Elul Unbound: Stories and Readings


Each Wednesday of Elul, we are encouraging folks to take in a reading on the weekly theme that we have chosen for Elul Unbound. These readings can be found below.


Week 1: "Taking the Elul Plunge"

This essay was written by Irwin Keller. It was originally delivered orally to Congregation Ner Shalom, his community in Sonoma County, California, on the final day before the month of Elul began in 2016. It can be found his blog, IrwinKeller.com.

So I want us to notice where we are today. Not in space but in time. This is the last day of the month of Av. When the sun goes down tonight it will be Elul, the last month of 5776. Elul is our month of preparation for the High Holy Days. Observant Jews will recite prayers for forgiveness; Sephardic communities might blow shofar every night. At the least, it is customary to use the month for teshuvah, for cleaning up our messes, accounting for our actions, setting our intentions. So that when we hit Rosh Hashanah, we are completing this soul work, not beginning it. I know we often don't use Elul this way. We typically hit Rosh Hashanah cold. And then we scurry for the Ten Days of Repentance to make some change. And some of us scurry all the way till the end of Yom Kippur, right up until the closing of the gates.

But imagine arriving at Rosh Hashanah warmed up. Immersed. Tenderized.

Last year at our Selichot service that ushers in the Holy Days, I talked about Elul being considered a mikveh in time. A great pool of mayim chayim, of living waters, into which we can, for a short time, dissolve.

How many of you have ever been to a mikveh? It is true that the way we've designed mikvaotin this day and age does not always provide the most appealing experience, especially for what is supposed to be a spiritual experience. They are often cramped, awkward, clinical – like a hospital tub in a gym locker room.

But if you've ever taken a ritual dunk outside, at a hot spring or a natural poolor river, it is hard to ever conceive of doing a mikveh indoors again. Because taking a mikveh in the natural world gives you that moment of being part of something greater – you are first a fish in the water, and then you are the water.

Even if we're just out swimming, we know that lakes and oceans and rivers, feel different. We emerge different: renewed, reconstituted. As if we were freeze-dried before and hadn't even noticed it. And all we needed to do was add water and stir. We feel this instinctively in mayim chayim, living waters, while we rarely feel it in the shower or a pool or a jacuzzi-sized urban mikveh.

The month of Elul and the Ten Days of Awe that follow it – that is, from tonight through Yom Kippur – are a mikveh in time, 40 days that feel a lot more like a deep, cool pond than a tepid hot tub. These 40 days give us a good leisurely chance to soak and swim and emerge resaturated; tender and pruny.

Talmud tells us that a mikveh, in order to be kosher, must contain at least 960 lugin of water. We no longer know how much this unit is. But for the mikveh in time, forty days of 24 hours = 960. This is just the right volume of time for us to immerse in.

Olympic DIve.png

So here we are, with just this day between us and Elul. We are on a springboard, waiting to dive in. Are we ready?

Well – I don't know how one becomes ready to dive. Diving is a mystery. I wasn't able to watch much of the Olympics this summer, but I did manage to catch one high diving event. High diving is one of my favorite summer Olympic sports. Yes, in part because the divers are kinda hot. (Including the women.) But also because it amazes me. How, in the 10 meters between the diving platform and the surface of the water, someone can do 14 flips and 2 somersaults and a twist or whatever and enter the water vertically and almost silently, is beyond my understanding. We are not dolphins. There is nothing natural about this sport. And yet the divers make it look graceful and effortless.

I am also drawn to this sport because it terrifies me. I'm really quite acrophobic, which is less a fear of heights than a fear of the edge. Whenever I stand on a precipice, or near one, or see a loved one walk close to one, I freeze. My muscles tense into immobility. There are times I feel like I want to fall just to break the terrible tension. But somehow these Olympic divers walk up to the edge again and again and they jump.

No matter how easy it looks, you know how they have practiced, the hours and days and years that it has taken them to learn how to leap. And the practice of learning to leap is a discipline. Because unlike in gymnastics, where your coach gives you a correction and you hop right back onto the pummel horse, after every dive, you have to take the correction and then run up three or four flights of stairs in order to try it again. There is no instant redo. You hear the suggestion, picture it, embody it, all while your body is busy climbing stairs.

Yosemite Sam bugs bunny.jpg

Up and down. Up and down. Like in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Like in "High Diving Hare", where Yosemite Sam famously tries to force Bugs Bunny to jump off a very, very high jumping board into a bucket of water. Over and over Bugs tricks him so that he plunges instead. And this happens over and over, until the cartoon just zeroes in on the ladder. Up climbs wet Yosemite Sam. with an ascending bassline. Down he plummets. Up he climbs. Down he plummets.

Thankfully, Jews do not typically dive into a mikveh. The indoor ones are too shallow and confined. And natural bodies of water are usually approached by Jews in the old-fashioned way. You go in up to your ankles, and you shpritz. Then up to your knees, and you shpritz. Then the midriff. The shoulders. And after a very, very long time, the head.

That's how we usually enter the month of Elul and our teshuvah too – the work involved in getting to the new year, to the new beginning. We do it little by little. Sometimes we just stand up to our ankles for the whole month and then on Rosh Hashanah up to our knees, and finally, God willing, drop in on Yom Kippur.

But this year I want to jump. I want to brave the high platform and dive into the mikveh of Elul. This has been a terrible year in so many ways. The presidential race alone makes me want to take a bath. The violence in the world makes me want to immerse in tears. So many members of this community have sick or hurt this year, I want to find healing waters. I've been walking around under a cloud, and I just want it to rain already or for it to be gone.

So 40 days of mikveh. How can they help? After all, it's not real water! It's virtual, imaginal. And wait, even if it were real water, how would that help?

But the chance to dissolve should not be discarded lightly. Because this exercise, even in an imaginal realm, or especially in an imaginal realm, can ready us for what comes next.

The early Chasidic rebbe, the Magid of Mezritch, taught about dissolving. He noted that the word in Hebrew for "I" – ani, spelled alef-nun-yod – is an anagram of the word Ayin, spelled alef-yod-nun, a Kabbalistic image of God that means, literally, "nothing". This is God the infinite, God before Creation, God when there was just God, before there was an illusion of not-God. Ayin is the infinite stream that runs underneath all of what we might call reality.

High Diving.jpg

The Magid instructed that our Ani, our ego, contains all of our investments, attachments, judgments, fears. If we want to be transformed, we must turn our Ani into Ayin. We must let our egos dissolve into the great Nothingness. It is only by passing through Nothingness that we reemerge, transformed, transfigured, aware again that we are not separate from God. We are emptied out, waiting to fill with God's light.

The mikveh of time can do this for us. We can immerse and dissolve. Our ego goes away, our Ani permutes into Ayin. We can feel the deep, cool relief of Nothingness. And then we emerge from the mikveh at the end of Yom Kippur, wet, pruny, full of light, transformed and ready to share that light with the world around us.

Elul starts tonight. And I confess I am scared of the edge. I am scared of this high platform. I am frightened to lose my self and all my investments, my judgments, my hurts that are dear to me. I am scared of the fall and of the cold water.

But this year I will not wade into the mikveh up to my ankles. I will climb the ladder. I will walk up to the edge of the platform and in one continuous motion I will dive. I might do it gracefully like an Olympian, with a somersault and a twist. I might plummet like Yosemite Sam into a bucket. I might bellyflop or breach the water feet first. But this year I will dive into the mikveh of Elul and under the water be reunited with the Nothing that all of this Something comes from.

Question for Reflection:

How can you create a mikveh in time for yourself this Elul? What is something you can commit to, in order to create some space - even for a very short time - as a respite from the fullness of everyday life?


Week 2: "The Lesson of the Butterfly:

This story was written by Paulo Coelho and can be found here.

 A man spent hours watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. It managed to make a small hole, but its body was too large to get through it. After a long struggle, it appeared to be exhausted and remained absolutely still.

The man decided to help the butterfly and, with a pair of scissors, he cut open the cocoon, thus releasing the butterfly. However, the butterfly’s body was very small and wrinkled and its wings were all crumpled.

The man continued to watch, hoping that, at any moment, the butterfly would open its wings and fly away. Nothing happened; in fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its brief life dragging around its shrunken body and shriveled wings, incapable of flight.

 Image Credit: HuffPost

Image Credit: HuffPost

What the man – out of kindness and his eagerness to help – had failed to understand was that the tight cocoon and the efforts that the butterfly had to make in order to squeeze out of that tiny hole were Nature’s way of training the butterfly and of strengthening its wings.

Sometimes, a little extra effort is precisely what prepares us for the next obstacle to be faced. Anyone who refuses to make that effort, or gets the wrong sort of help, is left unprepared to fight the next battle and never manages to fly off to their destiny.

Questions for Reflection:

1) Where do you need to slow down?
2) Think about something that you want to change in your life, but is difficult. If you could let go of having it accomplished quickly, what would be the first small step you could take?


Week 3: How Can I Love You Better?

This essay was written by Omid Safi and was initially published by On Being.

How Can I Love You Better?
By Omid Safi

 Image Credit: Plum Village

Image Credit: Plum Village

The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a living sage who was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize, recommends that we ask those closest to us a simple and powerful question that has the power to transform our relationships: "Please tell me how I can love you better."

It’s good to remember that the greatest truths are often simple. This simple statement touched my heart. I wonder what it would be like to have this as a basis of our daily interactions, one person at a time. What a powerful, simple, and humble gift to offer one another, and our own selves.

These days, as there is so much pain and suffering in the world, what’s outward shows up on our inside.

So many relationships are filled with turmoil, tension, and resentment. Individuals, families, communities, nations, the world community, the natural cosmos, are all filled with tension. We need peace and harmony in our own hearts, and in our interpersonal relationships as we need peace in the world.

Yes this I know: We are not doomed to live like this. More and more, I find us yearning to be whole, be healed, and live in harmony. But not knowing how.

I speak not as one who has found the answers. But this much I know: Something magical and beautiful happens when we ask each other this magical and loveliest of inquiries:

My beloved, how can I make you feel loved today? Tell me, my love, how can I love you better?

Here is the part about this question that I find so touching: the asking. The vulnerability to ask. The openness to not only put another heart before us, but to put the way that our beloved would like to be loved ahead of our own sense of what that loving has to look like.

 Image Credit: Deb Sanyal

Image Credit: Deb Sanyal

My love, I adore you, and maybe I don’t know yet how to love you best in the way that is best for you.

You know this already: I love you. I want to know: How can I love you better? Not even more love but better love. We do have different languages of love. I want to learn yours.

Some of us need to be held, touched lovingly, and have love glances into the window of my soul. We yearn for a touch that possesses not, and only comforts. (Show me if this is how I can love you better.)

Others need to be loved by having the lover give them some space, room for solitude. Some of our beloveds have hearts that cry out: Being around people, even being around you my beloved, is draining for me. I need to be alone to recharge. Can you hold space for me? (Show me if this is how I can love you better.)

Others need to be shown love by doing things for them. So many understand love through acts of service. Fold the laundry. Do the dishes. Bathe the kids. Take all your love, and put it into a home-cooked meal. (Show me if this is how I can love you better.)

You are, my beloved, a mystery to me. You are a cosmic mystery. Secrets written in your eyes that no word has ever spoken. Songs in your heart that have moistened no lips. I know you. I know your heart and soul so well. I want to be there for this mystery. Let the unfolding of the mystery come, when it comes, how it comes, as you would want for it to come.

Teach me, my love. Teach me your language of love. Teach me the way that you need to be loved, today.

 Image Credit; Shreya Chauhan

Image Credit; Shreya Chauhan

Lead me to trust you, trust that you know your own heart, that you know your own heart’s needs. Let me practice humility, not in how I want to love you, but in whatever way is best for you in this very breath. Let me learn your language of love, whether it is spoken words, cuddles, silence, space, or service.

Teach me, learn with me, whatever poems my eyelashes should scribe on your cheeks.

Let us let go of attachment to how I want to love you, and trust that what matters is you being loved, when you want to be loved, how you want to be loved, how best you can be loved.

Let us trust this flowing cosmic river of love, that how you need to be loved today may be different that how you’ll ask to be loved tomorrow. What matters, all that matters, is love, not the language of love.

Let us be lovers that learn each other’s language of love.

So my Beloved, how can I make you feel loved? Or better yet: how can I let you know, light of my eyes, that you are already so deeply loved? Tell me love: how can I love you better? How can we love each other better?

Let us begin here. Let us change the world for the lovelier. You have already changed my world. For you are all the worlds to me.

Action Suggestion

1) Today instead of questions for reflection, we are suggesting an action as part of your Elul practice. Choose one relationship where you have complicated love (you both love them and have some difficulty with them). Ask them one thing you can do to love them better.


Week 4: Asking Forgiveness - A Difficult Conversation

Asking Forgiveness: A Difficult Conversation
By Laura Geller

 Image Credit: PBS

Image Credit: PBS

The conversation is supposed to begin like this: “Will you forgive me for anything I might have said or done this year that has hurt you?” You are sitting with a friend over coffee, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and you ask this question. Not easy.

What if your friend responds, “What did you do or say?” Or what if your friend says, “You know, it did really hurt me when I found out that you shared that story that I had told you in confidence or ... didn’t include me when you had that party or ... embarrassed me in front of so and so,” etc. Not horrible sins, maybe, but the kind of interpersonal hurts that erode intimacy. Or maybe there are more serious breaches. Could you call the relative to whom you have stopped speaking over some long-ago insult and ask the same question? What kind of conversation would ensue? Or could you sit down with your partner — or your kids or your parents — and ask the same question?

Our tradition tells us: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur serves as atonement. For transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not serve as atonement, until the one offended has been appeased.” There are specific instructions. First, you have to acknowledge the hurt you did. Then, if the issue involves money, you have to pay back the money involved. Next, you have to resolve never to do it again. And finally, you have to discuss the issue with the one you have hurt and ask for forgiveness. This is teshuvah (repentance); this is the work of this season.

 Image Credit: Jewish Wisdom and Wellness

Image Credit: Jewish Wisdom and Wellness

Asking for forgiveness is not easy. But it pales in comparison to how hard it is to forgive. Here Jewish tradition is also very clear: “If the person against whom one had sinned did not want to forgive, then one has to ask him/her for forgiveness in front of three of his/her friends. If s/he still didn’t want to forgive, then one asks him/her in front of six, and then in front of nine of his/her friends, and if s/he still didn’t want to forgive him/her, one leaves him/her and goes away. Anybody who does not want to forgive is a sinner.”

That’s pretty harsh. Aren’t here some things that are unforgivable? Maybe it depends on what you mean by forgiveness.

Jewish tradition tells us there are three kinds of forgiveness, articulated by David Blumenthal in an article in Cross Currents magazine:

"The most basic kind of forgiveness is 'forgoing the other's indebtedness' (mechila) after the offender has done teshuvah. This is not a reconciliation of heart. The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven. The second kind of forgiveness is 'forgiveness' (selicha). It is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selicha, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace. The third kind of forgiveness is 'atonement' (kappara). This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness. It is an existential clenasing. Kapara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God."

So forgiveness ought to be given only if the offender has done the work necessary to change. But change is possible; people can learn from their mistakes. Notice that forgiveness doesn’t mean everything goes back to the way it once was. It doesn’t mean you have to invite the one who hurt you over for dinner. But it does mean that you can give up your victim status and go on with the rest of your life.

Every night, before we go to sleep, there is a prayer that is part of the bedtime Sh’ma:

I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account. As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or by accident, whether by word or deed. Wipe away my sins, O Lord, with your great mercy. May I not repeat the wrongs I have committed. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Try saying this prayer before you go to sleep. Let me know how it feels. Some congregations end their Kol Nidre service with these words. Should we?

Question for Reflection:

1) What aspects of forgiveness are hardest for you? Forgiving yourself, forgiving others, or asking others to forgive you?