked me angrily, “And you want me to forgive him for what he did to us?”I told her, “Yes, I want you to forgive him. Not to excuse him, not to say that what he did was acceptable, but to forgive him as a way of saying that someone who would do that has no right to live inside your head any more than he has the right to live inside your house. Why are you giving a man like that the power to turn you into a bitter, vengeful woman? He doesn’t deserve that power over you.”

Forgiveness is not a favor we do for the person who offended us. It is a favor we do for ourselves, cleansing our souls of thoughts and memories that lead us to see ourselves as victims and make our lives less enjoyable. When we understand we have little choice as to what other people do but we can always choose how we will respond to what they do, we can let go of those embittering memories and enter the New Year clean and fresh.


Harold Kushner is a prominent American rabbi and the author of many popular theological books.

Elul 28: It’s Not Forever by Sarah Tuttle Singer


My son was nestled in my lap last night, slumbering at last, while I trolled the Internet for entertainment. Somewhere in a moment between status updates on Facebook and searching for shirts on oldnavy.com, I felt a gentle nudge on my arm. I looked down, and he was awake, his eyes as round and bright as twin moons shining in the pearly glow of the laptop screen. His mouth bent and stretched into a smile, and he poked me again.

“Hey Mama, cyberspace can wait.” “But there’s a really good sale that ends tomorrow, and if I want to save 15% on all clearance items, I have to order NOW.”

Sometimes, I have to force myself to remember that this — all of this — is not forever. No matter what. Whether I skim over these moments in haste, or saturate myself in every poignant second, nothing will stay the same. Somewhere, in between stressing and (not) sleeping, in between being and breathing, in between power struggles and cooking dinner, tiny changes add up. They lose their belly-rolls, and their legs grow strong and sturdy, and suddenly, they’re out of diapers, starting school, taking ballet class and playing soccer, whirling and twirling into grownups. And suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, they’ll be growing their own families, struggling to hold onto sanity and sleep, while we go on trips to the Wine Country as our wrinkles dig down deep. And eventually — suddenly — we will all become old, marked with the eternal etchings of a life forever and ever spent thinking about tomorrow.

So, I stared at my son, stunned by the weight of his body against mine, by the changes that have already taken over while I wasn’t paying attention. And so I shut the laptop.
Sarah is an L.A. expat growing roots in Israel. She shares her adventures at Kveller.com and Jezebel.com

Elul 27: Extending a Hand ~ Nathaniel Helfgot


Fifteen years ago I experienced a serious bout of depression that was devastating and painful. The mental anguish and the hopelessness that entered my world at the moment when I was at a wonderful place in my career were overwhelming. It was as William Styron has termed it, a period of “Darkness Visible” with a suffocating closure of life and joy.

Through getting the right help, therapy, and medication, and through the support of good and devoted friends, I was able to survive and emerge from that challenge. The aftermath of that experience and subsequent battles with depression have left me with the appreciation for the fragility of life and the importance of friends and community who extend a hand of outreach and compassion in difficult circumstances. Elul, the tradition teaches, is a time when God is more present, ready to listen and care for the human being. The Hebrew letters of the month, we are told, are an acronym for the phrase, “Ani ledodi vedodi li.” I am (devoted) to my beloved (God) and my beloved (God) is (devoted) to me.

One of the foundational elements of Jewish ethics is the concept of imitatio dei, of following in the footsteps of the Divine in our own behavior. We are challenged, states the Talmud, to clothe the naked, bury the dead, and visit the sick as God is described as having done in the Bible. Maimonides extends this to all ethical behavior and demands of us to be God-like in all our behavior. Elul is a month to take on the challenge of being a real friend to another, to imitate the very essence of the Elul call. It is the time to be fully present and extend the hand of love and support for those who are most vulnerable and hurting, not just those hurting on the outside, but those hurting on the inside in mental anguish and turmoil.


Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is the Chair of the Bible and Jewish Thought Departments at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York City. www.yctorah.org

Elul 26: The Secret ~ Norman Lear


Age has been on my mind all my life. When I was a kid I had a giant shock of black hair that was like a helmet because it was stiff with a product called ‘Slickum’. To comb it, I had to dip my head in the sink and wash my hair every day. That’s the first time I can remember thinking, “What if this is the secret to a long life? Dipping your head in the sink every morning. How do we know?”

Since then there have been hundreds of other odd activities – eating a Tootsie Roll just before dinner, picking one’s nose while driving – that I’ve thought might contain that secret. For years I’ve eaten a salad every morning, and all but convinced myself that’s it. (At the least, it must come closer than the nose thing.)

I have been privileged to share my lifetime with dozens of my friends and colleagues, some of the funniest people I know. Bea Arthur made me laugh so hard I felt it in nooks and crannies of my body I didn’t know existed. I was there when an exchange between Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner turned into the 2,000-Year-Old Man.

I really believe that the true secret to longevity could be laughter. It might be the memory of a slapstick scene, or a lineof dialogue by Larry Gelbart or Herb Gardner, or one of the hundreds of moments on one of my shows when an actor – an O’Connor, a Hemsley, a Lasser or a Stapleton – took what was on the page and turned it into something funnier than I could have ever imagined. Or today, something from South Park, Family Guy, Modern Family or Louis C.K.

All of it, I’m convinced, has and still does add time to my life.


Norman Lear is a producer, director, writer, activist and philanthropist. His credits include All in the Family and The Jeffersons. www.normanlear.com

Elul 25: I Have To Believe ~ Lady Gaga


It’s hard to believe that G-d hasn’t been watching out for me when I’ve had so many obstacles with drugs, rejection and people not believing in me.

It’s been a long and continuous road. But it’s hard to just chalk it all up to myself.

I have to believe there’s something greater than myself.

Lady Gaga, an American recording artist. www.ladygaga.com

Elul 24: True Purpose ~ Dr. Eboo Patel


I’ve learned the difference between being purposeful about an issue and being self-righteous about it.

I have been self-righteous about too many things in my life. This did not sustain my involvement in the issue, nor did it lead to a solution. I wound up, to borrow from Rumi, shedding more heat than light on the problem.

When I find myself imagining how I will tell the tale of my involvement in a cause, chances are I am in danger of crossing into self-righteousness. When I am personally unresolved about how to tackle a particular issue, when I go to sleep turning it in my mind and wake up wondering which solution will work best, then there is hope that I am being purposeful.

Time is the true test. Self-righteousness is like a match – it lights with an impressive flare but burns out quickly. Other people say, “Wow, look at the fire that person has.” And a short while later, they ask, “Hey, where did it go?”

Purpose starts small, and only you notice it. It grows naturally, and soon the fire that is burning is lighting your path and the path of others as well.


Dr. Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core.

Elul 23: To Turn, To Change and To Grow ~ J. Rolando Matalon


In 1972, around the time I turned 16, we woke up one morning to an extra-large headline: “16 TERRORISTS DIE DURING FRUSTRATED ESCAPE FROM NAVY BASE IN TRELEW.” During the morning break at school, everyone was talking about it. Right before class, the teacher pulled me aside and said, “I overheard you and your classmates. Matalon, don’t always believe what you read in the newspaper. These people were murdered.”

My country, Argentina, was under military dictatorship, and the “Trelew Massacre,” as it became known much later, was the cold-blooded murder of 16 political prisoners who had surrendered before a judge and the press after an attempted escape in Patagonia. A week later, the prisoners were removed from their cells in the middle of the night and gunned down.

I had been a good boy, rather credulous and obedient.

That day I grew up. I learned to be skeptical, to doubt, and to question. In time, I learned about official stories, alternative stories, and counter narratives. By the time a much more vicious military junta took over in 1976, I was already vaccinated against unquestioning belief in what the government and the papers said, and I learned what can happen to those who challenge the official narrative.

What lies beneath the surface of the self-approved stories we tell ourselves about ourselves? What is beneath the surface of the official story of our family? The Jewish people? Our country? Israel? What are the parts of those stories that we don’t want to hear?

Only if we have the courage to embrace each of the stories of which we are a part in their fullness, will we be able to take responsibility, to turn, to change, and to continue to grow.
J. Rolando “Roly” Matalon is a social activist, musician, and Rabbi of B’nai Jeshurun in New York. www.bj.org

Elul 22: But Why Not by Jeremy Ben Ami


The world is a little too full of “can’t” — and there’s not enough “why not?” What’s more frustrating than to be told a problem isn’t solvable or a goal unattainable?
My law school professors rewarded me for spotting issues and problems – but why not for coming up with solutions?

A good friend of mine pitched dozens of companies fifteen years ago with the design of a slim machine on which you could read books without paper.  They laughed.

Trying and failing is no excuse for not trying again.  Coming up with reasons not to take chances, passing the buck, pinning the blame on someone else, saying you can’t – that’s all easy. We tell our children to get back in the saddle when they fall off a bike, to get back in the batter’s box when they swing and miss.  Why accept anything less as adults – in matters as important as life and death, war and peace?

Sure, we’ve all heard why Middle East peace can’t happen.  How there are no partners.  How everything was tried ten years ago and it failed.  We’ve been told that those of us who believe are few and far between, and that our limited power can’t have an impact.
But why not?

Beginning anew means refusing to accept things as they are.  It means believing that, with effort, the power of good can and will overcome the daunting power of the status quo.

New beginnings demand that we dream a better future and relentlessly ask “why not?”


Jeremy Ben-Ami is the President and founder of J Street. www.jstreet.org

Elul 21: Coming of Age by Mayim Bialik


I thought I had come of age several times over by the time I reached my 30s. After all, I had become a bat mitzvah, learning to read Torah and Haftorah and reciting prayers and speeches about my entry into adulthood as a Jew. I had gone through Confirmation at 16, taking part in a level of intellectual inquiry and analysis which surely brought my Jewishness to a more mature and sophisticated level. I had gotten married, for goodness sake! I wore a white dress and took solemn vows in front of God and my family, entering into a covenant according to the laws of Moses and Israel.

I had become a mother! I gave birth without drugs twice, and my second son was born in my home. I was ready to deliver him before my midwife even arrived. These particularly bold and life-affirming experiences felt like coming of age moments, for sure. I struggled with breastfeeding both of my sons but ultimately got the help and counseling I needed, and I was a competent and “good enough” mother to two sons. I thought I had come of age more times and in more ways than most!

Then, I got divorced. That wasn’t the coming of age moment, though. It’s what happened after the divorce: co-parenting with someone you used to live with but now is the person your sons live with 50% of the time.

Since my divorce, I have been forced to dig deeper than I ever have before to confront things in ways I never have before. I have to reach greater levels of understanding and communication and to show compassion in the most important ways, because it’s all about my sons. Putting my hurts, my fears, my resentments, and my anger aside for the best interest of my sons has been the ultimate coming of age experience, as well as the most challenging. It’s also been the most gratifying.
Mayim Bialik is an actress, author, mother, and neuroscientist. www.mayimbialik.net

Elul 20: The Art of Metaphor ~ Rabbi Zoe Klein


A woman spoke with me after her double mastectomy. She couldn’t accept her body. We sought a new metaphor. Your chest is a sacred altar, and your breasts, the paschal lambs. “I look at myself now,” she later said, “and feel that I am sacred.”

I believe to begin again one has to search for a new, personal metaphor.

Start slow. What is comparable to the skin you wear every day? To what would you liken its color and landscape? Is it sand, vanilla wafer, maple syrup, wheat, parchment? Are you a mysterious, flaking scroll? Are age spots floating lily pads on the rippled lake of your skin? Do you have silver eel scars, bouquets of creases? If you were sand, which sand? Tide-washed Bermuda pink? Glittering Hawaiian black? Gray and moist? The blue veins inside your wrist, are they not the rivers of Eden? And your hair, is it glacial run-off? Mink? Straw? Fusilli?

Start slow with metaphor and then move up. Is your home a jungle, a gingerbread house, a jewel box, a cookie tray after the cookies have been scraped off?
Move up and then expand…Fear is a cricket in a warehouse, siren-loud but entirely squashable. Anger is acne clogging up love. Unforgiving is a slow, intimate poison. Loneliness is a fiercely protective beast. Self-pity is a lead shoe. Egocentricity is a hall of mirrors. A strong self-image is perfect lighting and a little airbrush.

Keep practicing with metaphor, and one day, you will be walking along, and it will grab you: the metaphor that is yours and only yours. You will catch your breath, and know a very high, private truth.

This metaphor will become your secret name, and by it you will know yourself, live in poetry, and begin again.


Zoe Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. www.zoeklein.com

Elul 19: On Happiness ~ Reverend Edwin Bacon  


I recently reflected on the fact that I had been happy for a sustained period of time. I don’t mean that sense of happiness attributed to Pollyanna – God knows my heart is breaking over the environment of violence and dehumanization in which we live.

I realized the joy I was experiencing was actually feeding me hope, energy, and tenacity. Reflecting on the root and meaning of this resourceful rejoicing, I realized it was emanating from my work with people of other faiths to create a deepening peace movement in our city, country, and world.

Then I remembered these words from George Bernard Shaw. “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.”

That’s what I have learned thus far: joy comes from giving oneself to the whole human community.


Reverend Edwin Bacon is the former rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California.

Elul 18: Place Cards ~ Rabbi Daniel Freelander 


The first Shabbat in Elul, two weeks after my father’s death, my family gathered around the Shabbat table. Everyone was home from summer camp and jobs, and for the first time in months, all the members of our immediate family filled their traditional seats. As we chanted Kiddush, I began to cry. The sweetness of the moment was overwhelming. All those I love gathered together, in our home, celebrating Shabbat.I thought ahead to Rosh Hashanah Dinner. It never occurred to me that last year would be the last time. Who would I sit next to in synagogue? What will the Holy Days feels like without a parent to call, to cook, to take that precious Rosh Hashanah walk?

As I cleaned out my parents’ apartment, I found a bag of place cards, one card for each person who had ever attended one of our family Pesach Sedarim over the past 50 years. They were stained with wine and horseradish, but felt very real and alive as I looked at them. I remembered their faces and smells and voices. As so many of them passed away, my parents had learned how to carry on – and to create new holiday memories even when their parents and other loved ones were no longer there to celebrate with them.

I will miss my parents terribly this Rosh Hashanah, and I will look around the holiday table into the faces of my wife and children and cry in joy for the privilege of carrying their Yerusha (inheritance) forward.


Rabbi Daniel Freelander is Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Elul 17: As We Age ~ Rachel Cowan


ELUL – the alliteration of this beautiful word evokes love. The word is composed of the first letters of the phrase from the biblical Song of Songs “ani l’dodi v’ani lo. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

Love is Elul’s theme and is the force that lets us grow older with wisdom and compassion. The spiritual work of aging is to cultivate our capacity to give and receive love by going within to understand our strengths and purpose and reaching out to nurture and heal relationships that will form the fabric that supports, inspires and comforts us as we grow older.

Many of us approach old age the way we approach the Yamim Noraim – the days of awe – with fear and guilt. We dread the decline of our bodies and capacities, and also the confrontation with our lives. We know we have not lived up to our intentions. We have hurt ourselves and others. These painful feelings show us what to work on, but battering ourselves with blame and shame will not let us transform the causes of our actions. Our brains are actually neurologically incapable of opening to change when frightened or threatened.

Our work as we age is to find the deep places of love inside us, and expand them to include those we need to forgive and those from whom we seek forgiveness. This work begins at home with the difficult task of loving and forgiving ourselves. Only then can it authentically expand out to our families, our community, our people and our world.

Each morning of Elul we read Psalm 27. The psalmist evokes a God of compassionate protection. We can strengthen this trust in ultimate safety and compassion through opening our heart and nurturing and healing our relationships – the source of consolation, creativity and joy.
Rabbi Rachel Cowan was the Director of The Institute of Jewish Spirituality, where she currently serves as a Senior Fellow. www.jewishspirituality.org

Elul 16: The Roots of a Dream ~ Barack Obama


Just as the courageous Zionists who established the State of Israel were energized by Theodore Herzl’s dictum, so do Americans draw inspiration from the notion that determination can turn our dreams into reality. As someone who grew up without a strong sense of roots, I have always been drawn to the belief – embedded in the long journey of the Jewish people – that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional, and cultural identity in the face of impossible odds. And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the center of our story.

For America’s Founders, that story was based on a set of ideals – freedom and equality, justice and opportunity. Generations of Americans have worked to build a more perfect union that lives up to those ideals. And time and again, Americans have come together to meet great challenges at home while working to repair the world abroad.

Today, we face another defining moment. We must reclaim that basic American Dream for all Americans – the idea that if you work hard, you can support a family; that if you get sick, there will be health care you can afford; that you can retire with the dignity and security you have earned; and that every American can get a world-class education. Abroad, we must advance peace in a dangerous world and achieve a clean energy future that breaks our dependence on foreign oil, while securing our planet. Americans also stand firm in our friendship with the Israeli people and our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.

As Israelis take stock of their remarkable achievements over the last 60 years – and as Jews everywhere reflect with reverence on this treasured past while looking to an uncertain future – Americans are united in our determination to help Israel achieve lasting peace and security. These are dreams we can achieve if we are willing to come together and work for them.

Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States of America. www.barackobama.com

Elul 15: Nothing Left Unsaid ~ Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein


I have officiated at more than 500 funerals and held the hands of many loved ones as they slipped away. All of my spiritual training, however, did not prepare me for the excruciating experience of my father’s life ending in my arms after his battle with cancer. The death of a parent is commonplace – 12 million Americans bury a parent every year. The world is a different place after a parent’s death, just as the world had been forever changed because of their life. Maybe that’s why the relationship between humanity and God is likened to a parent who has compassion for his children.

Teshuvah – the reconciliation that takes place during this month of Elul – has to reach in every direction. It has to reach upward between each individual and God – but it also has to reach outward between us and other people. After all, if we hasten to ask for reconciliation, we must also hasten to grant it.

Despite the agony of my father’s cancer, nothing was left unsaid. Beyond the “I love you’s,” I asked my dad to forgive me for not always being what he may have wanted me to be (which provided a rare moment of levity since I became a rabbi just like him).

My father’s brave battle with cancer taught me that to be ready to die, we have to be ready to live. Elul comes to remind us that to be ready for Rosh Hashanah, we have to be ready to forgive.


Micah D. Greenstein is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee. www.timemphis.org

Elul 14: A Splendid Torch ~ Tovah Feldshuh


Bill Gates said recently, “Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity, reducing inequity is the highest human achievement“.

We now live in a world of reality television, a world of accountability with instant messages, Skype, Bluetooths and Blackberries. We are always on call. We are enveloped in wars televised by CNN, instantaneous and clear though thousands of miles away.

But what if a camera were on your life? How would you fare? What are you willing to put yourself on the line for to ensure a healthier planet and a safer future for humanity? We have many choices. Our choices stare us in the face and beg for action.

George Bernard Shaw said: “I am of the opinion that our lives belong to the community and that as long as we shall live, it is our privilege to do for it whatever we can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no brief candle to me but a splendid torch that I have hold of for one moment in time, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Tovah Feldshuh is an actress and committed activist for charitable causes. www.tovahfeldshuh.com

Elul 13: Compassion ~ His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama


Genuine compassion is irrespective of others’ attitudes toward you.
But, so long as others are also just like myself,
and want happiness,
do not want suffering,
and also have the right to overcome suffering,
on that basis, you develop some kind of sense of concern.

That is genuine compassion.
Now unbiased, even toward your enemy; so long as that enemy is also a human being, or other form of sentient being.

They also have the right to overcome suffering.
So, on that basis, there is your sense of concern.

This is compassion.

The Dalai Lama is the supreme head of Tibetan Buddhism and a Nobel Prize winner.

Elul 12: Seek Outside Yourself ~ Ruth Messinger


What I have learned thus far is that we all can and must keep learning all the time. We learn from experience, we learn from others – often those whom we least imagine to be our teachers. We learn from whatever we can do to get outside ourselves – to spend time in a different culture, asking others who experience the world very differently to tell us how to deliberately choose to do things that are hard to do.

It is intentional that the American Jewish World Service places young people in service programs in the developing world where they will be outside themselves with people whose lives and culture are very different, but whose values are worth learning.

And I learned to live a maxim articulated by a hero, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

I learned that there are wrongs in our communities, in our country and in the world; that we cannot allow these wrongs to pass unnoticed; that we cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed; that there are always actions we can take to assume responsibility, address the problem, and make a difference in the world.

Ruth Messinger is the former president of the American Jewish World Service.


Elul 11: Returning To My Canvas ~ Rabbi Elie Spitz


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that we should live our lives as if painting a work of art. When I first read this as a new rabbinical school student, I felt troubled. Before beginning my studies, I had wrestled with thoughts of suicide. I was aware that my compulsive self-endangerment and lies had caused enormous pain to those closest to me. Now, out of the hospital and on the slow path of healing, I felt like damaged goods. My artwork had smudges.

Years later, I read that infrared photographs of the Mona Lisa revealed that Leonardo da Vinci had repainted parts of his masterpiece. “Aha,” I thought, “we can repaint.”

Each relationship provides a canvas. Where we have failed our children or our life partners, we can repaint or fill in the canvas. Repair is often adding a bit more love, steadiness, or attention to make up for past conflict, neglect, or foolishness. Like a work of art, our relationships need the perspective of a full canvas, allowing us to appreciate the dark lines, drab patches, and the bright colors. These different moods and moments can be part of a coherent, attractive whole.

The meaning of the word teshuvah is “to return.” This is the season for teshuvah. We can re-envision, revise and augment the canvases of our lives. We can make them more whole, more holy, more evocative of an embracing smile with each act, with each stroke of color.

Elie Spitz is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, CA www.cbi18.org

Elul 10: A Welcoming Poem ~ Andrew Lustig


It’s when you’re all around a dinner table. / Sitting. / And talking and laughing. / When nobody has their phone on. / When dinner starts at 6:00 and continues until 2:00 because no one has anywhere else to be. / No bars to stop at or social appointments to fulfill. / When the entire community knows that no matter how funny the rumor or how juicy the grapes on the grapevine, gossip is not ‘cool.’ / It’s when you find that you really, truly, honest-to-God care about what the people around you have to say. / When conversations couple God and sex and nonsense and jokes that are only funny to us. / When I don’t feel afraid to screw up a joke. / Nor dumb when my ‘facts’ are… incorrect. / When silence isn’t awkward. / When I don’t care who I sit next to. / Or how my hair looks. / Or what time it is. / When I don’t feel compelled to check my phone or check my e-mail or check the score. / When time takes a backseat to space. A sacred space defined by comforts sculpted by living, breathing, actually human people who have somehow intertwined their self-interests and can all find happiness by just being together. / I am happy when I’m not constantly asking myself if I’m happy. / When it no longer matters that I left my laundry in. / Or that yesterday was the last day on the return policy. / Or that I’m so screwed, so unprepared, so ahhhhhhhhhh… if I don’t get my homework / bills / application done / paid / sent. / When silent smiles aren’t awkward. / When I can put my arm around you and not feel rejected if you don’t put your arm around me. / When my mind is free and I’m rowdy. Banging on tables. Dancing in circles. Not afraid to be off key. / Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. Na. / Ahhhhh. / Just breath. / And join us…

Andrew Lustig is a traveling, Jewish Spoken Word artist, performer, and teacher.

Elul 9: Four Words of Wisdom ~ Rachel Levin


When I was in 8th grade, Mr. Ben Yudin, my comparative religion teacher extraordinaire, asked the class a question. “What are the four words you can say on any occasion?” The answer was, “This too shall pass.”I remember telling my father that night that I would never walk up to a bride and say, “Congratulations, this too shall pass.” My father replied that it’s precisely the couples who understand that the exhilaration of their wedding day will pass, who go on to have good marriages.

Since then, those four words have become a sort of mantra in my life. “This too shall pass” has gotten me through periods of stress, sadness, even excruciating physical pain. But lately, as the harried working mother of two, I have begun to really understand the value of these words for the joyous occasions, especially those easily missed moments – my son waking from sleep and curling his warm body into my lap; my daughter’s face when I come home from work. “This too shall pass,” whispers that voice in my ear. Turn off the cell phone, put down the paper, and just be.

Rachel Levin is the associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation.

Elul 8: Tipping the Scales ~ Rob Eshman


According to the Rosh Hashanah ritual of tashlich, we toss scraps of bread into a living body of water, symbolizing the casting away of transgressions for which we seek forgiveness. So every Elul, I find myself ankle deep in the Santa Monica Bay, heaving bread into waves where a few short weeks earlier I was splashing with my kids. As soon as the rabbi intones the liturgy, seagulls swoop in. “Like swallows returning to Capistrano,” a fellow congregant once told me. “The birds probably set their biological clock to tashlich.”

Not only do we return each year with our sins, the waves bring our scraps back to us. We heave them, they fall, and the ones the seagulls miss get carried back to our feet, soggy and defiant.

This all suggests that the struggle to be stainless and sin-free is a losing battle. But the holiday’s liturgy gives us an out: Acts of kindness, it says, help balance the scales. It’s no accident that ancient synagogue mosaics represent this month with the astrological symbol of Libra.

Fill Elul with charity and good deeds-it’s a good way to balance the scales for the New Year, before they start tipping again.

Rob Eshman is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.


Elul 7: Hide and Seek ~ Aliza Kline


“Ready or not…here I come!” As the mother of three girls, this is a familiar refrain in my household. When we play, I think about my own childhood experiences…the anxiety of being the “hider,” the search beginning before I was “ready.”

The chagim are coming, ready or not. Every year, I remember to get ready a little too late, sometimes not until halfway through the liturgy on Rosh Hashana. I need to schedule a reminder on my Google calendar, “Don’t forget to prepare your soul for the New Year!”As the director of a mikveh, I’d prefer a splash of water. Of course, there’s tashlich – tossing crumbs into water, symbolically casting away sins. But that often feels like taking inventory of my shortcomings. I don’t feel transformed afterward; in fact, sometimes I feel rotten.

Rabbi Dan Judson taught me about a Kurdish tradition of full-body tashlich, throwing your whole self into water. Given my job, this is especially appealing.

So, this year, I will prepare for the chagim by blocking out an hour in my crazy schedule for an immersion. I will prepare slowly and thoughtfully, removing all obstacles between myself and the water. I will reflect on the stuff I’d like to release, ask forgiveness for repeating myself every year, and let myself sink in.

Maybe because it is so complete, maybe because it requires my whole self…
After this ritual, I know that I will be awake.



Aliza Kline is the Executive Director of One Table and her favorite food is French Bread   www.onetable.org

Elul 6: Clever’s Offer ~ Father Greg Boyle


“Clever” seems eager to begin at Homeboy Silkscreen and, at 22 years old, he has assured me he is ready to retire his jersey from the barrio. He moves with me easily through the factory, shaking hands with those printing shirts or catching them as they are spit through the conveyor-belt dryer.

Until he turns a corner and sees “Travieso,” a 24-year-old from an enemy ‘hood. They stare at their feet. They mumble. They do not shake hands. I will discover sometime later that the hatred they hold for each other is profundo. This is a personal pedo, and the breach is beyond repair. This much I sense in the moment.

“Look,” I tell them, “if you can’t hang working together – I gotta grip of homies who would love to have this jale.” They say nothing, so that’s that.

Some months later, “Travieso” finds himself surrounded in an alley, greatly outnumbered by members of an enemy gang, who beat him badly. While he is lying there, they kick his head until he is lifeless. At White Memorial Hospital, he is declared brain dead. The doctors will wait 48 hours to secure a “flat read,” then they can officially declare him “deceased.”

During those first 24 hours, I am in my office late at night, and the phone rings. It’s “Clever.” “Hey,” he begins awkwardly, “that’s messed up ’bout what happened to “Travieso.”

“Yeah, it is,” I say.

Clever asks, “Can I give him my blood?”

This offer sucks the breathable air out of the atmosphere for both of us. Clever punctures the quiet with great resolve and unprotected tears.

“He was…not…my enemy. He was my friend. We…worked together.”

Father Greg Boyle is the Executive Director of Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit offering alternatives to gang violence. www.homeboy-industries.org

Elul 5: Rabbi Laura Geller


The instructor filled an empty jar with rocks. “Is it full?” Then he poured a pitcher of pebbles into the jar. “Full now?” Next he poured sand. “Full?” Finally, he poured water. “Now it’s full.” “What do you learn from this?” One student answered, “That no matter how busy you are, you can always fit it one more thing?” “No, the important thing is: you have to put the rocks in first. If you fill your jar first with the pebbles, sand or water, there will be no room for the rocks.”[1]

Put the rocks in first, those important things that keep you grounded and centered.

I’m the one who thought that you could always fit in one more call, one more meeting. Yet when I fill my jar with what seems urgent but not important, there isn’t room for what I really need: time for my inner life — prayer, study, reflection; and time for my family.

A New Year approaches: it is an empty jar. How I fill it up is up to me. Elul is the deep breath I need to get clear about what my rocks are, and to promise myself to put them in first.

Rabbi Laura Geller is Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills CA.

Let’s slow this down…


The month of Elul is a time for introspection, rebuke, and apologizing. Therefore it’s with a bit of embarrassment that I ask for your forgiveness. In our desire to get out this year’s collection of Jewels, it seems as if we jumped the gun and started the month of Elul one day early!

In honor of Shabbat, we will take a day of rest from Jewels and all get back on track with the Hebrew calendar. Jewels of Elul #5 will resume on Saturday evening!

As a reminder, If you are enjoying the diversity of opinion and insight of the Jewels, please consider supporting the Pico Union Project mission to build a multi faith and cultural community in Los Angeles’ oldest Synagogue.

All gifts of $18 or more will receive a free copy of 30 Days a Journey of Love Loss and Healing our new package of healing cards for people in mourning. Click here to make your gift.

Shabbat Shalom!


PS If you have yet to download Adonai Ori you can do so HERE.


Elul 4: Closing the Distance ~ Rabbi David Wolpe


Each year as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur approach, we are reminded that sin creates distance. Distance creates factions. So we proclaim the unity of God, but the fractures in our community and in our own souls widen.

Thus, teaches the Sefat Emeth, the first tablets were broken by sin, but on Yom Kippur Moses returned with the second tablets, all of one piece. Teshuva, repentance, had created wholeness again. We create distance when we are afraid, and even more when we are ashamed. Just as sin is a pushing away, love is a drawing close.

To believe in God’s love is to have faith in the ultimate oneness of the world. For if everything is ultimately one, then all distance, all separation, is temporary. E.M. Forster’s famous admonition “only connect” is made here into the law of the universe, into God’s law: draw close to Me, and you will be healed.

May this year help us find our way back to each other and back to God.

Rabbi David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

Elul 3: Harlene Winnick Appelman


“I wear prayers like shoes. Pull them on each morning to take me through uncertainty.” writes Ruth Forman, contemporary poet, in a work called I Wear Prayers Like Shoes. The poet goes on about the shoes: “They were mama’s gift to walk me through life. She wore strong ones.”

Imagine if everyone in the world were walking around on prayers! Truth is everyone has a shoe story: new shoes for that first day of school, new shoes for the High holidays, new shoes for a job or a new fitness program or a birthday, ball or wedding. And, in fact, those shoes and the stories that that go with them shape the steps by which we approach each day, each task or each event.

Putting on shoes each day is an act of faith. It shows purpose, determination, and a willingness to encounter the future. Elul is a month designed to take a faith inventory. What prayers would be included in your prayer shoes? What is the nature of the prayer shoes that you would give to a loved one?

The next time you have a chance for a leisurely conversation, ask about shoe stories. It’s a great topic for conversation!

Harlene Winnick Appelman is Executive Director of The Covenant Foundation.

Elul 2: Alan Dershowitz


I almost never dream. On that rare occasion when I do, it’s the typical dream that Freud would be proud of. I fly through the air. I can’t find the room in which an important test is being held. I’m driving too fast. I see almost no relationship between my dreams and my accomplishments.

I do have hopes, wishes, aspirations, goals – but they are rooted in reality. Dreaming is fantasy and fantasies rarely produce accomplishments.

The concept of “dreamers and their dreams” may be intended in a metaphoric way – as a euphemism for aspirations. I’ve always had aspirations. Coming from a relatively poor family, I wanted to strike a balance between doing good for the world and doing well for my family. My goal was to be able to make a living out of doing good without compromising my principles. I have strived to achieve those dual goals throughout my life.

The path I chose was one of challenge – to challenge authority, challenge conventional wisdom, challenge government and most important, challenge myself. It is not a path to popularity. Nor is it a road to a restful existence. To get back to the metaphoric dreams, mine do not result in restful sleep. Instead, they produce restlessness, even occasional nightmares. But as I turn seventy and look back on my life, I have very little to complain about – at least so far.

Alan Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University.

Elul 1: Esther Netter


When is the right moment to sit and contemplate the difficult times we encounter? Why don’t I just get in touch with those things that are painful to think about, very real, hard to stay focused on?   How do I set aside time for inner reflection, slowing down enough to notice those thoughts and feelings that cause discomfort and even agitation.

Elul is a time for thinking about the “whens” the “whys” and the “hows.” It is the new year that affords us this opportunity, even demands it of us. To move forward, to heal, to forgive, to grow so that we are the most and the best we can be for the new year.

A friend, gently encouraging me to ask the “whens, whys and hows”, shared a favorite quote from lyricist Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.

When do we focus on the cracks? How do we heal those cracks in our lives and hearts? Why do we leave those cracks unattended only to grow and deepen? We all have cracks in our live. Take the time to recognize them and remember, it is through the cracks that the light shines through. May this month bring each of us more light and illumination.

Esther Netter is the executive director of the Zimmer Children’s Museum in Los Angeles.