Entering the Auspicious Month of Elul

27 Av 5776

By Rabbi Josh

Here's a short, recent exchange between myself and my second-grader son, Shlomo, that took place in our backyard:

Me: “Shlomo, where are you?”

Shlomo: “In the garden.”

Me: “What are you doing?”

Shlomo: “Seeing what needs help and what doesn’t.” (He was helping a cucumber find a place for its tendrils to climb).

It struck me that our brief exchange was a great setup for the new Hebrew month of Elul that we are entering this Friday night. With this new month, we officially enter the High Holyday season which culminates in Yom Kippur forty days later. It is the time of year where the call goes out to each of us from the Totality of Being: “Where are you? What are you doing?”

Shlomo had a pretty good answer at that moment--he was in the garden. How about us? Do we really know where we are? Are we aware that we are in the garden? By that I mean are we really maintaining the awareness that the world we find ourselves in is a place of beauty, wonder, and Divine expression? And what are we doing? Are we seeing what needs help? The month of Elul beckons us to begin considering those questions, to begin making space for reflection.

The other night, I was at a parent meeting for Shlomo. His teacher was describing how the prefrontal cortex of second-graders has not yet fully developed, so they are still basically in a state driven by impulse. They may feel guilty after the fact about stealthily grabbing a piece of chocolate off the dessert table, but when they spy the chocolate, they don’t really have the ability to control the impulse to grab it.

I thought about how we as adults are not really so different. True, we generally have a more developed ability to control our impulses, unless we are the current Republican Presidential candidate. Yet, this explanation of 2nd grader neurological development reminded me of some torah from my longtime teacher Rabbi Miles Krassen (www.planetaryjudaism.org). Drawing from the teachings of A Course in Miracles, Rabbi Miles points out that we have two voices within us: a kol dmama dakah, the “quiet, subtle voice” we can also call the “voice for God”; and then the much louder voice of the forces of ego separation. (Interestingly, it’s not called the voice of God, but the voice for God.)

The voice for God reminds us, in the words of Psalm 27 (the Psalm associated with Elul and the High Holy Days) to seek the Face in all faces/bakshu panai. The voice of the forces of ego separation is the voice of defensiveness, reactivity, judgmentalness, and anger--the voices that seek to defend our separate sense of self.

Fundamental to the alignment we seek at this season is an act of choice, an act of what is called teshuvah/return, to choose to align with the voice for God, and to strengthen that attunement and awareness.

So that is my invitation for us as we enter Elul this Friday evening: to see if we can sift out and strengthen the voice for God, which is the voice that calls us to keep our hearts open and to lovingly focus our actions in this world for the greatest possible good. The nature of existence is that at times we will all fall under the sway of the voice of ego separation. The important thing is that we recognize we’ve fallen, and in that moment extend the forgiveness of the High Holyday season to ourselves, and then to realign and re-attune to the voice for God. Our tradition reminds us that the praiseworthy thing about the tzadik (the evolved, highly conscious person) is not that they never fall from their level, but that they recognize they’ve fallen, and then quickly raise themselves back up.

May we be strengthened in this work, may we truly remember where we are and what we are doing, and may we seek the Face in all faces. Amen and hodesh tov/ “have a good new (Hebrew) month”!