Category Archives: Mussar

Elul: The vanity of individualism

 

“..the more enamored we are of our selves, the more fixed we are in our own ‘realities’, limiting the possibilities of our awareness.” Daniel Brown, Harvard clinical psychologist

Our culture is so far deep into self aggrandizement that sometimes we lose awareness of how susceptible to the craziness we’ve become. It takes a lot of mental energy to steer clear of the ego-filled information we hear on a daily basis.

Even if we are not participating, it seeps into us on a deeper level than we might think.

A natural break from the noise

The rhythm of the Jewish calendar offers us a reprieve. As we come into the month of Elul we have breathing space to consider our true selves and who we want to be.

Only when we establish our connection to the Divine and admit our place in the world can we begin to undergo a spiritual reckoning.

In acknowledging The One, we are forced to limit our own deception at being in charge all the time.

Why is this important now?

As we enter the month of Elul, we have an opportunity to straddle time. It is an amazing gift that we have…to simultaneously look back on the past 11 months of the year while preparing ourselves to greet the New Year on Rosh Hashanah.

It is an incredible time for the hard work of honest self-reflection. How can we truly engage in the liturgy of the High Holidays without first asking ourselves the deep questions we need to ask?

What promises did I make last year that were not kept? In what ways did I deepen my connection to loved ones and my community? Did I fulfill my goals for myself? Was I a better person this year than I was last year? Did I deepen my relationship with God? 

Our connection to God

Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. The mystical meaning of Elul’s acronym Aleph-Lamed-Vov-Lamed is for “Ani L’dodi, V’dodi Li”, the words meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).

It is a hesed, kindness from God that there is this closeness because we need the unconditional love of our Creator when we take a hard look at ourselves, without our defenses, without excuses, and with a pure heart to confront our dark side.

Our selfish tendencies

The dark side doesn’t always mean that we sublimate our urge to commit an evil act. After all, how common is it that that we set out to steal or commit a crime?

So we shouldn’t give ourselves credit for not engaging in those behaviors.

The Yetzer HaRa [the Hebrew term for this inclination] can mean our tendency to act in our own self-interest. That is more pernicious and confronts us almost every day. This dark side, our Yetzer HaRa is our ego, is our selfishness that hides right under the surface.

Sleeping late. Making sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Putting off acts of kindness. Constantly checking our “likes” on social media. Honking the horn excessively to rid ourselves of anger. Refusing to apologize properly. Neglecting to show appreciation.

These are all products of our ego.

Taking a habitual approach

It is overwhelming to work on everything about ourselves that we might want to change. Studies about personal change agree that taking on too many changes at once does not increase the chances for success. Nor will it contribute to positive self-esteem (not to be confused with ego).

Thousands of years ago, Rambam wrote about a method for increasing generosity. Briefly, instead of giving one check for $100, he advised to donate $1 a day since in this way, you would be incorporating a new behavior and making it a habit.

Select just one trait of yours to work on. Is it patience? Honesty? Anger?

Then select just one very small behavior change that you will do regularly in order to create a new habit in this month of Elul.

So for example, if you want to work on patience, think of a strategy to employ when you are most likely to lose it. It could be switching your thoughts to gratitude (waiting in line? Be grateful that you are able to purchase the items in your cart).

Are you about to lose your temper with someone you love? Think of your history together and let kindness fill you up instead. Or take a breath. Whatever will work for you.

Allow some time for this

It might take some practice to come up with which trait to focus on and the strategies to use. Be patient with yourself.

If you need help with focusing on what trait to work on, ask loved ones. They’ll usually have no problem offering you some options! It takes guts to do this work. It is not easy.

You also may need ways to remind yourself of the new practices you are undertaking. Try setting up reminders with Siri, Alexa, or some other platform. You can also try post-it notes.

But it will work. Do it regularly and enjoy this wonderful opportunity that Elul affords us to work towards a clean slate with loving acceptance by Hashem.


Postscript: What I described above is the work of Mussar, ancient Jewish practices that work on changing traits, increasing connections with God, and becoming a better person, which I will describe in future posts and perhaps offer in online sessions. 


Shema: Searching for the “One”

The Experience of the Holy

This post is not about matchmaking, or even the journey to find your ‘soul mate’.

Here, searching for the “One” refers to our deep desire to achieve integration, to be at ‘one’ with who we are on the inside with how we behave on the outside. To feel whole.

The challenge is that often, although we know who we want to be in the ideal, we often behave in ways that don’t hit that target. Syncing doesn’t always occur, mainly because life gets in the way and we don’t pay close enough attention. It takes an awful lot of work and there’s only so much bandwidth.

So we need a tool, and reciting even the first line of the Shema prayer (Deuternonomy 6:4) might get us to focus on who and what “the One” refers to. The Shema affirms the Unity of God.… but this goes beyond mere numbers. We don’t say that God is “one” as opposed to “two”….we say that God is all encompassing. Oneness as in totality. Everything.

The verse also demands that we pay attention. 

Shema Ysrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad. 

Listen up Israel, the Lord is Our God. The Lord Alone is One.

The word Shema is often translated as “Hear” but one can hear without listening. We do that most of the time when we don’t work  hard enough to be fully present in our conversations. The command (and it is a command), is for us to listen, as a person and as a people, to what it means that God alone is “One”.

Actually, the Shema is a very compassionate statement. God’s singularity is unique: God alone is One. We’ll never approach the integration we’re seeking because, well, we’re human. The very name Israel means struggling with God, yet being on a straight path toward God. Layers of understanding are provided for us in these words.

Since we are created in God’s Image (B’tzelem Elohim), we are tasked with emulating God. It is a goal that we strive for but will never be able to reach in our lifetimes. Our fallibility as human beings is our constant search for our innermost essence, our spiritual side, the truest part of ourselves, yet we always have to deal with the physical reality of our bodies.

It is our challenge to navigate between the physical and the spiritual.  We are physical creatures who yearn for glimpses of a spiritual existence. We want what we can’t have, but still, we can experience tiny morsels of an elevated existence.

We can teeter above our baseness by trying some of the tools we have available: meditation, study, prayer, fasting, blessings, chanting and more. Venturing too far off by exclusively immersing ourselves in these practices is not the Jewish way. We don’t remove ourselves from our reality. We don’t take on extreme behavior. We want to experience and enjoy all the gifts of this world.

Our task is to connect with God and others, and build loving relationships.

So we live within the struggle. Body and Soul. Head and Heart.

May you experience, even for brief moments, the glory that is within you.

May you be in alignment with your truest essence and live with the joy of knowing that you were created in the Image of God. 

 

 


Care for Your Soul

green leaf plant palm

How are you tending to your soul?

“People are such perfectionists when it comes to clothing their bodies. Are they so particular with the needs of their soul?”  Sara Schneirer (1890-1935).

Your soul is not separate from you, it is you. Everything you do makes a mark on your being. Your very presence is a gift from God. How are you caring for yourself? How are you tending to your soul?