Get Lost – 9th of Elul

When I was younger I was visiting with a friend. We were driving around and at some point we became completely lost. My friend had been living in his town for about a year and yet we were lost. This was new to me. When I was younger I really didn’t get lost. I was able to concentrate, visualize and be aware of where I was and where I was going.

I was laughing, “Man, I can’t believe we are lost.” My friend, rolling with it, retorted, “It happens.” Young and stupid I responded, “I never get lost.” Friend replies, “What do you mean? You ‘never get lost.’” “I just don’t. I know where I am, I’m really aware of my surroundings and I can find my way around. I just don’t get lost.”

My amazing friend looks at me and says, “I bless you that you should get lost.”

This brings us to the last of Maimonides 7 paths of repentance:

[T]o travel in exile from one’s home. Exile atones for sin because it causes a person to be submissive, humble, and meek of spirit.

Exile, getting lost, is really beneficial for our souls. In the 19th century great Hassidic Rebbes  (rabbis) would go out into the world with only the clothes on their back and would travel all week and settle where ever they were for Shabbat. They had no money and, incognito, they would beg for food, at the mercy of the Creator, they would drift for years before assuming their place in the hierarchy.

One explanation of their behavior: after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem the Holy Spirit, the Shekhina, is in Exile. These Rebbes were trying to understand what God, as it were, was experiencing. The uncertainty, the foreign locations, the privations of being without a home.

Maimonides says it very clearly, these experiences bring a person to be “submissive, humble, and meek of spirit.” These are important aspects of contrition. (I wanted to see where the word ‘contrition’ comes from: from the Latin contritus ‘ground to pieces’, i.e. crushed by guilt.)

You have to be broken to be fixed. Exile helps you feel all the parts that are really broken not just a little off.

So exile – how do you do it? You get lost. Turn off the GPS, for real, and go out and experience vulnerability.

Another way to do this: pretend you are someone else in the context of an experience you have had before. When you get the wrong food from the takeout place – eat it anyway. If they didn’t hold the mayo – eat the mayo. Take what comes to you.

When your loved one opens an old wound, one that usually gets your back up – step back and say, “You know what? I’m living different this time.”

I get lost more often these days. Were it not for my cellphone enabled GPS I would spend weeks of a month in remote parts of New England trying to get directions from strangers with heavy yankee accents.

I bless us all to get lost and find ourselves.

Don’t Be You Anymore? – 8th of Elul

For context read the previous posts.

Our next step:

[T]o change your behavior in its entirety to the good and the path of righteousness;

This one is a bit more complicated.

How can I be expected to entirely change who I am? Maimonides is referring to a vision of the world that is dualistic – that every action, food, behavior, thought, etc… falls on a spectrum of either good or evil. So here our Teacher is telling us – to flip any negative/evil behaviors completely over to the side of positive/good.

Frankly I find this one nearly impossible. Not that change is impossible, I’ve been saying we can change for ten days now, it’s that we can’t flip a switch and change. Maimonides’ use of the word “entirely” is what throws me.

So how do we use this challenge to help us along our path? We have to re-appropriate the word “entirely.” Here I will say that “entirely” means “all of me is open to change.” My thoughts, actions, behaviors, relationships, language, habits, on and on.

How do we do this? We do an inventory. In Hebrew this is called חשבון נפש, an accounting of the soul or person. The best way, in my opinion, to do this, is to email yourself every time you find yourself in a moment where you feel you aren’t the best you can be. Then compile the emails into a list and chose a partner, or loved one with whom you feel safe and discuss.

If you are a teacher this is like Reflective Practice. If you are a med-student this is like rounds. Each of us has been in this place before – reviewing what we are doing with others to help.

It’s all on the table. We all need to pull ourselves together at all times, may as well start now as we approach the Jewish New Year.


I am no longer me – 7th of Elul

Today’s behavioral change is a strange and sometimes fun one: to change one’s name, as if to say “I am a different person and not the same one who sinned.” This is not so simple as wearing a name tag – even one like this:

name is no longer

The thing about names is we all have dozens, here is my (partial) list of proper nouns: Michael, Mike, Michael Jason, Rack, Racko, Rackover, Fatboy (don’t ask), Skin and Bones, Mordechai, Mordechai Zvi, Mordechai Zvi ben Israel, HaRav, Rebbe, Rabbi, Rabs, Rav, mrackover. And then there are the nouns: son, father, abba, brother, uncle, cousin, student, teacher, driver, walker, rabbi, chaplain, consultant, chef, writer, blogger, etc…

So the truth is most of us want to keep most of our names. But then there are those we want to shed and, just like in previous posts, this requires a change in actions and attitudes.

Some names we have to change for ourselves – smoker, Pringles-addict, etc… But there are names we have which require confrontations. These are hard.

When I was a pre-teen at sleep-away camp I used to wear shorts. A friend, a genuinely decent guy, used to call me peg-leg. I don’t think I minded. It was kinda funny, it didn’t hurt my feelings and my leg is really skinny. But had I wanted him to stop I would have had to confront him – choosing an attitude first – happily, sadly, jokingly, somberly, and asked him to stop.

We often make this calculation in our mind: is what that person thinks of me, or calls me, less hurtful than the potentially uncomfortable situation that will ensue if I call them on it? Usually we just let things go because we don’t want to make waves. But, as we learned yesterday, waves help settle the world back into balance.

So we need to confront external forces that identify us as characters or behaviors we want to change. It’s hard.

Another aspect of this is confronting inherited perceptions of ourselves because of what others have called us in the past. I was tagged as a ‘lazy’ boy when I was in grade school. I never did homework, teachers thought that when I did do work I was rushing through it. Years later we figured out all kinds of things about my learning style, abilities and disabilities and now I know much better – I wasn’t lazy. But the name stuck in my head. I would say, “I’m lazy.”

About 7 years ago I uttered these words in front of a friend, he almost angrily said, “You’re lazy? You teach 6 classes in middle and high school, are youth director of a synagogue, have 2 kids, a wife and teach a parsha class weekly. You are not lazy.” I needed my friend to kick me in the butt a bit and remind me that I had inherited perceptions of myself that were not true.

So part of the work of repentance is re-identifying. Send out an email and change your name(s). Talk to a lover or friend and ask them to help you re-identify.

Blessings for success,

Distance – 6th of Elul

When I was a child my mother wanted to help me stop biting my nails. She bought this nasty tasting nail polish. Not only didn’t it stop me from biting my nails it ruined any ‘finger-licking’ meals I might have been involved with. It didn’t help at all.

Maimonides’ third behavior on the path to repentance is - to separate oneself far from the object of one’s sin; (gender neutral language supplied by me.) This one is really hard. We all want to improve, be it our diet, our habits, our stress levels, but distance is very hard to find.

What Maimonides is speaking off can be read quiet straightforwardly – if you like eating non-kosher food, which is forbidden, then stay away from the food court. What Maimonides doesn’t say, and the place where people get tripped up, they forget to bring lunch. We can just cut behaviors and habits out of our lives – we need to replace them with healthy ones. Instead of nails I should have been chomping carrots or M&Ms (a few weeks of chocolate would’ve been a small price to pay for nice nails.)

When we have a dangerous habit, like smoking, we know that cold turkey is very difficult. So some people us the patch, others gum, there are ways to compensate for the change in habit.

When are in a toxic relationship we need to replace it with a healthy relationship wherein we have the possibility of success and growth. We tell this to young people all the time, “Why don’t you play with X instead of Y. She’s much nicer to you.” But as adults we seem to get locked in an paralyzed. We forget our own advice to others. Distance.

Distance is important – it is the beginning of change but the world is seeking equilibrium and when you throw that off by ejection rather than replacement then everything has a hard time coming back to balance.

With blessings for healthful change,

Charitable Living – 5th day of Elul

Continuing with Maimonides’ list of the seven behaviors that are conducive to repentance we come to number two – to perform charity according to one’s potential. There are many many forms of charity. The first one that comes to mind is to give funds to the needy. This behavior helps us understand that we are fortunate and that our lives are full of abundant kindness and mercies.

Charity can take other forms as well. We can be more charitable with our time. Seeking out projects or organizations that could use our support in ways that money can’t buy. We can also do projects that may not get done if not for us. An example that comes to mind – the adopt a highway programs that so many states feature. I’ve always thought that as important as it is to get the highway clean even more importantly people drive by and see that others care and take responsibility. Find a project that won’t happen if not for you and use it to inspire others.

Another form of charity is being charitable in our judgements of others. Judge people favorably and judge yourself favorably. Stop thinking about yourself as – lazy, slow, disorganized, unhappy, a poor speaker, a bad boss, a crummy parent, a bad parker. Whatever it is that you are judging harshly judge charitably. You aren’t lazy you have a million things to do and this one more is too much, you aren’t slow, you are careful, you’re not disorganized, you have chosen to prioritize engagement over order, etc…

Doing a little bit of each of the above will set you on a strong footing and a right path to greater joy and stronger identity.

Speak Out: day one of the 7 day repentance program – 3rd of Elul

In yesterday’s post we mentioned Maimonides’ list of behaviors that are on the path to repentance. We will examine each one a little more closely and describe how we can make this behavior a part of our everyday experience to help us move towards personal repair.

The first behavior – “constantly call out before God, crying and entreating” – sounds like prayer. But, in fact, it isn’t. Maimonides always chose his words very carefully and he doesn’t use the Hebrew word for prayer, תפילה, tefillah. What then is the behavior that Maimonides is describing?

In my opinion our teacher was making us aware that the daily structure of prayers sometimes just aren’t enough. Let’s face it, many people reading this don’t pray daily, let alone three times a day, and even those who do pray regularly become ensnared in the rote of habits. The calling out that is described here is a calling out that is personal and outside of the bounds of the ordinary and prescribed.

Unlike the regular prayers that are at fixed times, these supplications are constant. And, in my opinion, this is where it gets difficult and becomes rewarding.

Belief in a Divinity is a major challenge for many. For some it is an occasional challenge. For others it is constant. For some it is no challenge as they simply are not inclined to even engage with the possibility. So for those who have these challenges calling out would seem foolish or difficult and certainly people will be self-conscious.

So what is the practice and why do it?

I think the best practice is to actually take some time out of your day and speak aloud and narrate your thoughts. Focus on positives. “I am thankful for the amazing weather.” “This food is delicious.” “I wish I was less insecure about my body.” “I need to speak to my sister and make things right.”

Where should you do this? Do it in your car when you are alone. Do it while you walk down the street. Hold your cellphone to your ear and do it when you are on a park bench. If you don’t care what others think go for it where-ever when-ever.

This practice can then be adapted to a beginning of a conversation with or to God. “I wonder if God cares about my relationship to my sister.” “I wonder why God made it so that I’m allergic to peanuts.” “I hope that God understands that I’m trying to improve.”

If these practices help then you can try and enter into a direct dialog with the Creator. Does God answer, usually not audibly, but you may have some insights that come through.

Making them constant is a real challenge but can be very beneficial for your self-awareness. Suddenly you’ll find yourself saying things, aloud or in your mind, that you didn’t realize were affecting you. You can then work on them, tease them out and create resolutions. Making it a conversation makes it less awkward and more likely to happen.

Why does this help with repentance? I believe that Maimonides saw it as a way of communicating yourself to God. Forming the words and sending them off, as it were. I think that the value here is personal reflection and in preparing for more personal prayer on the holidays. Who says you have to stick to the text of the prayer book?

Shabbat Shalom,

Getting in Shape to Repent – 2nd of Elul

About 18 months ago I went for a physical. I had a blood test and it came back with shockingly (!) high cholesterol. Ratio, total, L, H, it didn’t matter it was a lot of cholesterol. In a memorable conversation my doctor looked at me, only recently thirty-eight, and said, “You know, forty year olds have heart attacks.”

That made an impression.

I realized that there was no one that could help me but me and that if I wanted to be around for a few more years I’d probably have to get myself in order.

So that is exactly what happens in Elul. There is Someone or Something that you have to check in with but the motivation to improve is entirely internal. My doctor didn’t call me every evening and ask what I ate. The Blessed Holy One doesn’t do it either. It is up to us to fix and get ourselves in shape.

The challenge that my doctor put to me was existential. The challenge that I put to each of us is to regard the process of preparing for the High Holidays as existential. I don’t believe that I will die if I don’t repent by Yom Kippur. But I do think that if we don’t build a process of repair and correction into our lives then we are suffering from a spiritual death that is as harmful to our long term well-being as high cholesterol.

Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance (2:4,5) identifies actions and qualities that are ‘…among the paths of repentance…”

a) constantly call out before God, crying and entreating;

b) to perform charity according to his potential;

c) to separate himself far from the object of his sin;

d) to change his name, as if to say “I am a different person and not the same one who sinned;”

e) to change his behavior in its entirety to the good and the path of righteousness;

f) to travel in exile from his home. Exile atones for sin because it causes a person to be submissive, humble, and meek of spirit.

In the next halakha he adds confessing publicly. This list is the Teshuva workout. 7 steps. If we practice them regularly we have a chance to actually change our lives and have a deeper High Holiday experience.

In my next few days’ posts I will describe how we can use each of these practices on a daily basis to improve ourselves, our relationships and our chances for longer happier lives.

Epilogue: I brought cholesterol way down. My doctor was completely stunned. Remember: “Cheese is the downfall of the healthy minded.”

Noisy Repentance – 1st of Elul

It is told of the Ba’al Shem Tov that one Yom Kippur a poor Jewish boy, an illiterate shepherd, entered the synagogue where he was praying. The boy was deeply moved by the service, but frustrated that he could not read the prayers. He started to whistle, the one thing he knew he could do beautifully; he wanted to offer his whistling as a gift to God. The congregation was horrified at the desecration of their service. Some people yelled at the boy, and others wanted to throw him out. The Ba’al Shem Tov immediately stopped them. “Until now,” he said, “I could feel our prayers being blocked as they tried to reach the heavenly court. This young shepherd’s whistling was so pure, however, that it broke through the blockage and brought all of our prayers straight up to God.” ( 


Yesterday, I wrote about quiet repentance. Today we blew the shofar ringing in, as it were, another round in the battle with our egos and behaviors.

The shofar is a bit of a secret. Sure it’s loud and public and draws attention but what is going on? There are all kinds of answers: It is announcing the arrival of the King; it is us heading into battle for our lives; it’s commemorating the covenant at Sinai; or the ram that was sacrificed in place of father Isaac. All the answers are true.

But the secret is that there is no answer. The shofar is a mystery. Blowing this horn is very different than other commandments: put up a mezuzah – there’s a text inside that I should remember, same with tefillin. Make a seder – tons of content. Pray – ok there is a some kind of communication with yourself and God. We could go through many many mitzvot and we could find a simple and straightforward reason for their performance.

But shofar? Even Maimonides says:

Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion.

By ‘decree‘ (in Hebrew גזירת הכתוב) Maimonides means – it’s just something that we do because the Torah says so. But, he continues, there is something to it.

It is as if [the shofar's call] is saying:

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.

I believe that Maimonides, by avoiding any allusions to historical events, military actions, or regal announcements, has purposefully left the shofar experience wide open for personal definitions and content.

The shofar, which will be blown daily (except Shabbat and the day before Rosh HaShannah) for the next month, is a wide open sound. There are no words. There is no content. The reason – because each of us needs to fill the shofar with our own selves. The call is loud and personal and sometimes without words.

What’s in your shofar?


Quiet Repentance – 30th of Av

If one hears the tune of kol nidrei from a violin it is possible to be awakened and to repent.

Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk


(For full effect click on the link - Yo Yo Ma & Baltimore Symphony - and listen to the music as you read.)

Today is the thirtieth day of the month of Av. Av is about our people looking backwards at previous failings; at the destruction we have endured; at why we have not yet achieved full redemption.

Tomorrow is the first day of Elul the month where individuals look back at their personal lives and begin to make repairs so that they are prepared for the Days of Awe, Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur.

Due to the complexities of the Jewish calendar Rosh Hodesh Elul, the minor festival that celebrates the new month of Elul, is two days. Today, the first day, is the silent day. Tomorrow we start making some noise.

It is a custom to blow the Shofar every day in Elul (except the day before Rosh HaShannah). Today, which is called Rosh Hodesh Elul but is really the final day of Av, we don’t blow it. Today is the last day of quiet repentance. Today is the last day to repent on your own schedule. We are commanded to repent at all times, to imagine that every day is our last, never to go to bed angry or feeling that you aren’t ‘clear’. But during Elul there is a sense of special time, eit ratzon, when the universe is aligned for repentance. But today you can sneak in under the wire and do some cleaning and clearing before everyone else jumps in.

Elul is hard – we look out the window at a beautiful August sky the weather beckons us to play not to contemplate our mortality. In fact on days like this we feel immortal, alive and enjoying the sweetness of life.

So today, the last of Av, the day of quiet repentance, we can use a little help getting ourselves ‘up’. And that is why the Kotzker’s words are so powerful. Just that tune can set you trembling. Just the idea of Kol Nidrei can set you back under your tallit and into your seat at shul from years gone.

The awe is there.

And importantly the memory of years of successful and meaningful repentance is as well.

Blessing us all with quiet success.