Rabbi Ellenson on "Elul" thoughts - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Rabbi Ellenson on "Elul" thoughts

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Friday, September 1, 2006

In this very spot, on each of the 29 days of Elul, we will post a "Jewel" of an idea from a group of national community leaders, teachers, artists and thinkers. We asked each of our contributors to share, in 200 words or less, "what they have learned thus far". Their responses covered the spectrum from clever to inspired, from candid to cute. To a sweet, peaceful and inspired New Year. 

Elul 6 He's Not That Wonderful 

Rabbi David Ellenson 

The Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, earned widespread fame as the author of treatises decrying 'lashon hara', idle gossip. 

The story is told that Rabbi Kagan was once in a distant village. In search of a ride home, he met a wagon driver and asked the driver, who did not know his identity, where the driver was going. When he learned that the driver was going to his village, he asked whether he might go along. The Haftez Hayyim asked the driver why he was going there, and he responded excitedly, "I am going to meet the Hafetz Hayyim so as to prepare for the High Holidays." Upon hearing this, the Hafetz Hayyim - still not revealing his identity to the driver - responded, "Oh, I know the Hafetz Hayyim, and believe me, he's not that wonderful." At that, the driver punched the Hafetz Hayyim in the face and tossed him from the wagon. 

When he recovered from the blow and reflected upon the incident, the Hafetz Hayyim said the driver had taught him an important lesson - "'Lashon hara' is so horrible that you should not speak badly even about yourself!" 

As we prepare for the Yamim Noraim, the lesson is clear - repentance can occur only with a positive opinion of self as well as others. 

Rabbi David Ellenson is the President of Hebrew Union College. 

Elul 5 Four Words of Wisdom 

Rachel Levin 

When I was in 8th grade, Mr. Ben Yudin, my comparative religion teacher extraordinaire, asked the class a question. "What are the four words you can say on any occasion?" The answer was, "This too shall pass." 

I remember telling my father that night that I would never walk up to a bride and say, "Congratulations, this too shall pass." My father replied that it's precisely the couples who understand that the exhilaration of their wedding day will pass, who go on to have good marriages. 

Since then, those four words have become a sort of mantra in my life. "This too shall pass" has gotten me through periods of stress, sadness, even excruciating physical pain. But lately, as the harried working mother of two, I have begun to really understand the value of these words for the joyous occasions, especially those easily missed moments - my son waking from sleep and curling his warm body into my lap; my daughter's face when I come home from work. "This too shall pass," whispers that voice in my ear. Turn off the cell phone, put down the paper, and just be. 

Rachel Levin is the associate director of the Righteous Persons Foundation. 

Elul 4 Reconciliation and Renewal 

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller 

Last May a demonstration took place on the UCLA campus. The Muslim Students Association set up a mock checkpoint on the main campus drag. To counterpoint, I appeared with a sign declaring "Peace for Israel. Peace for Palestine. Share the Hope." As I stood holding the sign aloft with students' eyes curiously fixed on the "old" man with the unconventional proclamation whose arms were heavy and tired, a student approached and asked if he could help me by holding up one side of the sign. Only too pleased to receive his assistance, I turned to the young man and asked him his name. 

"George," he replied. 

"And where are you from?" 

"Gaza," he said, continuing, "In fact, this is the only statement with which I agree. I reject my fellow Arab students' tactics, and I disagree with the Jewish students who are in their faces. Our goal should be to build understanding and cooperation." 

He taught me that if one party sincerely opens his or her heart to the other, acknowledging the other's narrative while maintaining the integrity of one's own position, then the foreskin of the opponent's heart will begin to peel away. 

This is the legacy of the Jewish tradition. This is the path of the rodef shalom, the pursuer of peace. It is the way of renewal. 

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller is the director of UCLA Hillel.

Elul 3 Pushing The Limits 

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger 

I learned in bodybuilding that the best way to gain strength was to take my muscles to their absolute limit - to the point of failure - where they were so out of energy that they couldn't even lift a small amount of weight. Then, after a few day's rest, they would not only be ready to lift again, but they were now bigger, stronger and able to lift more than ever before. 

Just like in bodybuilding, failure is also a necessary experience for growth in our own lives, for if we're never tested to our limits, how will we know how strong we really are? How will we ever grow? 

We all make mistakes in life, and when we fail we have two paths we can take: We can bury our head and our hopes and let embarrassment, shame and doubt prevent us from ever reaching our goals, or we can take responsibility for what we've done, learn from our choices, make amends and move forward. I've learned that the latter course of action lets me take my failures and turn them into great wells of experience, from which I can draw wisdom and perspective as I continue on life's path. I do not forget the mistakes - we never should - but, I don't let them keep me from reaching my dreams. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger was sworn in as Governor of California on November 17, 2003. 

Elul 2 A Walk on the Beach 

Rabbi Shira Milgrom 

Several years ago, our son Yaron embarked on a semester in New York. Looking for an apartment, he scanned websites and newspaper ads - all to no avail, until a friend put him in touch with the manager of a building. The man looked at Yaron's name and asked, "Are you related to David Elcott?" 

"Yes, that's my father." 

"I attended a conference of his many years ago. What I remember is a walk I took along the beach where I saw him playing with his son. It was clear to me that nothing else mattered to him - not the conference or the sessions - only that little boy. I thought that if I ever had children, I would want to be a father like that. I have three kids now, and I think about that afternoon almost every day." 

That little boy was Yaron - the tall man who had just crossed this manager's threshold. Yaron couldn't wait to tell his father the story. 

David remembered the conference. "It's the worst thing I ever did. Sometimes you think your real work is here - when your real work is actually someplace else." 

The beginning of faith is to know that beyond the fragmented pieces of our lives, there is a whole - a pattern where all the pieces fit together and become one. 

Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad
Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One. 

Rabbi Shira Milgrom is the Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York.

Elul 1 God's Loneliness 

Rabbi Menachem Creditor 

Regular encounters with death have taught me to look into people's eyes and to hear their words with both urgency and patience. There is such holiness waiting in all people. We need only to listen to their voices. 

Birth has taught me that everything we do reverberates in the souls of others. No act is neutral. We have deep power within to heal ourselves and those around us. The human capacity to alter the cosmos can be used - must be used - for good. 

I've learned that flaws are holy, that the deepest forms of joy and comfort come after accepting personal vulnerability. And once we learn to see and cherish our own imperfections, we can learn to more honestly accept and love others. 

Deep breathing is good.
Crying is good.
Laughing is good. 

Holding each other is exquisite.
Granting each other space is healthy. 

I've learned that God's loneliness birthed us and is a source of deep love. I've learned that we are never truly alone. 

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the founder of Shefa Network. 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu