Elul 14: Allow God To Change Your Mind ~ Pastor Rick Warren

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Imagine riding in a speedboat on a lake with an automatic pilot set to go east. If you decide to reverse and head west, you have two possible ways to change the boat’s direction. One way is to grab the steering wheel and physically force it to head in the opposite direction. By sheer willpower you could overcome the autopilot, but you would feel constant resistance. Your arms would eventually tire of the stress, you’d let go of the steering wheel, and the boat would instantly head back east in the way it was internally programmed.

This is what happens when you try to change your life with willpower: You say, “I’ll force myself to eat less…exercise more…quit being
disorganized and late.”

Yes, willpower can produce short-term change, but it creates constant internal stress because you haven’t dealt with the root cause. The change doesn’t feel natural, so eventually you give up and quickly revert to your old patterns.

There is a better, easier way: change your autopilot, let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.

This mental shift is called repentance, which in Greek literally means, “to change your mind.” You repent whenever you change the way you think by adopting how God thinks – about yourself, sin, God, other people, life, your future…the whole beautiful speedboat ride.
Rick Warren is Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA and the author of ‘The Purpose Driven Life.’ www.rickwarren.com

Elul 13: A Lesson from LGBTQ Teens ~ Idit Klein

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Last summer, I met a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Jewish teens at a Shabbaton for LGBTQ youth. Each teen described the experience as “the first place I’ve felt like I could be both queer and Jewish, like it was a normal thing.” I will never forget their expressions of joy and profound relief at finding a community where they could just be.

The teens shared a sense of wonder at how good it feels to be fully seen and understood. When you can be your full self in a community, they reflected, you do not notice that you are being welcomed and included; you simply feel like you are a part of things.

Their desire for an unselfconscious, easy embrace by their communities encapsulates for me what makes building a welcoming community much more than a system or set of procedures. Surely, there are steps that every community must take to become inclusive of LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities, poor and working class people, and others who experience oppression. But once we change policies and implement programs, the process of change must become an art: imaginative, inspired, idiosyncratic, and organic.

No one wants to feel the labor of being welcomed. As the teens put it, we all want to feel normal and effortlessly understood. For me, true inclusion runs so deep that no one can imagine the world any other way.
Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet, an organization promoting advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews. www.keshetonline.org

Elul 12: Facing Tragedy ~ Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish

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The l6th of January, 2009, is the day when my three precious daughters and niece were killed by Israeli shells. I do not want anyone in this world to see what I have seen.

What I have lost will never come back. I need to go forward and be motivated literally by the spirit of what I lost, and to do them justice. I lost three precious daughters, but I am blessed with five other children and the future. I believe that life is like riding a bicycle, as Einstein says, “To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” I will keep moving.

And what about forgiveness? Is forgiveness necessary? When you forgive someone, you forgive and value yourself. Forgiveness is about letting go, completely and permanently.

Then there is the choice, the crossroads: the path of light or the path of darkness. I chose the first. Most people assume that this path, that of forgiveness, is difficult, but in the long run it is easier to forgive than to live with hatred or be consumed with revenge.

Forgiveness helps you move forward, away from the pain of the past to the brightness of the future. Indeed, forgiveness opens the door to a future that will not repeat the old tragedies. Sometimes the beauty in forgiveness is to forgive when you do not know whom to forgive and when no one asks you for forgiveness.

Whatever the situation, to err is human, but to forgive is truly divine.


Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, M.D., M.P.H., is an Associate Professor in the Dala Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. www.daughtersforlife.com

Elul 11: Answered Prayers ~ Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray

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Where can we who walk in darkness find brighter light? I suggest we look no further than to the preacher/poet, John Newton. He was a former slave trader who saw the light. Today he is best known as the composer of the hymn, Amazing Grace!

Again and again in the Bible, we read the invocation, “Let me find grace in thy sight, O Lord.” Find grace? Perhaps most of us wait for grace to find us. And often it does. When grace finds us, we come to see God’s sight is not the problem, but our insight: I was blind but now I see. But far better that we heed the words of the Bible and not wait for grace to find us. Far better to find grace and to seek the light.

During the years of my active ministry, the choir would mesmerize worship with an original choral masterpiece, “If it wasn’t for the grace of God.” I was not alone in being unable to resist the tears and to join the cheers in praise of the God of our weary years. Nor was William Wilberforce who in 1811, deeply influenced by John Newton, succeeded in getting the English Parliament to ban the slave trade. The choir is preaching of the disgrace of not accepting God’s grace.

‘Twas grace that drove Newton to tell his story, the unfolding saga of how suffering drove him to his Savior, how thirst drove him to living waters, and how he found grace and sought the light.

All of us light-seekers join hands and hearts with John Newton in saying–

I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I wish to be.
But thanks to the grace of God, I am not what I used to be.
Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray is the John R. Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics and Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California. www.crcc.usc.edu

Elul 10: The Return Home ~ Dr. Afshine Emrani

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1978-2014. My younger self awaits me in that old home. He stares at the future that would be me; I ponder the past that was him. We connect on a bridge made of yearning and nostalgia. Hesitantly, we embrace. We fall to our knees and sob.

I ask if he ever told dad about how he bounced the ball that cracked the chandelier in our living room. He asks if I will ever stop doing and start being. I say, “You should have told the satin-haired girl you loved her when you had your hand on her shoulder for the school play.” He says, “Work less, love more.”

I advise, “Be patient and familiar with discomfort and loneliness – in those moments you will burst into expressions that will be me.” He advises, “Don’t judge me so harshly.”

“Don’t let others discourage you from dreaming. Failure is a suitcase full of regrets…I should know.” He urges, “Your gray hairs, your wrinkles, and your scars are signs of battles won.”

I beg, “Never hold tightly to someone who wants to go; never anchor a ship that must sail.” He asks why I came back to visit? I applaud him for not embarrassing the math teacher when she was unable to solve a problem to which he knew the answer. He insists, “Tell your patient her grim prognosis.” I disagree. “You are too young to understand. There comes an age where hope feeds hunger more than food. You have much to learn.” He tells me I have much to unlearn.

I wonder if my younger self was wiser than the older me. I wish to return into innocence, to be born into the freedom afforded only to children, to go back to Eden, and to throw the apple into the lake that echoes my love into eternity.
Afshine Ash Emrani is a cardiologist, Assistant Clinical Professor at U.C.L.A., a writer, and a mystic.

Elul 9: And Yet ~ Cantor Marshall Portnoy

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What makes us different from or better than God’s other creatures? A cheetah is faster, a butterfly more beautiful, and a lion mightier by far. Scientists tell us that dolphins can laugh, elephants can exhibit altruism, and malamutes can love. Animals procreate and they protect; they grow ill and they die. But we alone know that we will do so. We exist, with the sure knowledge that one day, we will not. And yet we build bridges, read books, half-listen at cocktail parties, decide between puce and magenta, and cultivate flowers. Years from now, will anyone care what I was named or what I believed or what I wore to the movies?

We consider death as something that happens — or did happen, or will happen — to somebody else. But life is finite. We lease our minds and bodies for an indefinite term but with the sure knowledge that we cannot buy it out. And so, in the daily acts we perform, seen and unseen (but mostly those unseen), we are all writing our own obituaries.

And yet still we walk and still we talk and stand and sit and take out the trash, and decide what is trash and what is not, what to keep and what to discard. And what does it matter anyway? Because there is something paradoxically and delightfully, magically, wonderfully unreasonable within us that builds and reads and listens and decides, and believes that it all matters, because somehow it really does.

Let us make the year ahead one of blessing, of reciprocal connection, of caring, and of healing.
Marshall Portnoy is the Cantor of Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. www.mlrt.org

Elul 8: Head Changing Day ~ Rabbi Rami Shapiro

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Rosh Hashanah is “Head (rosh) Changing (shenah) Day.” You can’t have a new year with an old head. So if you want a new year, you are going to need to get a new head.A new head is a story-free head. Your stories define you. If your stories are positive and loving, then you are optimistic and loving. If your stories are negative and fearful, then you are angry and afraid. Regardless of their emotional charge, however, stories are not reality.

A new head is story-free. A new head engages reality with compassionate curiosity, going into what is without the baggage of what was or what is supposed to be.

If you want a new head, identify the stories you carry with you. Ask yourself: “Am I absolutely certain this story is true?” “How does telling this story make me feel?” If you are telling stories you don’t know to be true, stop telling them. If telling your stories makes you anything other than just, kind, and humble, stop telling them. In fact, stop telling stories altogether.

Who are you without your story? You don’t know, and not knowing is the key to having a new head.


Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning poet and essayist, whose liturgical writings are used in prayer services throughout North America. www.rabbirami.com

Elul 7: Poppy ~ Sarah Kay

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Poppy is four years old. The only shelf in the cabinet she can reach is the one with the plastic Tupperware. She has started filling containers with water, snapping on lids, and placing them about the house. It is her new favorite game. One for Mama, one for Papa, one for Tessa, one for Ollie. Her hands can hold one at a time. Her dress is the color of marmalade. She chirps songs that have no words.

When Poppy is twenty-five, she will follow a love to France. In the summer time she will make jars of cold tea, place them in the sun to steep, and forget them in the sunny corners of their house. He will love her for this. That, and the daisies in her hair; the way she reads in doorways, purring show tunes to the crinkle of the page.

When she is forty-seven, Poppy’s garden will be the talk of the street. Her French tulips will dip over the sidewalk, dragging leaves against the pavement. She will carry jugs of water—overflowing onto her arms, her overalls—back and forth from the house to the yard. This is her way now, since her son has worn holes through the garden hose with his trike. She does not mind. He rides circles around the jugs, while she sings and turns the soil.

Eighty. And Poppy carries cups of water to leave around the house. One to the desk for while she is writing, one to her bedside every night. The walk to the kitchen is long and her lavender nightgown is thin. Open the cabinet, find the cup. Turn on the tap, fill it up. Snap on the lid, off to bed. She hums to the radiator. Sometimes she forgets the words.
Sarah Kay is a poet who often forgets where she left her tea. www.kaysarahsera.com

Elul 6: Universal Joke ~ David Kohan

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There is much I have learned in a journey that has taken me from Beverly Hills all the way to the Beverly Hills Post Office with a brief sojourn in the Fairfax district. I have learned that no sojourn in the Fairfax district is too brief, and that by cutting through Loma Vista, I can avoid the rush hour traffic on Coldwater.

My mother tried to instill in me an ethos of toughness and self-respect through the oft-repeated aphorism, “Never let anybody spit in your kasha.” I have taken those words to heart and have never, not once, served kasha. My father showed me by example that a deeply contented life can be had if lived by the abiding principles of kindness, graciousness, respect for the dignity of others, and major denial of all things scary and bad.

I, myself, have concluded thus far that life is glorious and magnificent beyond description, and the notion that we live this life fully aware of its inevitable end is fundamentally a comic one. Laughter, therefore, seems the most appropriate response to that Universal Joke.
David Kohan is the co-creator of Will & Grace.

Elul 5: Rabbi Zalman Hiyyah Schachter-Shalomi ~ December Days

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Recently I had a conversation with someone who said to me, “You wrote a very beautiful book; it’s very uplifting and encouraging. However, isn’t there a dark side to aging?” And he is right, there is a more somber side.

I find myself now in my December days. In my book I spent a lot of time on October, becoming an elder, and November, serving as an elder. I was much more skimpy on December. The reason is clear: I wasn’t there yet. Now I am.

Now is one of the best periods of my life. I’m harvesting so much of what I sowed in the world.

And yet, when I look in the mirror before I put on my public face, I view this slightly stooped old man with wrinkles. The business that I describe as coming to terms with one’s mortality has since become coming to terms with actually dying. And, there is a tiredness that feels chronic. Thank God sometimes I feel less tired and more ready to anticipate and enjoy the good things in my life. Still, it’s only a distraction from the pervasive tiredness.

I’m sharing this with you, not because I want to discourage you. On the contrary, I want you to know that going from aging to saging is a positive journey, optimistic and full of sunshine. But I also need to correct the beautiful high notes by playing some somber bass notes to balance and strengthen the truth of what we present.

I do not feel a pang of unlived life. I handled my life repair for much that needed Tikkun. I believe I have mostly done the Tikkun needed. I bear witness to you that the elder-ing work is real.

Rabbi Zalman Hiyyah Schachter-Shalomi z”l was the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and one of the leading spiritual teachers of our time. www.rzlp.org

Elul 4: Mohini ~ Rabba Sara Hurwitz

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As we age, our brains are hardwired to reject change. We are conditioned to resist new challenges and remain within our comfort zones. However, growing older should not mean that we must exist within self-imposed boundaries.

In the 1960s, President Eisenhower received the gift of a rare, white tiger named Mohini. For years, Mohini lived in the Washington Zoo and spent her days pacing back and forth in a 12-by-12 foot cage. Finally the zoo decided to build her a larger cage so Mohini could run, climb and explore. But when Mohini arrived at her new home, she didn’t rush out, eagerly adapting to her new habitat. Rather, she marked off a 12-by-12 foot square for herself, and paced there until her death, never enjoying the new opportunities in front of her. Mohini exemplifies the classic conditioning most of us live within. Although she was a magnificent, powerful creature, Mohini was convinced her “place” was just a 12-by-12 foot square. We all have the propensity to behave exactly like Mohini. Based on our conditioning, we create invisible cages for ourselves, limiting our lives within their boundaries.

But we don’t have to succumb to our internal imprisonment. Throughout the High Holidays, we will hear the shofar blast. Historically, the shofar signaled the release of all slaves at the end of the Jubilee year. That sound should make us ask, “What enslaves us? What weighs us down? What baggage do we hold onto?” And then, let it go. The High Holidays present us with a tunnel: an opportunity to break free from our self-imposed cages, to find our route to freedom and to live life with renewed passion. The shofar inspires us to free the Mohini inside and move beyond our boundaries.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as spiritual leaders. www.yeshivatmaharat.org

Elul 3: Blu and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg ~ Choose Life

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Judaism is all about life – love of life, reverence for life, building new life. But life also brings death. The pessimist says, “You begin dying the moment you are born,” not only referring to the steady decline of our own lives but also the universe around us. We consume resources to clothe, feed, educate, and protect; we use up animals, plants, water and air as we spiral along the continuum from birth to death.

Yet Judaism teaches a more powerful lesson about life: “Therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:15.) Although God is the giver of life, human beings have great choice in the matter. Choice resides in a thousand daily decisions—what we eat, how we drive, what cosmetics and cleaning chemicals we use. We choose life in other ways. One is repentance, the theme of the High Holy Days. We are asked to shake off bad behaviors so as to enhance life and not harm others. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik adds another dimension: teshuva as an act of re-creation. We must pause to review our lives, examine stale routines and static relationships. Becoming aware of life’s partial deaths enables us to live at new depths of intensity and goodness in the coming year.

Aging presents these selfsame challenges. Can we be born again – to life? Most people create or achieve success once – by their 40’s – then coast or repeat until they retire. Many people stop reading after graduating from college, calcifying their brains long before dying. Judaism offers an alternative: “In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not hold back” (Ecclesiastes 11:6) The Rabbis comment: If you raised a family in your youth, renew it in your later years. If you created in your prime, do so again now. Those who love, dream and create again as they age are models to humanity — filling the world until their dying day — with life.

Blu and Yitz Greenberg have been married for 58 years and have raised 5 children and 22 grandchildren, who have made aging exciting and worthwhile.

Elul 2: Learning How to Dance ~ Jessica Leigh Lebos

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My mother-in-law’s mind is full of holes. She spends most of the day in a placid fog, a place where there’s nothing left to do but walk the dog and wonder what’s for dinner. Every time it’s chicken, she rolls her eyes and kvetches, “We had this last night!” No one argues with her anymore.

The situation is undeniably tragic. She’s only in her early 60’s, has already suffered through cancer and a mastectomy, and her dementia has been diagnosed incurable. Yet, her disease has set into motion a certain regeneration: both of her sons have returned to Savannah to help care for her and to assume their roles as men alongside their father, who is finally learning to treat them like the mensches she raised. Her grandchildren — my kids — sit beside her and sing with gusto while she plunks out the same damn Disney song on the piano: “The Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed…”

Whenever there’s music, she remembers exactly what to do. She snaps, she swings her arms; she’s particularly fond of jazz hands. This is endearing when “Funkytown” comes on the radio and she shimmies around the living room, less so when we’re in line at the grocery store, and she sashays off in the direction of someone’s cell phone. My husband and I have made a family pact to never let her dance alone. Often we resemble a circus without a tent, a multi-generational band of spastic merrymakers getting down to the sound of the garbage compactor. Helping someone keep her grace doesn’t always look graceful.

We hold faith that God loves us so, and yet still, life hurts. Sometimes healing comes from accepting what is. Hope is learning how to dance with it.

Jessica Leigh Lebos is a Jewish wife, mother, writer, editor, dancer, Sunday school teacher and sidewalk social scientist. She blogs at www.yoyenta.com

Elul 1: Rabbi Sharon Brous ~ My First Roommate

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I was young and earnest with a dream summer internship at the Justice Department, living in dorms crowded with college kids from around the country. My roommate was coming a week late and I anxiously awaited her arrival, certain we’d be best friends forever. Way too early one morning, there was a knock on my door. “Hi. I’m your roommate” she said coolly, pushing past me. “So happy to finally meet you!” I said. “Where are you working this summer?” No answer. “Have you lived in DC before?” Still no answer. “There’re some great people on our floor – I’d love to introduce you …” She wouldn’t even make eye contact with me! My face started to burn – I turned and walked out of the room, embarrassed by what an easy cry I was. I called my folks, convinced that this was going to be the worst summer of my life. Should I try to switch rooms? Get an apartment? Pack up and escape back to New York?

I avoided the dorms until late that night, and when I finally returned I was relieved to see that the lights were out and nightmare roommate was sound asleep. As I tiptoed in, I noticed a note on my pillow:

I’m so sorry we didn’t have time to connect more today. My name is Cathy, and I’m working on the Hill. I just want to let you know that I’m deaf, so if I’m not looking directly at you, I won’t know that you’re talking to me. Sorry – should have mentioned that this morning – it’s always awkward when I meet new people. By the way, I saw that you’re reading Invisible Man. That’s my favorite book! Can’t wait to get to know you this summer.

Al het she’hatanu l’fanekha – for the sin that I committed before You by assuming the worst of Your children. Please forgive me.


Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a spiritual community dedicated to reanimating Jewish life by standing at the intersection of soulful, inventive religious practice and a deep commitment to social justice. www.ikar-la.org

Introduction ~ Rabbi David Wolpe

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We think of self-examination during the month of Elul as a path to repentance. But it is more fundamental than a step toward something else: We examine ourselves to know who we are. Our darkness and our sins are part of us, stitched into our soul. Without coming to grips with what you have done wrong, you can never understand your own soul.

Our character is reflected in our actions and our relationships. But neither is the whole story. Some revelations call for introspection. Who am I? Have I become the person I was meant to be, or am I betraying or trivializing my destiny?

Look at a picture of your childhood self. Would that child be proud of the adult you have become? No one else on earth can answer that for you. Elul calls us to be deep sea divers into our souls. The stories in this book will serve as a spur to self-reflection. This is a time of year for repentance — acknowledgment, reparations, healing.

Equally it is a time for discovery. Only by apprehending who we are can we shape real hopes about who we might become. Forge ahead without fear into the mystery of your own soul and emerge wiser this year, and kinder.

David Wolpe is the Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.
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A Note from Craig Taubman

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How do you measure 10 years of life?

10 years is a fifth of my adult life, a third of my marriage.

10 years is a third of my children’s lives, a decade in which they moved out and became independent adults.

10 years marks my transition from leading Friday Night Live at Sinai, to running a multi-faith cultural arts center at the first home of Sinai Temple.

10 years is a basket which holds personal battles with the deaths of family members, pets, and friends – even as I am blessed to have my parents and Louise’s parents in my life.

10 years is the life of a book- of Jewels, that keeps writing itself through remarkable people sharing perspectives.

In these past 10 years I have also witnessed contributors leave jobs, start new work, retire, marry, divorce, graduate, transition, and pass away. If I were Jacob, the past 10 years have been the angel I struggle with in wakefulness and in sleep – making my mind stronger, and my body a little less strong. I have become a more independent thinker, and more dependent on the support of family and friends. I think the late composer Jonathan Larson captured my feelings best:

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?
How about love? Measure in love.

To a year full of seasons of love.

Craig Taubman is the producer of Jewels of Elul. www.craignco.com

Coming Soon – Jewels of Elul XI

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Jewels of Elul XINow in its eleventh year, Jewels of Elul is a booklet filled with short, inspirational insights from 29 contributors selected from our previous 10 editions. We’d love to know what your favorite Jewel is! Email to share it with us at favejewel@craignco.com!

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