Elul's Comin'

Elul's Comin' 

Rabbi Joe Blair

August 6th, 2013/30 Av 5773

Tonight, at 8:18 pm local time is sunset, which will mark the start of the first day of the month of Elul. Elul is the last month on the Jewish calendar, used to establish the cycle of holidays for the coming year, leading up to the month of Tishrei, the start of which is also known as Rosh Hashanah, which kicks off the Yamim Nora'im (ten days of awe).

Because of the nature of the holidays in the period of the Yamim Nora'im, especially Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), the month leading up to them is thought to be a time of introspection and self-examination. Elul thus takes on a sense of collective and personal internal focus. The questions we ask of our selves include: How did we do compared to how we could have done? Have we identified, acknowledged, and repented of the things we did that were not reflective of who we wish to be or become? Have we sincerely apologized, made every effort to repair damage we did, and done what we are able to seek to avoid repeating that mistake again? These are the steps of Teshuvah - repentance and return. 

We also are obliged to work at forgiving. When someone comes to us and sincerely apologizes, we have an obligation to work at forgiving them - which is not to say that we forget, or that we act as if nothing happened, but we seek to let the anger and the desire for justice or revenge go.  

I have said before that one of the hardest of all the difficult tasks in forgiving is forgiving our self. No one else is ever a harsher critic, no one else can know just how far we fell short of the mark, no one else is as aware of our own failings and shortcomings, or a harsher judge. So one of the goals of this time is to find a way to recognize our own humanity in all its imperfection, with all its flaws, and to find a way to accept our own sincere apologies and forgive what transpired so we can move forward and try again, seeking to do better.  

The sense of hope that we can gain from knowing that forgiveness is possible is part of the power of what happens on erev Yom Kippur when the Kol Nidrei is chanted. This ancient prayer that asks that all the vows and promises we could not fulfill be annulled and made as if we had never uttered them is part of the holiday rite, allowing us to clear the books and start with a clean slate before G-d.  

The music that this prayer is chanted to is deeply moving and powerful. It is almost indescribable how much it touches those who have heard it and felt the power of the words and the longing for a way to approach and return to G-d after errors, transgressions, failures, mistakes, sins, and unfulfilled promises and vows.  

To help in setting the mood, here is a version of the Kol Nidrei performed as an instrumental piece. I hope that it touches you, as it does me, and helps you in your own work at this season. The music begins at 1:47. 


Kol Nidrei - http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=4955739&m=4955759




Some Thoughts on Tu B' & the Calendar

Some Thoughts on Tu B'  & the Calendar

Rabbi Joe Blair

July 22, 2013/15 Av 5773



Today is the 15th of Av. In Hebrew we write dates using the letters of the alef-bet to represent numbers - alef=1, bet=2, gimel=3, daled=4, hey=5, vav=6, yud=10, yud-alef=11, etc. In this system, however, we sometimes form words; the most obvious (and the one that is applicable today) is the value ten plus 5 or fifteen. In the standard pattern we would form fifteen from the letters yud for 10 and hey for five. However, these letters together form the word 'Yah', which is understood to be one of the ways we name G-d. In order to observe the commandment not to take the name of G-d in vain (or for useless or futile purposes, or insignificant uses),  and to show respect, we change the pattern and we substitute the letters tet and vav, which have the values of 9 and 6, which numerically is the same, but does not form a word that has another meaning. What those letters do form is the combination that can be pronounced as 'Tu' or 'too'. That is how we come to use the name "Tu B'" to indicate 'the fifteenth of'. That comes up today, because this year, July 23rd coincides on the Hebrew calendar with the 15th of the month of Av.  

Tu B'Av is mentioned in the Talmud as the happiest day of the year, a day for rejoicing and joy. It is described in a way that makes me think of a combination of Sadie Hawkins day (if anyone remembers what that was), Valentine's day (or at least, what it has come to be seen as in the U.S.), and something like college spring break!  In short, it has the connotation of being seen as a day of love, or in more contemporary usage, the DAY OF  LOOOOOOOOOVVVEEE!  :-)   If you want to know more about Tu B'Av, you will have to look it up. Where my mind went from here is not that direction. instead, i got curious about the name of the day.

It is absolutely true that every month has a fifteenth day, so the term Tu B' happens twelve (thirteen in leap years) times every year. However, it is identified specifically in only two of those months. Obviously, Av is one of them. The other is Shevat. 

If you think back, you may recall that we celebrated Tu B'Shevat, known as the Birthday of the Trees, or the New Year of the Trees back in January (January 26th 2013). For that observance we held a Tu B'Shevat seder, reading about, focusing on, studying  Torah concerning, and eating the produce of trees. We focused on the four worlds model, identifying the various types of fruits as representing each of the worlds, and we also looked through the lenses of environmentalism, Ba'al Taschit (the Mitzvah not to destroy or waste), and a focus on spirituality. 

Today, Tu B'Av, I was thinking about the Tu - 15th - and Tu BShevat did indeed come to mind. I noted that these two dates are just about exactly six months apart in most years (leap years cause this not to be universally true), and I was reminded that there is another pair of holidays that is also almost exactly six months apart in the Jewish calendar. That would be Rosh HaShanah/Yom Kippur and Pesach - the High Holy Days and Passover. 

So I began wondering what it meant to have these pairs of equally spaced holidays that come up in the course of the Jewish year. I have to admit that in the course of the day (so far at least!) I have not had any brilliant insights, but it strikes me as far more than a simple coincidence that we have these pairs of holidays that are spaced out through the year, and that this bears a little more thought. 

I will ponder it further, but I invite you to be in touch if you feel you have any interesting insights that are worth sharing.  

Happy Tu B'Av (Love day).  :-)