Rosh Chodesh Elul

by Rabbi Sonya Starr

Tonight is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish Year.  Elul is the month the rabbis set aside for us to prepare for the upcoming High Holy Days.   Some might say it is our month to stretch our spiritual muscles, and do our warm up exercises.  The month of Elul is the month where we take stock of what this last year has been like.  Collectively none of us has experienced anything like this year before.  Individually, many of us have had to cope and pivot on a dime, learning how to make the most amazing lemonade possible.  Some of us are still trying to find our bearing, our moral center.  Each of us have made mistakes and learned new ways of being.  After all, we all are human.  And if nothing else is predictable, human beings do make human mistakes.  The month of Elul is our time to really look our imperfections in the face, and work to rectify them.  Call up those people we have hurt.  Put a plan into place to change those characteristics about ourselves we just do not like.  Take the time to change the circumstances of our life that do not give our lives meaning.  If in any way I have hurt you, please let me know so that I can make amends and learn from my mistakes. 

As I take a moment to think about my last year, I realize it began shortly after last Simchat Torah with handing in my letter notifying you of my intention to leave June 2021.  As part of my preparation for Rosh Hashanah 2020, I decided to look back at all the different kavanot/meditations/poems/quotes I have shared with you previously.  Apparently, I did not start recording what kavanot I used until 2003.  What follows are two musings from each year starting with 2003.  I hope you find these memories as meaningful as I did. 

This fall our High Holy Days are going to look different.  Most of you will be participating virtually.  I know that I for one will miss hearing the band, choir, and most of all your voices joining together to lift each of us up higher than we could ever reach alone.  As true as that statement is, [and it is true,] it is also true, living life virtually will allow us different options, as we would have had if we were praying together in the same room.  If you will have children in your home for Rosh Hashanah and/or Yom Kippur, you can have them in the room with you playing with quiet toys, or not so quiet toys.  They can listen to the service, watching when a sound catches their attention, and having a meaningful discussion with you in real time about what does this all mean anyways.  If you have a hard time sitting for long periods, you will be able to watch the different pre-recorded parts of the service at your own leisure instead of watching it roll by all at once. 

I encourage you to take some time this month to think about space.  Ilyse, my partner, says that I do not notice our physical space unless I accidently bump into it.  Try bumping into your physical space during the month of Elul.  Which room would be the most conducive to watching the services?  Do you have a special heirloom that you want to frame your streaming device?  What chair will allow you to stay spiritually awake?  Do you have special items:  a mahzor, tallit, kippah, candlestick holders, pictures of the family and friends you miss, incense that you would like to enhance your space?  What would help turn your home into an extension of our sanctuary?

During this month, there are many different learning opportunities with the greater Baltimore area Jewish community, the Reconstructionist movement, Howard County Board of Rabbis and within CJC.  Take a moment to read the different emails that Robin sends out, and check out our calendar for more information. 

Take advantage of the greatest gift of all, the gift of time, the gift of the month of Elul.  May this coming year be a sweet, healthy and meaningful New Year for all of us.  שנה טובה ומתוקה/ May it be a good and sweet year!


  • “If you look at the stars and yawn” by Aron Zeitlin

Praise me, says God, and I will know that you love me.

Curse me, says God, and I will know that you love me.

Praise me or curse me

And I will know that you love me.


Sing out my graces, says God,

Raise your fist against me and revile, says God.

Sing out graces or revile,

Reviling is also a kind of praise,

says God.


But if you sit fenced off in your apathy,

says God,

If you sit entrenched in: “I don’t give a hang,” says God,

If you look at the stars and yawn,

If you see suffering and don’t cry out,

If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,

Then I created you in vain, says God.




  • Phyllis Trible


“Hagar is the faithful maid exploited; she is the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class; she is the surrogate mother-dismissed when her baby is delivered; she is the resident alien without a green card and without any legal protection; she is the other woman; she is the divorced mother with child; she is the shopping bag lady; she is the welfare mother; and she is the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.  And once a year the Torah makes us confront her story so that we may have some awareness of what all these people go through and so that we may think about our responsibilities to them.”



1)      Rabbi Daniel Pressman


            “Do you know the blessing that you are supposed to recite at this moment?  The Talmud             says that when you see a great crowd of Jews assembled together you are supposed to           say the blessing: ברוך חכם הרזים which means:  Praised be the Wise One who         understands secrets.  For this is what each and every human being is, a secret.  We see the outside of each other but what goes on inside another human being none    of us knows.  We human beings are an assembly of walking secrets.  Only Gd is wise     enough to be able to comprehend the secrets insides each one of us.  What a       wonderful blessing!  It is a reminder of the absolute individuality and value of every       human being.  Each one has his or her own story, his or her own dreams,     his or her own             fears, his or her own concerns…..We begin the New Year alone, each with our own secrets.  We begin the New Year together, strengthened by each other. 

            ברוך חכם הרזים, blessed be the One who     understands our secrets.  May He      hear our prayers.”


  • “What I wish for You” by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso

On this Rosh Hashanah

And throughout the years to come,

I wish for you to become people of character

Strong but not tough, gentle but not weak.


May you learn to laugh at yourselves,

But not to mock others.

May you grow to be righteous but not self-righteous,

Honest but not unforgiving.


Wherever you journey,

I hope that your steps will be firm,

That you will walk in just paths and not be afraid.

Whenever you speak,

May your words be words of wisdom and friendship.


May your hands build and your heart perceive

What is good and beautiful in our world.

May the voices of the generations of our people move through you

And may the Gd of our ancestors be your Gd as well.


I pray that you know that there is a people,

A rich heritage, to which you belong.

May you be bonded to our people and its land,

And know that through that sacred heritage

And from that sacred place,

You are connected to all who dwell on the earth.


I hope that the stories of our people

Will be upon your heart,

And your soul dance with gracefulness

To the rhythm of Torah and mitzvot.


For our children and for us, let us all say, amen


  • James Baldwin


“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed, until it is faced.”


  • “Self Portrait at 44” by Linda Pastan

How friendly

my failures have become,

how undemanding.

Scraping chairs across the room

they sit down next to me

like family almost,

and indeed we have grown

to look alike.

One of them always puts

a log on the fire

and though it’s wet

and fouls the room

I am warm for awhile,

and drunk with yawning

I sometimes fall asleep

sitting up.


  • “Native American Prayer”

Hold on to what is good,

            Even if it is a handful of earth.

Hold on to what you believe,

            Even if it is a tree which stands by itself.

Hold on to what you must do,

            Even if it is a long way from here.

Hold on to life,

            Even if it is easier letting go.

Hold on to the hand of your neighbor,

            Even when we are apart.


  • Dov Peretz Elkins


“After a long, hard climb up the mountain, the spiritual seekers finally found themselves in front of the great teacher. 

Bowing deeply, they asked the question that had been burning inside them for so long:  ‘How do we become wise?’

There was a long pause until the teacher emerged from meditation.  Finally, the reply came:  ‘Good choices.’ 

‘But teacher how do we make good choices?’

‘From experience’ responded the wise one.

‘And how do we get experience?’

‘Bad choices’ smiled the teacher.”


  • Rabbi Maurice David


“Wherever justice is perverted, there Gd is not.  Wherever mercy is missing, there Gd is missing too.



I love the story about the poor man who tried to get into a rich Shul, and they were too polite to say to him that they didn’t want to let him in.  So they put him off with one excuse after another.  ‘You need letters of reference,’ and then, ‘You need to wait until the committee meets,’ and so on.  Until finally, the poor man began to get the idea.

One day he went to the Shul and got rebuffed with the same excuse, and as he was walking away, feeling downhearted and depressed, he chanced to meet Gd.  And Gd said, ‘Why do you look so sad?’  The man said, ‘Because I’ve been trying to get into that Shul for months and I can’t get in.’

And Gd says, ‘I know how you feel.  I’ve been trying to get into that Shul for years, and I can’t get in either.’

It makes no difference how fancy the furniture, or how many times Gd’s name is invoked in a place.  Either justice and mercy are there, or else Gd is not there either.  That is the message of [Isaiah] to humanity.” 

  • Maya Angelou was interviewed by Oprah on her 70+ birthday.


“Oprah asked her what she thought of growing older.  And, there on television, she said it was ‘exciting.’  Regarding body changes, she said ‘there were many, occurring every day…like her breasts.  They seem to be in a race to see which will reach her waist first.’ The audience laughed so hard they cried.  She is such a simple and honest woman, with so much wisdom in her words!

Maya Angelou said this “I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.’

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things:  a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Xmas tree lights.

I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.’

I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life.

I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands, you need to be able to throw something back…

I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one…

‘I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.

 I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’’


  • Soren Kierkegaard


‘“Faith is NOT:  when the sea is calm, the sun is shining, the captain is sober, and you believe that the ship will reach the shore. Most likely it will.  Faith,’ explains Kierkegaard, ‘is when the seas are raging, the ship is floundering, the captain is drunk, but with it all, you have faith that the ship will reach its destination.  That is true faith.”’


  • Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


“If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that Gd has left for you to complete.  But if you only see what is wrong and how ugly it is, then it is yourself that needs repair.” 


  • Jewish Reflections in Death edited by Jack Riemer


 “Judaism has no answer for the question which haunts all who have suffered a loss:  ‘Why my relative and not someone else’s?’ nor for the question which lies under this one:  ’Why me-why should I have to be alone, why should I have to suffer, why should my life be out of kilter-, and not someone else?’ The first word uttered when one hears of a death are Barukh dayan emet-‘Blessed is the truthful judge.’ There are times when these words stick in the throat, as do the words of the Kaddish, which is said by the family during the year of mourning.  The Kaddish, which praises Gd and makes no mention of the dead, is to be said only for the duration of the year, and on those occasions when memorial prayers are recited.  At the end of that year, we need not nor may not continue to mourn for that soul.  We may remember it, miss it, long for it, but not grieve for it or for ourselves.”


  • Saying Kaddish by Anita Diamant


“Philosophers and theologians have long recommended the contemplation of death as a way to stay in touch with the beauty of life.”


  • The Condition of Jewish Belief by Rabbi Norm Lamm,


“The classification of the mitzvoth/commandments into rational and revelational, or ethical and ritual, has discipline-methodological but not substantive religious significance …Rabbi Nahum of Bratzlav recommended to his followers that they observe the ‘ethical laws as though they were ‘ritual’ commandments.  In this manner, the ethical performance is transformed from a pale humanistic act into a profound spiritual gesture.  I do not, therefore, by any means according to ceremonial laws any lesser status than others.  On the contrary, while confident that these mitzvot are more than divine whim in that they are ultimately of benefit to man and society, I prefer to accept even the….rational and ethical, as ‘ritual’ in an effort to attain holiness”


  • Rabbi Sonya Starr


“As I was preparing for High Holidays I came across a short story about Judge Louis D. Brandeis whose life at Harvard law school in the 1870s was not easy to say the least.  For three years students would come up to him and say things like Brandeis, you’re brilliant.  You could end up on the Supreme Court if only you weren’t a Jew.  Why don’t you convert?  Then all your problems would be solved.  Brandeis listened but never responded.  By his final year of law school, Brandeis’s accomplishments could no longer be denied.  Jewish or not, he was invited to join the honor society.  This was the first time that the Honor society had accepted a Jew.  On the evening of the official induction, the room was hushed.  All eyes were on Brandeis as he walked to the lectern.  Slowly he looked around the room.  “I am sorry;’ he said ‘that I was born a Jew.’  With that the room erupted in applause.  There was an explosion of shouting and cheers.  Brandeis waited for the excitement to abate.  Then he began again.  ‘I am sorry that I was born a Jew but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.’”


  • Rabbi Allen S. Maller

“A mother once gave her daughter a bag of nails and told her that every time she lost her temper or insulted somebody she must hammer a small nail into large tree in the back of their house.

The first day the girl hit 14 nails into the bark of the tree. Over the next few weeks, as she learned to control her anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled. She discovered it was easier to hold her temper than to drive those nails into the tree.

Finally the day came when the girl didn’t lose her temper at all. She told her mother about it and the mother suggested that the girl now pull out one nail for each day that she was able to hold her temper. The days passed. Finally, she told her mother that all the nails were gone.

The mother took her daughter by the hand and led her to the tree. She said, ‘You have done well, my daughter, but look at all the holes in the tree. This tree will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like these. You can put a knife in a person and draw it out. It does not matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there. A verbal wound is almost as bad as a physical one.’

‘How can I fix the tree?’ asked the girl. ‘Will it have to remain damaged forever?’

‘Yes and no’ said the mother. ‘Our Rabbis say that if the tree is a special tree called a tree of life, and she responds to the way you have changed, she too can change and heal herself. If the tree is not a tree of life, and is dead to the possibility of your repentance, it will carry its scars onward.  The tree will never be as it was before, but she doesn’t have to become like new to be a good tree of life. If you do your part and change, and the tree of life does her part in response, God will do something wonderful. God will promote a healing that will make you and the tree of life better. This process is called repentance and atonement. It means that the changes that come about from repentance and forgiveness lead people to higher levels of relationship than was the case before the wound took place.’

‘What happens if the tree doesn’t respond?’ asked the girl. ‘Can I ever make it whole?’

‘Our rabbis say you should try on three different occasions,’ said the mother, ‘but if the tree remains dead even after you have changed, YOU can’t force it to become whole. In that case you should fix another tree somewhere else. There are always lots of other trees that need fixing, and most of them are trees of life. Whenever you fix a tree of life God will make something wonderful happen. That is the miracle of repentance and atonement. God always responds to our attempts to change for the good, by helping us change; and then always responds to our change for the good, by giving us new and wonderful opportunities for repentance and atonement. This is why we have a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) ten days after the beginning of every New Year; so the New Year will be a better one than the last one.’”  

  • Proverbs 17:9


“One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend.”


  • Rabbi Lew


“The great journey of transformation begins with the acknowledgement that we need to make it.  It is not something we are undertaking for amusement, nor even for the sake of convention; rather, it is a spiritual necessity.”


  • Rabbi Rami Shapiro


“We have abandoned the right path, and it has not benefited us.  We have left justice and mercy for selfishness and cruelty, hoping in this way to make ourselves happy.  We imagined that the more we control, the more happy we will be; the more we bend others to our will, the more we will find joy.  And we imagined wrongly.”


  • Dov Peretz Elkins


“One of my friends, who is a professor of Jewish Thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told me this story:

He came back one year after officiating at a synagogue during the High Holy Days and said to his teacher, Rabbi Simon Greenberg:  ‘Professor Greenberg, I simply can’t take the Al Het anymore!  Forty four sins, repeated nine times-it’s just too much!’ 

And Dr. Greenberg said to him: ‘Of course it is.  I haven’t said them all for years.’

My friend was taken aback. Could it be that his teacher, who was such a genuinely pious person, hadn’t recited the Al Het in years?  ‘What do you mean?’ He asked.

‘It’s very simple,’ said Dr. Greenberg ‘What I do each time is choose one of the sins on the list, one that applies to me.  And I think about its implications and meditate on how and why I committed it-and by the time I am finished thinking that one sin-the rest of the people have finished reciting the whole list.”’



  • “It is told of Rabbi Israel Salanter that late one night he was passing through a main street where a cobbler of his acquaintance lived. He noticed through the window that the candle that gave the shoemaker light was flickering, and would soon go out.  Rabbi Israel entered the cobbler’s hut and said to him:  ‘My friend, why do you sit up so late?  You worked all day long; the candlelight is almost out, it is in its last flickering.  Isn’t it better for you to go to bed and rest?’ 


‘Well, Rabbi,’ retorted the shoemaker, ‘as long as there is light in this candle I can still do some mending.’…


Rabbi Israel then, so the story goes, kept on repeating, ‘As long as the light of life is burning, one still has time to mend one’s ways.'” 


  • Rabbi Martin Seligman


“How do you think about the causes of the misfortunes, small and large, that befall you? Some people, the ones who give up easily, habitually say of their misfortunes: ‘It’s me; ….it’s going to last forever; it’s going to undermine everything I do.’ Others, those who resist giving in to misfortune, say: ‘It was just circumstances; it’s going away quickly anyway and, besides, there’s much more in life.”


  • Ralph Ellison


“the persistent drive to define human hope in the United States….[is] not through avoiding those aspects of reality which were brutal and dehumanizing, but taking that too as part of the given scene, and then determining to go beyond it. Not to ignore it, not to pretend that it didn’t exist, but to humanize it, to take it in, to make it connect with other aspects of living-with the dream, with the sounds of the future and the sounds of hope.”


  • Erica Brown

“There is little in the world more insufferable than self-righteousness.  Those who suffer from it believe that Gd is on their side, supporting the piety of the observant against the ignorance of those who are not.  Self-righteousness lies at the very heart of the fundamentalist, making him police officer, judge, and prosecutor. 

In contrast, Gd makes a small request through the agency of the prophet. ‘Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your Gd’ (Micah 6:8).  Micah asks this of us as if it were easy and imposed no great burden.  Yet the burden of humility is the very fact that we have to remind ourselves of it always.”

  • “How do we abolish sin” by Rabbi Michael Gold

“A wise Indian elder once described his inner struggle.

He reported that inside him are two powerful dogs.  One of them is kind and good.  The other is mean and evil.  These two dogs fight each other all the time.

Someone once asked the Indian elder ‘which of the two dogs wins?’

He replied:  ‘The one that wins is the one that I feed the most.’

Each of us has the choice:  which part of our being do we ‘feed’ the most?  The good and the kind; or the mean and the cruel?  Whichever we feed the most will win.

For having fed the mean and cruel dog a bit too much during the past year, we now recite the Al Het.”


  • Lev Shalom

“Make our days seem fresh’ should not be seen as a plea for restoration of a formerly perfect condition; we were never perfect.  Rather, it is a plea for resilience, a plea for the ability to renew ourselves after moments of crisis and dislocation.  As Elie Wiesel remarks, ‘Gd gave Adam a secret-and that secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again.’”

  • “And in the Charlie Brown cartoon, Lucy says I have examined my life and found it to be perfect. And so I am going to hold a ceremony and present myself with a medal and then I will give a brilliant acceptance speech, after which I will greet myself in the receiving line.  And then I will service myself refreshments.’ And then she says kind of wistfully, when you are perfect, I guess you have to do everything yourself-and that’s no fun.”




  • Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned about Life by Harold S. Kushner


“The role of religion is to bind us to other people in order to evoke together the sense that Gd is in our midst.  We don’t go to church or synagogue to find Gd; Gd may indeed be more accessible in nature on a sunny day.  We go to church or synagogue to find other worshippers who are looking for what we are looking for, and together we find it.  We become something greater than our solitary selves.”


  • To Begin Again by Naomi Levy


“How we breathe defines how we live.  If we hyperventilate, we live in panic.  If we take shallow breaths, we lack energy. If we take deep breaths, we live in calmness and ease.” 


1)       This poem was written anonymously with the goal of explaining this teaching of Reb Nachman: (Based on Likutey Moharan II:48)


Dear God,

Please help me to remember,

even at those moments when I feel suspended over the abyss,

that my fear of falling is what trips me up.

If I can only hold on

to the certainty that You’re with me,

of what could I possibly fear?

The bridge is narrow…

but it runs all the way to the other side.



  • The Gentle Weapon by Moshe Mykoff

Dear Gd-,

let my heart grasp

the profound wisdom

with which You created the world.

Help me understand

that life’s difficulties

are in fact her opportunities;

life’s endings

are also her beginnings;

life’s disappointments

are her finest teachers.


  • The 1619 project by the New York Times Magazine

“Out of slavery-and the anti-black racism it required-grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional; its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequalities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.  The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.”

  • To Begin Again by Naomi Levy

“I long to change the world, but I rarely appreciate things are they are.  I know how to give, but I don’t always know how to be still.  I talk, but I don’t often listen.  I look, but I don’t often see.  I yearn to succeed, but I often forget what is truly important. Teach me, Gd, to slow down.  May my resting revive me.  May it lead me to wisdom, to holiness, to peace, and to you….There is holiness and meaning hidden in even the most painful circumstances, even in the most mundane tasks.  Instead of seeking to escape from our lives, the challenge of our existence is to find the capacity to uncover that holiness.”