High Holiday Learning Program: During the month of Elul, it is traditional to spend time learning and reflecting on the themes of the high holidays, of repentance and reflection. We invite you to join other members of the PHS community for small group learning program over the course of the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Please sign up here and pick an area that you would like to explore further. Each group will be guided by Rabbi Leener, who will provide resources and facilitate a [virtual] discussion.
Shalom from Woodstock!
Faith and I were able to get away for a couple of days this week (without the kids!) and enjoyed several beautiful hikes in the area. For those needing a last minute escape before the end of summer, I strongly recommend heading up there. Our rental cabin even had a record player with albums of the great rebbes of the1960’s — Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Jimi Hendrix. Apart from reconnecting to my love of music I was taken back by the impact the woods had on me. In the spirit of Elul, I wanted to share some of the Torah that the woods shared with me.
1. Humility: Standing on a cliff that was formed over millions of years, my ego quickly deflated as I internalized my small place in the vastness of time. The High Holidays play out the tension between understanding our complete insignificance and supreme significance. Rambam (Mishna Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) explains that an individual must believe they can literally change the world, “a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself” yet the notion of life being just a fleeting dream is prominent in the liturgy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Humility is simultaneously recognizing your uniqueness and limitations as an individual.
2. Chessed (Kindness): The teshuva process is rooted in the act of giving. When we ask for God’s compassion we must also be ready to do the same. Trees are actually extremely charitable and selfless. In fact, their altruism is critical to their survival. Under the ground, trees send other trees nutrients and share water. Why do trees give so freely when humans mostly fight for resources and embody a survival of the fittest mentality? Peter Wohlleben in his book The Hidden Life of Trees explains, “This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it...Their well-being depends on their community, and when the supposedly feeble trees disappear, the others lose as well. When that happens, the forest is no longer a single closed unit. Hot sun and swirling winds can now penetrate to the forest floor and disrupt the moist, cool climate.” During these days, we transition from seeing ourselves as just individuals and affirm our collective fate.
3. Kavanah (Direction) As a completely inexperienced hiker, I appreciated all the markers and signs along the trail. This is Elul. Elul is about mapping out our trajectory for the year ahead. We often start these spiritual journeys without an intentional destination. The markers are only helpful if the path before you is where you actually want to go. Sometimes we need to have the courage to create a new path or stay on the preexisting path but allow ourselves to veer off. In the first chapter of Mesilat Yesharim, Rabbi Luzzatto explains, “The bedrock of piety and the root of flawless Divine service lies in man’s effort to clarify and verify their duty in the world.” Before we set out on this High Holiday journey, we need to have clarity to our specific duty. Elul is about putting direction into our lives.
Shabbat Shalom, RJL