The Power of Words

September 10, 2009

Our Sages say that the most dangerous weapon we have is the tongue.  According to them, this is why God provided two gates to keep it in – the teeth and the lips. We are approaching the time when we assess what we have created and what we have destroyed with our words.

The Power of Words

Words, the power of words, is all important.  Words can inspire. Words can destroy.  There is an insightful Midrash which says, “These are the words.”  Read Devarim and also devorim, wasps.  Read the rest of this entry »



September 9, 2009

My colleague, Rabbi Andrea London, with Julie Singer and Carol Wagner has created a course for the month of Elul for spiritual preparation for the High Holidays. Below is her teaching for the second week of that program (which includes many other components) which focuses on regret. This is an important step in teshuva and, according to Rabbi London, should not be left as a hurried practice sitting in services….if you’re reading this blog you already understand the great truth of that….

“How does one acknowledge sin?  One says: I implore You God…Behold, I regret [what I did] and am embarrassed by my deeds.  I promise never to repeat this act again.” [Rambam, Laws of Repentance 1:1, from Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days, Kerry M. Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabath]

Maimonides listed regret as the first part step necessary for teshuva..  S.Y. Agnon agrees with the Rambam about the importance of regret, as he wrote in the Days of Awe, “The essential purpose of teshuva is to regret the past and commit oneself not to return to that folly again in the future; for even if a man fasts frequently from Sabbath to Sabbath and performs every known form of chastisement, if he has not taken it upon himself not to return to his sin – behold, he is as one who takes a ritual bath while holding an unclean reptile in his hand.” [Siddur Derekh ha-Hayyim]

The following is a story to help us think about what role we must play during the month of Elul. Read the rest of this entry »


September 8, 2009

Many of us who attend Shabbat morning services here at Temple Israel are familiar with the kavannot/teachings by Rabbi Sheila Weinberg. Sheila, in addition to being a contributor to our prayer book, Kol Haneshamah, is a core part of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality faculty. She is a meditation teacher of amazing depth and one of the most delightful people I know. I read this poem of hers in our IJS newsletter and am posting it as our Elul reflection for today. Enjoy.

The Altar of my Life


You are a plump furry gray cat.

You plop on my lap. I am pinned in place. The old sofa sags, the springs hang


You know I am afraid of you. Read the rest of this entry »

Chai Elul

September 7, 2009

This Labor Day weekend we came to chai elul. My colleague has posted interesting readings and reflections for this period following the 18th of Elul known as chai elul. Visit to add to your daily dose of Elul material.

Repairing the World

Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof . . .Do not wrong one another, but revere your God.

Dear People,

I offer you a gift. I hope you will accept it. Linked with the gift is a burden. I hope you can handle it.

My gift is freedom.

It means that each of you can do just about anything – say anything, use, build, or destroy anything within you grasp. Read the rest of this entry »

Is There Ever Too Much?


This week’s Torah portion, and a full moon in the sky, have led me to pose our opening question. In a Torah reading where so many promises and threats are woven together one needs to stop and ask, “What, perhaps, is God afraid of in His/Her relationship with people?” or subsequently, “What are human beings, perhaps, afraid of in their relationship with God?”

I’m drawn to this question by virtue of an observation that is made in chapter 28, verse 47:

“Because you would not serve the Lord, your God, with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things / may’rov kol

It appears that this verse is claiming that it is actually the abundance that we have been blessed with that is what steers us away from God.

Time and again we are asked to answer for ourselves what are the moments in life that bring us close to God. Where is it that we share moments of intimacy with the Almighty? When is it that we find ourselves turning to the presence of God? Does our strife bring us close to God or push us to run in the opposite direction? Does the abundance of our lives bring us one step closer to God, asking, “What is that God is expecting of us to do with the gifts that have been bestowed upon us?” or perhaps, as the pasuk alludes to, it pushes us towards indifference and a sense of comfort in which God’s presence is absent?

The uniqueness of the phrase ‘may’rov kol / for the abundance of all things‘ is striking because of other places where ‘kol / all things‘ appear earlier in the Torah. I will mention two:

“And Avraham was old, advanced in age, and God had blessed Avraham with all things (ba’kol)” (Breisit/Genesis 24:1)

It is here, with the recognition that Avraham has all things, that he sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak. Could we say, that the recognition of having ‘all things’ brings to the foreground that which we are truly missing? Avraham has everything, but that everything points to what his life is lacking – a partner for his son Yitzchak, so Yitzchak too can experience ‘joyfulness and gladness of heart’.

Their offspring will also use this phrase to account for all that he has. In Ya’akov’s encounter with Ei’sav, Ya’akov beckons Ei’sav to take all the gifts that he has bestowed him with. He says:

“Take I pray of you, my blessing that is brought to you; because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough / kol” (Breisit/Genesis 33:11)

Here ‘kol‘ is translated as ‘enough’ based on the readings of the medieval commentators. It is translated in such manner to juxtapose it with the arrogance that Ei’sav speaks with only two verses earlier, when his says that he has ‘rav / abundance.

Returning to our verse in our parsha it appears that it is not necessarily having all things that is the culprit in distancing us from a sense of gratitude, but rather the element of abundance that can be dangerous, the element of ‘rav‘, the challenge of having ‘rov kol‘.

The Mei a’Shiloach, the Ishbitzer rebbe (1800-1854), picks up on this tension when he explains what appears to him to be a redundancy in the verse that also appears in our parasha:

“And all these blessings will come to you and overtake you” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 28:2)

Clearly, he questions, if the blessings have come to you, then they also overtake you. Unless, as he poses, ‘will come to you’ and ‘overtake you’ are saying two different things

The Mei Ha’Shiloach suggests that it is human nature that when we experience graciousness and abundance in our lives we inevitably change. There is fear that comes with this change. Will we still be the same people that we were, or will, God forbid, this wealth corrupt us and our earlier values? It is in response to this fear that the Ishbitzer rebbe says, ‘Do not fear, when these blessings come upon you they will overtake the ‘you’ that you always were! Do not be afraid that these blessings will distance you from God or the good that you have done in the world!’

It seems to me that we share with God the fear of “for the abundance of all things / may’rov kol.” From God’s perspective there is fear of an abundance that is too much. There is fear that in God’s will to grant us with ‘the abundance of all things‘ S/He will give us more than we can assimilate into our lives, and will cause us to turn from God. From our perspective there is fear of change. The fear that we will no longer be able to recognize ourselves as servants of God while surrounded with ‘the abundance of all things.

As the full moon shifts us this Shabbat towards Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur I find myself thinking of another word that we use in the English language for ‘all things‘ – the word ‘belongings’. There is an element of ownership that comes with the word ‘belongings’ – our belongings are things that belong to us by virtue of our owning them. But it is this time of year that begs us to look at this word differently. As we turn from taking inventory of the year that we are concluding and turning to the world of prayer to usher in the new year we are asked to think about ‘belonging’ not as what we own, but rather what are we longing for!

To ‘belong” is to ‘be-in-longing’. When a person can identify where they belong, to whom they belong, to who they are in longing and also, what belongs to them, then their life has been transformed. We greet the new year with special prayers because praying is being able to stand in the presence of the Master-of-the-World and say, “Ribbono Shel Olam, Master-of-the-World, I belong to you, and I am in-longing for you. I believe that You long for me, and are in-longing for me.”

When ‘belongings’ take upon themselves the voice of ownership, then indeed there can be a reality of ‘too much’. But, when ‘all things’ / ‘belongings’ take upon themselves the relational voice of ‘longing’ then these are moments that can only bring us closer to our Creator.

May we sit in this Shabbat and enter into the year to come with the courage to share our ‘be-longings’ with each other and find our way to serve God with ‘joyfulness and gladness of heart.’

Shabbat shalom and shana tova!

Reb Mimi Feigelson is the Mashpiah Ruchanit (Spiritual Mentor) and Lecturer of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (formerly the U.J.), Los Angeles. She is an Orthodox – Israeli Rabbi and an international Chassidut teacher and story teller.


September 2, 2009

Choose Life, Choose Love

Leo Buscaglia, in Living, Loving, Learning, tells of a despondent student’s lament:

You and your ideas about life. You make me sick. You say “choose life.”  Why the hell should I?  Life chose me.  I didn’t ask to be born.  I was made to come to this earth, and if I don’t choose to live it, I don’t see why it’s my responsibility to choose it.

Buscaglia then tells of a personal experience on Valentine’s Day.  In the Hallmark store, he saw a man searching for a card.  “Damn it, why do I have to get a card for my wife?”  Buscaglia asked him, “Then why do it?”  She’d kill me!”

A few minutes later, a young lady came in and, the author said to her, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” she replied, “You know what I’m doing here?  You won’t believe it, but my boss sent me here to buy a Valentine for his wife.  Boy, if my husband ever sent another woman to buy a card for me, I’d kill him!”

Buscaglia wrote: “Here we are standing among hearts and love tokens, and we heard about two planned murders in just five minutes . And all of a sudden it occurred to me why I go around talking about ‘choose life’ and ‘choose love.’”

Then he advises, “Pay attention, listen to how many times a day you say ‘I hate this,’ ‘Oooo, take that away, I hate it. . .’ ‘I hate those people, I hate those kinds of things.’”

Instead, learn to say “I love . . .”

Then: “I love so intensely because there’s so much to know and to see and to do and to taste and to chew – especially to chew!  I’ll show you how naive I really am.  Has it ever occurred to you?  Aren’t you amazed that carrots taste like carrots and radishes taste like radishes?  And that if we mix them together, and make some kind of goulash, we can get a third taste?   I’m astounded by things like that.”

The Talmud tells us:  “Each person will some day be called to give account for all the permitted pleasures which our eyes beheld and of which we refused to partake.”

Melekh chafetz ba-chaim!

Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Rosh Hashanah, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins


September 1, 2009

I found it ironic that I read this next piece just after finishing setup of a way to post to this blog by cell phone so as not to miss a day again in Elul. I was very proud of myself for keeping my cool during that particular round of technofrenzy and successfully enabling (as the tech language has it) this short cut then read the piece posted here…

Traveler’s Advisory

We find in the Talmud a very interesting story related by Rabbi Joshua Ben Chananiah.  Once he was walking on the road, seeking his way to town.  He met a young boy at the crossroads, and asked him the way to town.  The boy, pointing his finger to the right, answered, “This road is near and far.”  He turned to the left, pointed his finger, and said, “This road is far and near.”  Rabbi Joshua took the road to the right, thinking it was the shorter, but found the way blocked by fruit gardens surrounded with fences.  He returned and found the boy who had directed him.  Read the rest of this entry »

A Push Towards Teshuva

September 1, 2009

I often have trouble really getting it that the Days of Awe are upon us, that the time to begin the teshuva process is NOW. The reading below is a gentle but firm push towards our own annual autumnal instinct to assess, regret, and repent.

A New Season of the Spirit

Summer is passing.  The days grow shorter.  The sound and colors of nature, the stirring of the wind, speak to us of changes in the world, in life and in man’s course on earth.  We are also about to enter upon a new season of the spirit, of the soul.  It reminds us of our changing lives and fortunes, of the changes that take place within our homes, our communities, our world.  It bids us look upon the changes that have taken place within ourselves . . . Awed and subdued, we stand before the threshold of a New Year.  We recall those moments in the past year when we rejoiced in our victories and achievements, our decent impulses and our generous action.  But now, in the presence of that Eternity to which a dying year compels our attention, we are mindful that our defeats were greater than our triumphs.  We failed ourselves by failing to rise to our own level.  We failed our fellow human beings by failing them in their need for our love and respect. We failed our God by worshipping ourselves.  For all these, at this turning point in endless time, we would seek forgiveness, our God.  We come to You to help us lift the burdens of our souls, for there is none of us so virtuous or so proud whose heart does not cry out, despite ourselves, for forgiveness.

Rabbi David Polish, Moments of Transcendence: Inspirational Readings for Rosh Hashanah, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins

Exile and Expectations

August 30, 2009

Next are two pieces from works of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most sublime philosophers of recent history.  The first is a wonderful expression of a spiritual oxymoron – the more I do not feel I belong here given the human condition, the more I belong to the human condition. Often our questions about how we can live and stay hopeful in a world filled with so much suffering feel like questions which distance us from religion. Here, Heschel suggests the opposite, quite powerfully. He describes our distress as definitive as regards a religious perspective. How amazing a way forward!


The true motivation for prayer is not, as it has been said, the sense of being at home in the universe, but rather the sense of not being at home in the universe.

Is there a sensitive heart that could stand indifferent and feel at home in the sight of so much evil and suffering, in the face of countless failures to live up to the will of God? On the contrary, the experience of not being at home in the world is a motivation for prayer.

That experience gains intensity in the amazing awareness that God himself is not at home in the universe. Read the rest of this entry »

Taking Responsibility

August 30, 2009

Taking Responsibility

Taking responsibility means saying, “I can see that something is wrong. If it is my fault, I admit it and I am sorry. If it is not my fault, I will do what I can to help make things better.”

After Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the fruit of the tree, they were ashamed. Because they were afraid to take responsibility for what they had done, they hid themselves. Hiding is the opposite of taking responsibility.

There are many ways of hiding. We can pretend that we don’t see what is wrong: a mess to be cleaned up or the sadness of someone who needs extra loving. We say to ourselves, “I am too busy” or “I am too tired to help.” Read the rest of this entry »