A Sabbath Message: Continuing on the Journey of Elul

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

– The Talmud

As Sabbath approaches, we are all aware it has been a difficult week – the world is in turmoil with significant challenges around the globe. Natural disasters have been on the forefront of our minds, with terrible fires continuing to blaze in California and a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti taking multiple lives and dreams in its wake. Across the world, in Afghanistan, a heartbreaking situation has put numerous people in harms’ way, leading to a challenge for all involved. And uncertainty reigns throughout the world, as it is clear that the pandemic is not yet behind us after all, with divisions created within our own country and across the globe.

Within this climate, it is natural to feel despondent, even hopeless – with a variety of other emotions, as well, including anger or fear. Have you checked in with how you are feeling? Do you find it changes by the day – or even the hour? If so, it may help to know that you are not alone. It occurs to me that with a majority of us spending more of our time at home and less time with others, we may forget that our friends and family members may be having the same feelings and experiences. Don’t forget to reach out to others in your life at times such as this, especially those without strong support systems. Yes, it is good for them. But it is also good for you. Remaining aware of the needs of others at trying times is one of the best ways to stay hopeful and engaged. It is also helpful to empower ourselves with information and how we might be able to help. Click here for information about a webinar next week during which we will learn about the world Jewish community response to the crisis in Haiti.

With all of this upheaval around us, staying grounded as we move forward on our journey through the month of Elul towards our holiest days, remains more important than ever. Turning inward during this journey of Elul to find our spiritual center does not mean that we turn away from what is going on in the world around us. The truth is that both turning in and turning outward can happen simultaneously – and in fact, only by finding out who we are, can we become more aware of the needs of others around us. It is traditional to read Psalm 27 daily during this month of Elul – here, we get a glimpse of both a personal relationship with the Divine, but also a need to be shown a way to act positively in the world: “One thing I asked of the Divine One: Would that I dwell in the House of God all the days of my life…Teach me Your way, Divine One, and lead me on the path of integrity, in the land of life!” (Psalm 27: 4, 11).

From our Torah portion this week we are reminded of the importance to be aware of the needs of those in our society most marginalized and that all of us have value and dignity.  Midway through the journey of Elul, we read an interesting parashah (Torah portion) this Sabbathcontaining the most commandments in one portion in the entire Torah – 74 out of a total of 613. And it is a real grab-bag of miscellaneous laws, covering everything from family and marital relations, to domestic laws regarding property, animals, clothing, homes, and vineyards. But there are a few things that this seemingly diverse set of laws has in common and the reason we read it during this month: first and foremost, that the common theme here is that the dignity and value of all human beings is to be acknowledged and protected, including (and perhaps especially) those most ignored by society. Thus, there are laws protecting the criminal and female war captive, for example. In addition, there is a sense of history and memory which runs through this portion, which provides a powerful reminder to the people. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, therefore, when you reap your harvest, or gather the grapes of your vineyard, leave the gleanings and extra fruit for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow (Deut. 24:19-21). And finally, the final verses of the portion, remind us what true evil looks like for all time: “Remember what Amalek did to you…” (Deut. 25: 17-19).

And so, as we continue on this quest to mindfulness through the month of Elul, we learn that our journey is sometimes a bit of a “battlefield” – in a sense, we must “fight” for awareness. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive, but according to Rabbi Alan Lew, the Torah portions and Psalms we read during this month are full of references to war, as we noted here just last week. Even this week’s portion begins: “When you go out to war against your enemies…” – and when it comes to the Torah, there are no accidents, so there must be a message here. And for Lew, that message is clear: “This business of finding out who we really are needs to be approached with the focus and energy of a military campaign.” Thus, this process is most intentional and will ultimately bring us in relationship and in tune with others, for during this journey, Lew tells us “every heart needs to crack itself open,” as we move from anger to healing, from denial to consciousness. In a sense, this time is a spiritual rehearsal for meeting the Divine presence at the High Holidays, preparing ourselves with honesty and integrity.  

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – a Sabbath of peace – as you journey ahead,

Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service


Photo caption: Nearly half-way through this sacred month of Elul, we are approaching the full moon of this singular quest. Our annual communal trek inward, this journey gives us all an opportunity for mindfulness and awareness, to take us into the High Holidays and forward into the New Year.