A Sabbath Message: Month of Elul Dawns with Mindfulness & Self-Forgiveness

“Human, rise above, rise, because a fierce strength is part of you, wings of spirit animate you; the powerful wings of an eagle. Don’t deny your wings, seek them. Seek them, human, and they will be revealed to you, promptly.”

– Abraham Isaac Kook, “Rav Kook,” a father of Religious Zionism (1865-1935)

With the conclusion of Sabbath this week, the all-important Jewish month of Elul begins – and with it, a traditionally intensive period of mindful preparation before the High Holidays. As I was wrapped in spiritual mindfulness yesterday morning in our JFS-sponsored Mindfulness Meditation Program, our wonderful guide, Renee Golan, was reminding us of this gift given to us by our tradition of this special time to prepare our hearts and minds. The shofar, the ram’s horn, the same instrument which will be blown 100 times on Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – in one month’s time, and was blown when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, is traditionally blown to usher in this special month – and then daily throughout it. For like the spiritual alarm clock that it is, we are roused from our slumber to pause, reflect, and look inward. Even the Torah portion this week which initiates this month of introspection is called “Re’eh,” which tells us in that one word to “Look!” And what must we look at? In the very first verse, we are reminded that in each minute of our lives we have a choice: “See – I put before you this day a blessing and a curse.” (Deut. 11:26). We can choose the blessing every time – to see the goodness in life.

In my message last week, I spoke about the importance of listening – and now, I will add the crucial dimension of listening to yourself and the voice inside of you. This is where it must begin if we truly want to be there and fully available to others. And this is also why the process of mindfulness is so important to help us to listen to the voice from within, to be still long enough to really listen and hear. An important component of this connection to our inner voice is being willing to engage in the act of self-forgiveness. For Jews at this time of year, we are about to embark on the process of Teshuvah – Repentance, part of which includes the act of forgiving others. But we cannot forgive others until we are ready to forgive ourselves, which can sometimes be a tall order, as we are often our own worst enemies, hardest on ourselves.

All of this, of course, is wrapped up in our mental health and well-being – again, something to which we must pay attention and listen to what our inner voice tells us is right for us. Do we feel respected, trusted, and loved in our relationships? Do we need help to feel the support we need? In the last few weeks, we were shown positive examples of Olympic athletes who listened to their inner voices and took care of themselves in the face of great pressure to always perform.

How do we move from self-love and acceptance to compassion for others? A new re-write of a much-loved children’s book has an answer for us. We all remember the book we read as kids “The Little Engine That Could,” and the terrific message it contained about perseverance. “I think I can, I think I can,” was the mantra of this old story, but the truth is that going it alone, does not always bring success. Bob McKinnon, the writer of that book, has a new way to think about this theme and has released a new book as an update to the original. In the new companion book, “Three Little Engines,” the author demonstrates that we all have our own paths in life – sometimes, we are faced with unique challenges and need help achieving our goals. So, when the yellow and red engines in the new story have trouble getting over the mountain, the blue engine turns back to help – and ultimately, they arrive at their destination together. The key is compassion and empathy for the other. The lesson that McKinnon wanted to communicate, he said in a recent interview with CBS News, is that accepting help is a sign of strength, not weakness. And further, that while it may be easier to move forward in this life “with blinders on” and only worry about ourselves, it is far more important to look around with compassion and see who needs our help, who needs a listening ear, an open heart.

Indeed, it is only when we listen to ourselves that we can truly be able to hear others clearly – and be mindful of their deepest needs to be heard. A final well-known story illustrates this well. The royal family in Britain is known to arrive and depart exactly on time. But there was at least one occasion when this protocol was broken. The date was January 27, 2005 – and it was the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The Queen had invited Survivors to a reception at St. James Palace – each had a story to tell and she listened to everyone in full. Two hours beyond her scheduled departure time. Everyone was stunned, but the Survivors most importantly felt heard, respected, and honored. Someone there that day said it was the most gracious act he had every seen from the Queen – and one never to be forgotten. For that act of humanity validated her very own.

Wishing you all a peaceful Sabbath – and a time of mindfulness for you and those you love,

Ruth Dubin Steinberg, LCSW, MAJCS
Director, Jewish Family Service


Photo caption: As the powerful month of Elul dawns this weekend, the season of reflection and mindfulness begins for Jews everywhere – and we are called to “rise up” to meet the challenge of this sacred time in the cycle of our year and our lives, as we renew our commitment to ourselves and each other.