Elul…make the most of it

Elul…sweetness, light, redemption.

This is the month that Hashem gives us the opportunity to determine our destiny. Not to succumb to a fate that is inconsistent with our innermost desire but the choice to proactively affect our lives. The Slonimer Rebbe z”l writes that on Rosh Hashana we choose the life we want to live and ask for the tools that will assist us in refining and lighting up our world. Elul is a 30 days of preparation so that you have absolute clarity when making that decision.

The fact that you woke up this morning and are able to read this message is Hashem telling you, “I want you here, you have a mission to accomplish, and this mission has been waiting since the beginning of time for YOU to achieve.” We are here, partnering with Hashem to make a difference. We are granted the years of our life to fix, resolve and leave our mark, as we live our legacy. We don’t have much time. Seize the opportunities that are granted to you and make a difference.

We each have incredible potential and it’s about time that we stop talking and reading about it and take action. Live every day of your life to your best. Not the best…but YOUR best!

The questions we should be asking ourselves as we account for our existence are:
“Why am I here?”
“Am I living a meaningful life?”
“Am I living consistently with my values?”
“Am I the best spouse, teacher, friend, mentor, parent that I can possibly be?”

These are not “one off” questions, they are questions that can and need to be asked daily. These are the questions that help orient our lives and make them meaningful. Truthful answers to these questions have the power to help us transcend adversity and embrace each opportunity to reveal our inner essence.

We can be assured (but never perturbed) when at the moment of enlightenment, as we feel that we have discovered our unique mission in this world the inevitable happens. There will be a distraction. There will be obstacles. There will be challenges. And that is part of our story. Overcoming difficulty brings you closer to your mission. We are not born at the peak of a mountain, because it is not so much about the destination as much as it is about the journey to arrive there.

Hashem charges us to live a fulfilled life whereby we realize and actualize our dormant potential. We must act with courage to leap beyond our comfort zone to live our legacy.

אלול spelt backwards is לולא which translates as “if only”. This precious month is about reflecting all those lost opportunities throughout the year when I could have or should have but didn’t. It’s about asking for forgiveness for not bringing to the world what I was meant to. It’s about resolving to remain steadfast and committed to my mission.

May it be your will Hashem that we are granted clarity. That we are strengthened in our resolve to foster a deeper relationship with You as we embrace our unique mission in this world and remain loyal throughout the journey.

Rabbi Aryeh Goldman has released an ebook “Days are Coming – Inspiration for Elul and Tishrei”. Subscribe at hitoreri.com to receive your copy.

The Shofar of Elul

The Judaism editors of Wikipedia do a fantastic job as evidenced by this excerpt in the entry on Elul:

During the month of Elul, there are a number of special rituals leading up to the High Holy Days. It is customary to blow the shofar every morning (except on Shabbat) from Rosh Hodesh Elul (the first day of the month) until the day before Rosh Hashanah. The blasts are meant to awaken one’s spirits and inspire him to begin the soul searching which will prepare him for the High Holy Days. As part of this preparation, Elul is the time to begin the sometimes-difficult process of granting and asking for forgiveness.[1] It is also customary to recite Psalm 27 every day from Rosh Hodesh Elul through Hoshanah Rabbah on Sukkot (in Tishrei).

We’ve been hearing the Shofar for about a week now and I’m sure many readers of Beyond BT have begun preparing for Rosh Hashanah by trying to take little steps of improvement.

Rabbi Welcher recently gave a shiur on the topic of “The Shofar of Elul”, where he discussed the minhagim and some practical ideas to take advantage of this powerful period in the Jewish calender. The shiur on the Shofar of Elul can be downloaded here.

Elul: The Rambam on the Message of the Shofar

The Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva 3:4:

“Although Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana is a divine decree, there is a hidden message of the Shofar. The message is for those who are spiritually asleep to awaken, carefully examine their behavior, perform Teshuva, and remember our Creator. Those who forget the truth in the course of daily routines and devote all of their time to temporal matters that have no lasting impact, should ponder their souls, improve their actions and thoughts. Everyone should abandon his evil actions and thoughts.”

The Rambam is writing about Rosh Hashana, but I don’t think he would object to us using the Shofar blowings of Elul as a wake up call.

The Season of the Spiritual Growth Mindset

The secular world has recently “discovered” the growth mindset:

Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success—a simple idea that makes all the difference. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

The growth mindset is fundamental to a Torah Observant Jew. Every BT and FFB will tell you, that where you are headed in terms of growth, is much more important than where you came from.

One advantage we have in Jewish Spiritual Growth is that the calendar orients us towards times with increased opportunities. Shabbos provides more potential than week days. Yom Tovim provide additional growth opportunities. And the Yomin Noraim provide the greatest opportunities. In Judaism the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur is the definitive spiritual growth season.

But as we know, growth takes effort, and Hashem made us a bit lazy, so we are advised to use the entire Elul runway as we approach Rosh Hoshana, the Ten Days of Teshuva, and Yom Kippur.

In the Practical Guide to Teshuva, Rabbi S. Wagschal writes that the process of teshuvah may be successfully achieved if it is performed in a gradual manner. He suggests that we should begin with improving things we are already doing, like tefillah and brachos.

Tomorrow we will provide some practical ways to leverage the enhanced spiritual growth mindset which we have in these days of Elul.

Beat the Rosh Chodesh Elul Rush – Start Thinking About Teshuva Today

Rosh Chodesh Elul is coming which means that the Teshuva season is about to begin. If we want to have a successful Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur, seforim strongly advise us to start early in the month. It’s a tremendous opportunity for growth and we’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.

Most of the current day Rebbeim advise us to pick something small. Maybe saying Asher Yotzar with Kavanna, or pausing before we speak on occasion or perhaps starting an extra 10 minute seder in Mussar, Mishnah or Tanach. The sky is truly the limit, but we have to start reaching for it when Elul begins.

Being that our goal is to get closer to Hashem and we’re doing mitzvos to accomplish that goal, it might make sense to try to do the mitzvos with a little more Kavanna. There are three simple thoughts we can have before doing any mitzvah:

1) Hashem commanded us to do the mitzvah
2) We are the ones being commanded
3) And the specific mitzvah, whose commandment we are fullfilling is …. (whatever mitzvah you are doing)

It’s really pretty simple and it will help us get so much more mileage out of the mitzvos we already do.

Here’s a few resources for extra motivation:

Stepping Stones to Repentance: A thirty-day program based on Ohr Yisrael the classic writings of Rav Yisrael Salanter By: Rabbi Zvi Miller here’s an excerpt

“There is no enterprise that yields profit like preparation for the Day of Atonement. Through studying Mussar and reflecting on how to improve one’s ways, a person is inspired on Yom Kippur to make resolutions for the future. Even the smallest, most minute preparation to enhance one’s Yom Kippur experience is invaluable, bringing boundless blessings of success. It saves one from many troubles — and there is no greater profit than this.” (Ohr Yisrael, Letter Seven, p. 193)

Rebbetzin Tzipora Heller – Three Steps to Genuine Change. An excerpt:

In the course of our lives, we close doors to higher and deeper selves and sometimes forget that we, too, are more than earners, spenders, and travelers through life. Our thoughtless enslavement to mindless routine can leave us without much of a relationship to our souls. In a materialistic society, it is all too easy to view others as competitors. As toddlers we observed that when you have three cookies and give one away, all you have left are two. From that point onward we are afraid to give.

R’ Dovid Schwartz – Rabbi Yonah of Gerona – Guilt is Good – mp3

R’ Daniel Stein – Hilchos Teshuva Introduction – mp3

R’ Moshe Schwerd – Din V’Cheshbon – mp3

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana and Hirhur Teshuva according to Rav Soloveitchik can be downloaded here.

R’ Yakov Haber on Rosh Hoshana davening can be downloaded here.

You Don’t Desire? Then Yearn to Desire!

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

For the Mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today is not beyond your grasp or remote from you…Rather it is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can accomplish it.’  

-Devarim 30: 11, 14

While the closeness of “the Mitzvah” is described as being in our hearts and mouths it is not said to be in our hands. Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, draws an essential lesson about the limitations of human free will from this omission. The precedent for this lesson can be found in the Torahs dissimilar narratives of Avraham Avinus leitmotif.

The hospitality Chesed that Avraham Avinu offered to human travelers is well documented in Chazal and yet in the Written Torah there is only the scantest allusion to it (VaYeetah Eishel-Bereshis 21:33).  In marked contrast the hospitality that he extended to the three angels is described in great detail in the Written Torah.  This is especially odd inasmuch as the Angels were only pretending to eat, drink and rest and needed neither the physical rest and recreation provided to them nor the monotheistic lessons that diners at Avraham Avinus table learned. Avraham genuinely wanted to do kindness to the angels just as he did to all of his visitors. But in reality he did not provide for any of the needs of these special guests.  His desire to do Chesed went unrealized. But the Torah places the greatest emphasis precisely on the episode of desired Chesed, in which no actual Chesed took place.

In truth all that HaShem demands of us, all that is really within the parameters of our autonomy and freedom, is our will, our wants, our desire to do good as expressed in our hearts and our mouths. As the Gemara in Sanhedrin 106B says:  HaKadosh Baruch Hu Leeba Boyee –HaShem wants the heart. Whereas the actual realization of our good will, wants and desires, the actual execution of the Mitzvah comes about only through Seyata DiShmaya,-Divine assistance.  As our posuk says; the Mitzvah… is very close to you…in your mouth and in your heart. However you will need HaShems help so that you can accomplish it.’

L’Dovid HaShem Ohree V’Yishee  is the “anthem” of the month of Elul and the Days of Awe. In it we find the problematic verse (Tehilim 27:4) “One thing have I asked of HaShem,  I will ask it; that I may dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of HaShem , and to inspect  His palace.” Once the Meshorer-Psalmist declared that “One thing have I asked of HaShem” why not continue immediately with what is being asked for?  “that I may dwell in the house of al HaShem all the days of my life etc. “ Why repeat “I will ask it”? The blatant, superfluous redundancy of the posuk demands a clarification.

The Rebbe Reb Binim of Przysucha (P’shischa) explains that what the Meshorer has asked of HaShem is NOT to dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of his life but that dwelling in the house of  HaShem become his fondest desire, truly the one thing that he seeks, asks and prays for. He is asking to ask, desiring to desire, wanting to want.  The one thing that I have asked of HaShem is that Ohsah Ahvakesh…that this/it is what I will ask and pray for.

Our hearts are not always in the right place. Perhaps when we were young, or young in our Judaism, as long as we were shtaiging-progressing in our spiritual lives we could get by with very little materially. Even in our youths it is rare that dwelling in the house of HaShem all the days of our lives is our one and only request and desire. Instead it is just one, albeit a major one, of our many desires, wants and needs. Then setbacks, disillusionments, disappointments, societal and family pressures all conspired to distort our value systems and rearrange our fondest dreams and desires. We may have become more interested in maintaining and amplifying our creature comforts and financial security than in finishing Sha”s, davening ecstatically or creating a new Chesed organization that would alleviate the suffering of hundreds. In a word, we are no longer sincerely asking to dwell in the house of HaShem at all. So, whether young or old, during these days of Divine Mercy in particular we echo the prayer of the Meshorer twice daily. We ask to ask nothing else, desire to desire exclusively, want to want monomaniacally all that is good, kind, holy and exalted.

The Kohen of Lublin amplifies the Rebbe Reb Binims reading of Pslam 27. It is not that the Meshorer was trying to avoid overplaying his hand in prayer by asking to actually dwell in the house of HaShem etc. or just “having an off day”. It is that, truth be told, we can never ask for more than correct, ethical and holy yearnings.  The exercise of our free will is limited to what we want and desire and does not extend to what we do and accomplish. The mitzvah is in our hearts and mouths.  The actualization of Mitzvahs is HaShems domain, not that of human beings.

Adapted from Pri Tzadik Parshas VaYera Paragraph 10 (Page 29A)

Sacred Carpe Diem (Seize the Day)….

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah:

Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For the series introduction click

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Behold I have set the Blessing before you TODAY

First Pasuk in Parshas Re’eh -Devarim 11:26

There is an inverse relationship between our age and the quantity and the intensity of our regrets.

When we are young we tend to be more self-righteous and are less aware of our own shortcomings.  Even when a young person regrets something the future seems bright and fresh opportunities abound. Few irreversible forks in the lifes road have been taken yet. Most of all, the supply of time seems inexhaustible.  Even if mistakes have been made or opportunities squandered there is plenty of time readily available to set things right.

But as we age, our hearts fairly break with regret and remorse. More and more of the open doors of opportunity slam shut. Yesterdays sins engender new ones and, far from learning from our mistakes, we tend to habitually repeat the old ones while continuing to break fresh ground with new ones. Once we reach lifes halfway point we tend to obsess over “woulda, shoulda, coulda”. Worst of all, as the sands in our personal hourglasses dwindle to a precious few we become convinced that even if we could stop messing things up and somehow come up with a plan to rectify the past that the time we have left is insufficient to implement our plan…so why bother?

The coming month of Elul is a season for Teshuva. Yet for many of us, as regret and guilt are the very foundation of Teshuva, Elul has ceased to be a time of optimism and renewal. On the contrary, during Elul the spirit crushing thoughts of “woulda, shoulda, coulda” just intensify.

Rav Laibeleh Eiger explains that the Pasuk emphasized the word HaYomToday to challenge these depressing thoughts. The Torah is eternal and its message is equally relevant and binding for all times and places.  HaShem is assuring the Jews of here and now, of Elul 5773, that he has set THE blessing before us today…this very day. HaYom im Bekolo Tishmoun –“this very day if you were to just hearken to His voice”(Tehilim 95:7). Among the seven Shabbosos of Nechama perhaps the greatest solace of all inheres in the word “HaYom”=Today. It teaches us that huge tracts of time are not required in order to set things right. On any given day and at any given moment that one begins to regret their sins, salvation is nigh. On that very day and at that very moment HaShem sets the blessing before him.

This is why Parshas Re’eh is always read the Shabbos before Elul begins. It sensitizes us to the fact that HaShem recognizes our regret, remorse and general awakening to Teshuva and immediately responds by setting the blessings before us TODAY.

The most famous allusion to the upcoming month Ahnee L’Dodee, V’Dodee lee-“I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me” (Shir HaShirim 6:3) imparts the same message.  HaShem is neither k’vyachol –so to speak emotionally stingy nor slow to respond. Spiritual gratification is instantaneous. The moment that “I am for my Beloved” my Beloved reciprocates and “is for me”.

Two more Pesukim in Re’eh reemphasize the instantaneousness, the “Today” of Divine reciprocation, rapprochement and blessing:

L’shichno Tidreshu… U’vahsah Shamah– “Search for His closeness… and you will come there.” (Devarim 12:5).  The moment that a person rouses himself and rededicates his heart to Hashem i.e. when we seek out His Shechina and “search for His closeness” we are immediately repositioned “you will come there” I.e. that HaShem becomes revealed to the recipient and accepts him.

Ish K’matnas Yadoh– “every man according to his capacity to give” (Devarim 16:17).   i.e. immediately after the preparation has been made to receive and the hand has been outstretched comes…. K’virkas haShem Elokecha asher nosan loch  “(as) The blessing of HaShem your L-rd that he gave to you” (Ibid)

Adapted from Toras Emes-Devarim 11:26 (4th D”H Re’eh on page 208)


Location, Location, Location

In Highland Park, NJ where I live, if you’re catching the New Jersey transit train into Manhattan, you know you either need to get a ride to the train station, or leave enough time to park about a half-mile away and walk to the station. Only residential permit parking is available within the train station and vicinity unless you happened to inherit one of the coveted parking spots inside of the train station, which are renowned to be available only if your next of kin passes it on to you in his or her will.

This morning as I walked to the train station to head into Manhattan, I passed a familiar “For Sale” sign that has been posted outside of a house for sale that sits on a piece of land on the way to the station. “For sale” signs are ubiquitous since the housing market collapsed, but this stucco house is no ordinary house. By anyone’s standards, you would call it a mansion. It must be at least 5000 square feet with a large circular drive way and an ornate fountain that graces the center of that driveway. With a three-car garage (in a neighborhood where you are lucky not to have to park your car on the street), and enough driveway space to park a dozen cars for a party, this magnificent house invites curiosity. The “for sale” sign has been posted out front for the better part of a year, and it’s not a surprise.

This stunning house backs up to the train tracks, literally, a few feet away. For the buyer who wants a very short commute to the train, literally right outside their back door, or the one who grew up in the city and is comforted by the sound of commuter rails running through his living room, it could be a perfect shidduch. But still, the house sits, unsold. Where it sits matters much more than the house itself.

I used to always think of “coming from the right place” as meaning a good heart. But as I take stock of my failings, and set my sights on how to improve myself in the coming year, I face one of my greatest challenges: arrogance. It’s not the type of arrogance that often comes to mind with this word association – I’m not brash, full of pride (insecurity is more like it), or ever, the life of a party. I’m thinking of a much more slippery and I daresay evil kind of arrogance because it is disguised as well-intentioned advice.

As a wife and mother, I am often, absolutely sure, that I know better. Why does my husband not always follow my advice, when of course it is meant for his own good? Why do my three teenagers chart their own course, and sometimes, when mom makes a “suggestion” – read directive – they refuse, coming back with their own point of view? If “coming from the right place” always meant a good heart, I think that more often than I do, I would choose silence, or a hug, or a suggestion that is really meant as such – a suggestion, not a command.

I am sometimes a beautiful house (my neshama) located in the wrong location (my yetzer hara running the show). During these days of Teshuva, I silently express my regret to Hashem, and to those closest to me. This school year I have a daughter in Israel and a son boarding in mesifta. My younger daughter who is home is in 11th grade and growing more independent by the day.

May Hashem help me to locate myself in the coming year more often in wisdom and love than ego and fear.

Do I Really Have to Wake Up?

Do I really have to wake up?

I like to sleep, but I always got up for school without too much prodding (until college). However, like I wrote, I like to sleep. So, I get it when the Rambam writes that hearing the shofar relays the message:

“Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts.” (Hilchos Teshuva 3:4- translation from chabad.org)

There are times that I am just not too motivated. Elul is one of those times, despite “going through the motions” (I actually wrote about this last year), I don’t always “feel it”. The difference between my Elul last year and this year is that I can look back now and see several times during the year that I was fairly motivated with bettering myself. I have found, since Rosh Chodesh Elul that I’m not interested in writing much (even this submission was difficult), I’m dragging through the work day, I’m not taking my 3 times a week doctor-recommended 30 minute walks, I’ve gained a quarter of a pound (I’ve been on Weight Watchers since June), etc. I could come up with a number of logical reasons why I have been acting this way, but the proverbial snooze button that is my lack of motivation during Elul is probably my yetzer hora. Ok, I said it. I feel a little better. By blaming my yetzer, I feel less responsible (just joking). In actuality, admitting that there is a force that designed to pull us away from kedusha only emphasizes our greater mission as Jews.

Of course, like most important things in life, there’s no magic spell to fix my problem of motivation. I might be the only one who feels like this, but I doubt it. Most of us probably just don’t want to admit that we’re not motivated all the time. It’s sort like having to complain about the heat of the summer when you’re wearing your black hat, it’s just not socially appropriate. For whatever sociological reason, it’s not fashionable to admit life isn’t peachy and blissful. It’s full of challenges and opportunities to reach our potential. There are times that it’s difficult to do even the easy things (like walking for half an hour), let alone issues involving working on Avodas Hashem and Tikun HaMiddos. It’s so easy to say, “I don’t want to do this now”. My kids say it all the time to me. Not wanting to do homework or eating your vegetables only makes things more difficult later on down the line. Usually, with me, it boils down to having narrow vision.

Losing sight of the big picture, no matter if it’s becoming a healthier person, approaching Rosh Hashana with the understanding that I am a child of the King of Kings, or getting out of bed so I am not late is an often employed tactic of our yetzer hora. Seeing a bigger picture, or even a slightly not so smaller picture, of anything in life only happens if you wake up.

Being Before Hashem In Whatever We Do

All of the Torah is holy. Every bit of it. Every letter of every word. Lists of names and the Ten Commandments are equally holy. Yet, it is inevitable that certain portions of the Torah speak to us more than others. It may be the content. It may be the circumstances or timing when it was read. It may be other things. Last week’s sedra has a פסוק/verse that I think is especially well timed for this time of year. And I think that at any time it could be a fair motto for guiding our attitudes and choices as Jews.

תמים תהיה עם י-ה-ו-ה א-להיך Be whole with Hashem your God. This mitzvah (according to Ramban it is to be counted as a positive commandment) is stated after the Torah warns us away from various manners of foretelling the future and divination. Right after this mitzvah we are told to listen only to a true prophet. Smack in the middle of this contrast is the command: be whole with your God!

Hizkuni explains the idea ‘tamim’ to be a matter of wholeness; that we shouldn’t think that we can be in awe of anything aside from God. This indeed happens, as Hizkuni points out from the Kutim who were in the Shomron, described in the book of מלכים/Kings as ‘they feared God and worshiped their deities.’ In contrast to this, says Hizkuni, we need to be a whole, unblemished vessel filled with only one thing; that means we must be wholly with God in all our actions and all our thoughts. So said King Solomon in משלי/Proverbs, בכל דרכיך דעהו – in all your ways know Him.

We marked the anniversary of the passing of our holy teacher and guide, Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, this past erev Shabbat. In his book, Musar Avicha, Rav Kook explains the above idea from Proverbs (my translation).

“A person must seek the Holy One in all the ways that he acts. When he is busy with prayer he should seek the Holy One in the understanding of the issues of prayer and appropriate intent with a faith of the heart concerning those same matters of prayer. He mustn’t seek at that time knowledge of other things. Since he is presently engaged in this particular service/worship, the Holy One so to speak is present beside him specifically in this manner; and so that is how he will find Him, and not in some other place.

And when he is engaged in Torah study he must know that he will find the Holy One when he delves deeply to understand a matter in Torah clearly, and to retain and reveiw it well. In this he will know the Exalted One through His Torah, and not in another manner; because at this moment He is revealed in this way.

And so when a person is busy with an act of kindness to benefit his fellow, then he should seek the Holy One only in deepening his attempt at understanding how to benefit his fellow with some great, suitable, and lasting good.

And so in all the manners that one acts. Truly there is nothing in the world that is not for His Exalted honor. Therefore whatever one does should be His command and His will, and through those actions he should seek the Exalted Presence. When one tries with all his mind and abilities to do whatever he is doing completely and wholly in all manners of complete absorption, he will find that he knows the Holy One in all activities. The word ‘in’ means ‘within’, that in the very path or activity one can know the Holy One.”

In an additional note from one of Rav Kook’s notebooks, it says, “when someone does something wholly, whether in thought or deed, he should rejoice in his lot and not pursue anything else at that moment, because the entire universe is folded before him in that specific thing.”

Rav Kook once expressed a wish. “If only all my days could be in prayer.” The truth is, our sages seem to have taught us otherwise. We aren’t capable of only praying all the time! But the rav’s intent was that in everything, at every moment, he wanted to experience clearly that he stands in the Presence of God.

Rosh Hashanah is in a bit less than a month. That is the time that more than any other we recognize God as King in His world. But we can bring some of the holiness and wholiness of that recognition and experience into every day and every thing we do, if we are wholly and solely intent on recognizing Him in His world. In the King’s realm, everything is truly His. All that His subjects do is truly His. All that they have is a benefit of His rule and presence and grace. Nothing occurs outside His will.

The month of Elul is especially a capable time to develop the constant awareness of God’s presence. It is a time especially suited to direct ourselves in all that we do to recognizing and experiencing His presence. In all your ways know Him. In everything, everything! that you do, know Him.

May Hashem bless us that this year we will universally know His Presence, like the waters cover the oceans.

Eric Bruntlett’s Elul

By CJ Srullowitz (http://luleidemistafina.blogspot.com)

One of the joys of being an “ex-pat” Phillies fan, living in New York, is that I can watch my team’s games over the internet. This sure beats the good ol’ days when, in order to listen to my favorite team play, I had to drive around the county in my car, with the radio set to 1210 on the AM dial, until I found a spot that picked up, all the way from Eastern Pennsylvania, a somewhat static-free signal.

Nonetheless, when the Phillies come to New York, I am, ironically, left without video coverage of the game. You see, the way it works is that the local cable companies pay enormous sums of money to reserve all broadcast rights within a team’s market. So if you want to watch a game, in New York, featuring the Mets or the Yankees you first need to buy a cable television packages. In each market, Major League Baseball “blacks out” the local games from its internet service. So when the Phillies play the Yankees or Mets, I’m in a bind. It’s either the radio or Kosher Delight.

Such was the case today as I drove back from getting a tooth filled at my dentist’s office in Queens. The Phils were getting ready to take the field against the Mets at their brand-new home, Citi Field, just as I was driving past, my lower left jaw still numb from novacaine. I debated turning off the Grand Central Parkway and heading for the stadium parking lot to look for a last-minute ticket. But with more important things to do with my afternoon than invest three hours in a ballgame, I did the sensible thing and headed home, trying to convince myself that radio broadcasts are as good as the real thing.

The game appeared over as soon as it started. The Phillies hit two three-run homers in the first inning. But the Mets, down by six runs twice in the game, started to chip away at the Phillies lead. By the ninth, the Phillies were still in front, 9-6, but the momentum had begun to shift toward the Mets.

At this point my computer—through which I was listening to the game—informed me that the blackout had been removed for the bottom of the ninth inning, and the video feed commenced. This was great only briefly, as the first Mets hitter wound up on third, on a three-base error by the Phillies’ first baseman. That play, coupled with an unreliable Brad Lidge and his 7.05 earned run average, on the mound for the Phils, made the phaithful understandably edgy.

That unease gave way to unbridled nail-biting after second baseman Eric Bruntlett muffed the next two plays—the first, scored an error; the second, charitably, a hit. Why was Bruntlett even in the game? Where was Chase Utley, the Phillies’ perennial All-Star, and unofficial leader? He was being given—he never takes—a day off. Bruntlett, hitting .128 for the year, numbers that do not befit someone competing on a championship team, was subbing.

All of a sudden, it was deja vu all over again for the Phillies: holding a slight lead, the tying runs on base, the winning run at the plate, and nobody out—all being protected by Brad Lidge, who was carrying the weight of eight blown saves on his shoulders. We phans have been here before, we’ve seen this picture, and it doesn’t always end pretty.

And then it did.

The next hitter, Jeff Francoeur hit a bullet up the middle. Bruntlett, moving to his right, jumped up, caught the ball and landed on second base, doubling up Luis Castillo, who had been running to third on the pitch. Bruntlett then engaged in an awkward two-step with Dan Murphy, who was just arriving at second base, before tagging him on the letters. And just like that, the game was over. Phillies win.

An unassisted triple play!

I had never seen one before. Not surprising since this was only the fifteenth time in Major League history that one had ocurred. It is the rarest feat in baseball.

Eric Bruntlett, who had been responsible for allowing the two runners to reach base safely to begin with; who was on the verge of being the goat of the game; who because of his awful hitting this year might have been cut from the team if they had gone on to lose this game, emerges as the hero and will have his name in the record books. He was in the right place at the right time and reacted decisively.

Life, like baseball, has many twists and turns—some of them sudden. Elul is a time when we all are asked to come to terms with our behavior throughout the year. Perhaps we are hitting a spiritual .128 for the season. Perhaps we made a couple of errors over the summer. Perhaps we are on the verge of blowing the Big Game.

Now we are in the right place at the right time. We, too, must react decisively. Eric Bruntlett reminds us: “Yeish shekoneh olamo besha’a achas”—it’s never too late to turn it around. Redemption can come more quickly than you ever imagined possible.

Simple Kavannas for Elul

Elul is the Time to Start on the Little Things
At the beginning of Shaarei Teshuva (The Gates of Teshuva), Rabbeinu Yonah teaches that if we make our efforts in Teshuva, then Hashem will assist us in return, even to the extent of reaching the highest level of loving Him. But we have to make our efforts. Rabbi Welcher says that Elul is the time to start making efforts on the little things as we work up to dealing with some of our bigger issues.

Kavanna is a Big “Little Thing”

Where does kavanna fit in? On the one hand, we all know how difficult it is to daven a full Shomoneh Esrai with good kavanna, but on the other hand saying one brocha or doing one mitzvah with the proper kavanna is something that all of us can achieve. Being focused on Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh this year has shown me the importance of kavanna and awakened me to the fact they we can spend our whole lives involved in Torah, Mitzvos, Tefillah and Chesed, but if we are not focused on Hashem during our day to day lives, then we are not properly building our souls and achieving our purpose in this world and the next. The obvious place to start building is when we’re involved in Hashem focused activities like davening and mitzvos.

Kavanna during Mitzvos
There are three basic thoughts to have in mind before performing a mitzvah:
1) Hashem is the one who commanded this mitzvah;
2) I am the subject of that command; and
3) Through the act that I am about to perform, I am fulfilling Hashem’s command.
It’s that simple, the Commander (Hashem), the commanded (me), the fulfilment (the mitvah). So, perhaps we can focus ourselves before we do a mitzvah and have these three things in mind.

Kavanna during Prayer
Shacharis davening consists of four basic components, while Mincha and Maariv and brachos contain some subset of those components which are:
1) Thanking Hashem for the physical goodness He gives to us (Berachos/Korbanos)
2) Praising Hashem for His general awesomeness (Pesukei D’Zimra)
3) Intellectually accepting and appreciating the Kingship and Oneness of Hashem (Shema)
4) Standing before Hashem with spiritual awareness that He is the source of everything
Obviously there’s a lot to talk about here and I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Mediation as a primary source for understanding kavanna and prayer.

Kavanna during Shacharis
Let’s go through a typical Shacharis and pick some potential Kavanna points.
1) When putting on Tallis and Tefillin, have in mind the three points of Kavanna during mitzvos described above
2) When saying morning Brachos, be thankful that Hashem has given you the opportunity to say these Brochos
3) During Korbonos, say at least Parshas HaTamid and Ketores with extra focus concentrating on the simple meaning of the words
4) During Pesukei D’Zimra in Ashrei say this line with focus: Poseach Es YoDecha… – You open your hand and satisfy every living thing’s desires”. A basic understanding is that although Hashem runs the world through orderly natural laws (as symbolized by the aleph-beis structure of Ashrei), He is constantly active in running the world.
5) During Shema, before the first verse have in mind that you are accepting Hashem’s Kingship and oneship with the implication of following a Torah way of life. According to some you should have in mind that you would actually give up your life for Hashem, if necessary.
6) Before Shmoneh Esrai have in mind that you are about to stand before Hashem and pray to him, that He is awesome, and that we are relatively small compared to Him, the source of everything.

These are just some ideas. Certainly we can do one a week, or one a day, or possibly more. Whatever works for you, but let’s make the effort and earn the merit to grow closer to Hashem at this time.

Awaken – Your Lover is Calling You

Eliyahu Shear

We are taught that in the month of Elul, G-d rekindles His relationship with us – and likewise, we rekindle our relationship with Him. In Song of Songs (6:3), King Solomon states, “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” Our sages point out that the initial letters of this verse, “אני לדודי ודודי לי” spell out the word Elul – אלול – to teach us that it is especially in the month of Elul – the month that precedes the month filled with the main Jewish holidays – when love rules supreme.

As we approach the upcoming festivals in which we rekindle our love for G-d, we spend an entire month engaged in understanding what true love is all about, a far cry from the image presented to us by the modern world and modern media.

Chassidut teaches two approaches to the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people – an awakening from below or an awakening from above. Throughout the year each of us experiences these fluctuations at various different times. Sometimes it is we who wake ourselves up to serve G-d, and He returns to us – awakening us further. At other times we may not feel as enthusiastic. G-d Himself then wakes us, so that we should awaken and realise that He continues to love us and that we should now reciprocate.

King Solomon says that the month of Elul is all about waking ourselves first, and then G-d will awaken to bestow His love upon us. I am for my beloved – and then – my beloved is for me. It is up to each of us as individuals to make this relationship work. This is the service required of us in the month of Elul.

Chassidut explains that in the supernal worlds above, a revelation of the Kingship of G-d is felt, and automatically the fear of the King falls upon us, whereas below the revelation works by a person accepting upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of G-d.

The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Chassidic movement, explains the concept of the ‘Bat Kol’ – a voice which calls out from heaven at all times. Many Tzaddikim – righteous individuals are known to hear this voice calling and informing them what needs to be done. But the truth is that this voice calls to each one of us – all the time. What good does it do if none of us can actually hear it – unless of course we would all be Tzaddikim? The Baal Shem Tov explains that the soul above hears these voices and through this it draws down the awakening to man below. Even though a person does not hear the voice directly, he does do so through a concept taught that “Even though he does not see, his Mazal (spiritual root source) sees.” And through this, a great fear falls upon one.

Our duty then is to do the barest minimum – to open our hearts to the degree of the point of a pinhead, and G-d will continue the conversation, awakening us to immediately be aware that He is constantly with us. It is then up to us to continue the conversation, making our relationship even stronger with G-d – and through this to allow G-d to once again continue even stronger – with the “conversation” at hand.

I am for my beloved. I express my love, yearning to be united. And my beloved is for me. She calls to me letting me know of her love… But love is a two way relationship. Her voice calls out in the month of Elul, sweetly… silently… gently… but the soul is touched and she is stirred to awaken to unite with her lover. Are we listening well enough? Are we letting ourselves be prepared to listen? We are giving our love to her. Are we now prepared to let ourselves engage in a real lasting relationship? As we progress through this month, let us consider these thoughts. Let us listen to the voice cooing from above, waking us out of our slumber, as she calls out, preparing us for the “Day of Judgment” where we wish for only the best of everything for all – in a revealed, manifest and visible goodness.

Let us see life through the eyes of the Baal Shem Tov, and let us hear the voice which is calling from on High.

Rav Shear writes regularly at: