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In Elul, do we better ourselves through inner reflection or concrete acts?

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Total solar eclipse 1999 in France. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, Luc Vitaour, https://Lucnix.be.

Rabbi YAEL SPLANSKY

Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto

Rabbi MARK FISHMAN

Congregation Beth Tikvah, Montreal


Rabbi Fishman: As much as we wish to walk the walk when it comes to living a genuine, upstanding life, the truth of the matter is that we all fall short. The good news is that each year, we are granted the opportunity to pause and reflect, to look at who we are and where we may have lost our way – all with the goal of returning back to who we can be if only we were to live our best selves and express our true inner yearnings. The month of Elul offers us this opportunity.

Rabbi Splansky: I suppose I take a more pragmatic approach. Feeling spiritual, having a closeness to God, conveying authenticity in one’s religious life – these are all lofty aims, to be sure. But I believe most Jews, including me, are concerned first and foremost with goodness.

As the new year approaches, we ask some basic questions:

Have I been fair in business? How can I mend my relationship with that estranged relative? How might I stretch my giving of tzedakah? What more can I do by volunteering my time for worthy causes?

READ: SLEW OF CRYPTIC, ANTI-SEMITIC GRAFFITI FOUND IN WINNIPEG

Verbs of being – “who we are,” “who we can be” – are abstract. The only way to get to that aspirational level of character-building is through verbs of action. There is no shortcut to a spiritual life.

Rabbi Fishman: The date and timing of Elul is important, not happenstance culled at random from the calendar. We are taught that the month of Elul was when Moses returned to Mount Sinai to once again receive the Ten Commandments. Having smashed the first set, both God and Moses embark on a period of reflection, forgiveness and new beginnings.

‘Elul is when our head, heart and neshamah come into alignment, as the spheres of our own inner cosmos’

This powerful period reaches its culmination 40 days later, as Moses returns to the people, ushering in a new wave of closeness with God, being forgiven for past mistakes and looking for new possibilities. The date of this return is Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Splansky: A solar eclipse, like the one that occurred this week, happens when the Earth, moon and sun are in perfect alignment. Elul is when our head, heart and neshamah come into alignment, as the spheres of our own inner cosmos.

During the rest of the year, there are forces that tug and pull at the clear paths of their orbits. Now, through acts of tshuvah (repentance), tfillah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteous giving), we draw them into alignment. Only the Ruler of the Universe has power over the celestial bodies, but we were given power enough to set, and reset, the paths of our own lives.

Rabbi Fishman: As with all important Jewish ideas and concepts, words take on a deeper meaning over time and the Hebrew word “Elul” is no different. For instance, one interpretation applies a mnemonic connecting “Elul” to the verse from Song of Songs, “Ani ledodi v’dodi li” (“I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me”). This teaching reaffirms that at the root of connection is the passionate foundation of love.

Another mnemonic references the verse in Megillat Esther, “Ish l’rei’ehu u’matanot l’evyonim,” (“Each man (shall give gifts) to his fellow and presents to the poor”). This perspective focuses on the values of charity, loving kindness and caring for others. This also shapes our behaviour during these days, reminding us that to receive blessings from God, we must be deserving of them by showing kindness and care to our fellow man.

Rabbi Splansky: I had never heard anyone use that verse from the Megillah as a means of better understanding Elul. It is an essential insight for us all. As the global refugee crisis moves into another chapter, we must respond to the challenge of this mitzvah and allocate our generosity in such a way so that there is enough for everyone – both for those we know and love, and for those whom we may not know, but for whom we are also responsible.

As racial injustice, anti-Semitism and assaults on the poor are given permission to take root in the United States, we need to redouble our efforts to protect all that is good in Canada and be willing to see the strains of weakness here, too. Let’s get to work. 

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