Approaching Elul

 On the night of August 26, the Hebrew month of Av ends, and the month of Elul begins. Elul in Jewish thought is a sacred time during which we begin in earnest the process of self-examination and reflection in preparation for Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) a month hence.

 We need this month to prepare for the grueling period of introspection that the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) should be. A sports team does not simply put on their uniforms and show up to play their first game. They prepare and practice for weeks beforehand. So it should be with us and the Days of Awe. We do not just show up and expect to be “ready to play” on Rosh Hashanah. We carefully prepare during the month of Elul by reviewing our thoughts and actions over the past year and asking ourselves, “How can we do better in the year ahead?”

 It is a worthy task that elevates our humanity. If we take it seriously, the Days of Awe themselves will be much more meaningful, and we will enter the new Year better equipped to use the talents with which God has blessed us to make on this earth a more just, caring and compassionate society!

 The moon of Av wanes rapidly,

And soon Elul arrives—

A holy month, our Sages taught,

A chance to examine our lives.

 We prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe

The Holy Days just ahead.

We look at our thoughts, our words, our deeds,

“What might we have done instead?”

 To better live true to the Covenant

The Almighty asks we uphold

To work to create a better world

As our lives unfold.

 Will our world be a kinder realm

Because God planted us here?

Will we strive to make the earth a place

Where no one needs to fear?

 As the moon of Av wanes rapidly

And sacred Elul arrives

May these be the questions we ask ourselves

As we examine our lives!


Another Bar Mitzvah Memory and Its Legacy

55 years ago this coming Shabbat I was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah.  Although compared to most B’nai Mitzvah today, I did little in the service, I feel my knowledge of my portions was pretty deep for a thirteen-year-old.

I remember my rabbi, Avraham Soltes, of very blessed memory, standing next to me with his strong left arm around my shoulder!  It was so reassuring because I remember as I described in an earlier post (How I Came to Love Torah) being very nervous.  But what I remember most appreciatively, and what I incorporated in almost every Bar/Bat mitzvah service I conducted over 40 years (except in a very few cases when parents insisted that I do not) were the questions.

In our synagogue back then, students did not give the speeches or Divrei Torah that have become de rigueur  today.  Rather, after I had finished my readings Rabbi Soltes asked me questions.  He asked about my portion, he asked me to recite the ten commandments, and he asked me what my favorite Psalm was and to quote a bit of it.  I quoted Psalm 61, still a favorite, “Hear my cry, O God.  Attend unto my prayer.  From the ends of the earth I cry out to you when my heart is overwhelmed.  Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.”  Without doubt, it was the questions and my ability to answer them that made my Bar Mitzvah day the most important day in my life.

Today, few rabbis ask questions.  Only one of my colleagues with whom I worked together in years past, Rabbi Beth Davidson, continues the practice in her own congregation.

Today as well, most Bat Mitzvah kids will not even know what a Psalm is.  Rather they have spent hours memorizing the chant of long sections of the Torah.  Few, though, learn Hebrew vocabulary words that the rabbi can ask them on the bema and invite the student to explain how they fit into his or her Torah or Haftarah portion.   I think our students are the losers.

The skillful rabbi knows that with a gifted student the material he/she expects the student to know can range far and wide.    With a slower student, the rabbi and the student deal with a much smaller vocabulary list and other potential questions.  In the service then, the difference between a gifted and slower student is not the AMOUNT of Hebrew that they chant, rendering the difference between them crystal clear to everyone who attends.  The difference when questions are asked is more subtle, how much material have the student and rabbi covered when they studied together.

Yes, it can happen that a student will not know an answer, but if the rabbi has done her/his homework it should be  very seldom. In life, there is always a chance that something goes wrong.  A skillful rabbi who has studied with his or her students will know what they know greatly minimizing the chance that the student will (in common parlance) “mess up.”  A skillful rabbi also knows how to cover for the student in the rare cases that it happens.  Once — only once — in the 100’s of services I conducted a student missed a question, and I did not cover properly.  I regret my lapse –30 years ago– and I will continue to regret it.  But I don’t see that one slip as reason to deny a student the opportunity to remember what he or she learns — not how well or how much he or she can chant — as the focal point of the experience.