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Elul: A Month of Blessing

September 21, 2022 Mishkan Chicago
Contact Chai
Elul: A Month of Blessing
Show Notes Transcript

Today’s episode features Rabbi Lizzi’s sermon on the Hebrew month of Elul, as well as lovely singing by the Davening Team, a speech by Builder Jon Quinn, a eulogy to Rabbi Edward Feldheim, and a touching welcome to our 36 “new Jews.” This recording is from Mishkan’s August 26th Friday Night Shabbat.

[01:57] R’Steven — Welcoming Message On Elul
[06:00] Lechu Neranena
[08:46] Mizmor l'David Havu Ladonai (Psalm 29)
[11:55] R’Deena — So Many Mikvehs!
[13:20] Jon Quinn — What Buildership Means To Me
[16:12] Lecha Dodi
[21:55] V’ahavta
[24:18] Welcoming Exploring Judaism Grads To The Mishkan
[28:19] R’Lizzi Drash — “Elul: May This Be A Month of Blessing,” including a Eulogy of R’Feldheim at 37:40
[45:15] R’Deena — Elul Blessing
[47:56] Closing Groove

Say, do you have your High Holiday tickets yet?

For upcoming Shabbat services and programs, check our event calendar, and see our Accessibility & Inclusion page for information about our venues. Follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook for more updates.

Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.

Transcript of R'Lizzi's Drash

I want to say welcome to everyone tonight: new Jews, old Jews, new Builders, Mishkan veterans, Jewish adjacent people, folks who wandered into this holy gathering off the street... It's so nice to be here with you tonight.

None of the five books of Moses is more passionately concerned with the plight of the vulnerable than Deuteronomy and no parasha in Deuteronomy more powerfully expresses that concern than the chapters we read in Parashat Re’eh this week. The whole book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ attempt to distill the entire Torah into one book as he prepares to die and send the Israelites into the land of Israel to create a new society: so these chapters cover a lot, including, this week’, the laws of keeping kosher and which animals and birds you can eat, laws forbidding idol worship and sorcery, you get laws about making sacrifices, the laws of Passover and eating matza, a description of the whole holiday cycle. Like I said, trying to distill the whole Torah into one book.

But the section that really turned my head reading this week were the chapters about how the Jewish people are supposed to create an economy, and specifically how this new society that Moses and the Israelites are creating, must be one that places the experience of the most vulnerable at the center, so that even when the Israelites become successful, and are in positions where they could exploit their wealth or their positions, they won’t do it. Let me rephrase: so that when WE might be in positions where WE might exploit our wealth or our positions at the expense of the poor, we won’t do it. So that WE will create a society worthy of God’s blessings. This is the fundamental obsession of the Torah.

Many of these laws can be found in Chapter 15 of Deuteronomy, in this week’s parasha– they focus on the remission of debts, and the release of servants after 6 years no that no one is owned by anyone in perpetuity. This section of the Torah repeatedly refers to the poor as your brothers– ahicha– and includes the reminder (that, incidentally shows up in the Torah 36 times) that you we (you you you) slaves (all of us!) in the land of Egypt and therefore, when you are land and property or business owners, God willing, when you are in the position to offer a loan– remember how you would have wanted to be treated back then. 

And if you do that, if you treat people as brothers, as siblings, as family, especially the most vulnerable, especially people working to pay off long-standing debts…

Then, verse 4 says אֶפֶס כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה־בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן “There will be no needy among you,” There need be no needy among you, as Rabbi Shai Held translates this verse. 

Isn’t that amazing? The Torah envisions a society where no one is needy. Meaning of course there will be differences in income and wealth, but no one will lack for the basic necessities of life: food, shelter, school, healthcare. Rashi, the 11th century Torah master, says the word used here “Evyon,” describes the most destitute of the needy. And the Torah says, we could have exactly zero people who fall into that category if we have humane policies for dealing with debt, among other things. As an aside, it’s like the Biden Administration knew we were reading about debt relief in this week’s Torah portion. Maybe he even knew that releasing debt in ways calculated to alleviate the specific plight of less wealthy people in society, is part of the Torah’s recipe for creating a healthy society, a moral society, a balanced, functional society.

But interestingly a few verses later the text amends its earlier comment, saying “When there are needy among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother.”

“When there are needy among you…” and with that Moses acknowledges that despite his best efforts to get these Israelites to create a society that takes care of the most vulnerable… they will fail. We will fail. And we won’t fail because the task was too hard, plenty of societies do manage to do it– we’ll fail because we forget that the guy selling Streetwise, or living under the train tracks, with dirt under his fingernails, is your brother. We will forget that the person who was the first in their family to attend college and took out $80,000 of loans and is still paying it off 20 years later in a middle-class job, that person is your brother, too. We will forget that a system that forces people to have to take out mortgage-sized loans in the first place to pay for something that should be available to everyone, does not feel like what we’d do for family. We will forget that a system that thrives on giving high interest loans to low-income people is in general, is not what you’d do for family.

We will forget, the Torah says. All this will become normalized, and the more time passes, and the more we forget, and the wealthier our society will become, the more inequality will grow. And so a few verses later the text culminates in a kind of depressing statement:

“There will never cease to be needy among you,” says Moses. Which is why,  he then says, You must open your hand– patoach tiftach– to your poor and needy brothers.”

This approach describes Judaism’s overall agenda pretty well: here is the vision for a radical social ideal and then here is the reality that we live in… and now you try to bridge that gap with your everyday life. We may not get to that radical vision, says Moses, he certainly didn’t, but he died, trying. And more to the point, he LIVED trying. And so should we.

I’m thinking tonight about Rabbi Ed Feldheim. He was a Chicago Rabbi who died about a week ago, who fought with synagogue presidents for 23 of his 40 years being a rabbi about one issue. He believed that anyone who wanted to be part of a synagogue, should be able to join, whether or not they had the money to pay membership dues. Eventually, he left the synagogue he was serving and created his own, Beth Haverim, the house of friendship where he could close that gap between the world as it was and the world as it could be., Where people who could give more, gave more, and people who could give less, gave less, and all were welcome. It was always small, no more than 100 families at its biggest, but it allowed him to live his personal values in the public square, to create a little corner of that utopian ideal. That was how he lived every day of his life, really up until his death last week. We should all be so lucky and so clear eyed about our values, and how they can make the world just a little better.

Tonight begins Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month leading into High Holidays. Rosh HaShannah is 4 weeks away. As we consider the coming new year, this is a month for making time for asking ourselves big questions. This is a month for introspection, for therapy, for journaling, for meditation, for prayer, not just on the everyday business as usual stuff of life, but on how you want to bridge the gaps you see between the world as it is and the world as it should be. But more than that, and deeper than that, and more personal than that… this is a month for asking yourself how to go from the you that you are, to the you that you could be. Those processes might just yield the same answers. 

So maybe you’re not in the position to forgive someone else’s long standing debt– but you might be in the position to forgive someone for a longstanding grudge you’ve been holding. 

Maybe you’re not in the position to release a slave after 6 years and send them on their way with material and financial resources (4,000 ago the Torah was talking about reparations)… but you might be position to release some more of your resources toward helping the most vulnerable this year. That could mean donating to abortion funds or Planned Parenthood as our State seek a skyrocketing number of people seeking safe, necessary reproductive health care; (that might mean sending $$ over to Second Unitarian Church, where we hold services and which was recently vandalized for sharing that value!)...  releasing more of your resources might mean volunteering or donating to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, or any number of local banks against this backdrop of increasing food prices and food insecurity for so many. 

That might mean releasing the sense of hurry you walk with, that makes you pass by a person who you might treat like more of a brother, if you felt like you had a few extra minutes.

During the month of Elul our sages recommend setting aside dedicated time each day during the for doing this fearless moral inventory, it has a name: cheshbon nefesh, and let me say, if you’re doing it right, it’s hard. You might either beat yourself up for what you haven’t yet done or achieved in your life, or get overly focused on yourself at the exclusion of looking at the broader communities you’re part of. Elul, said brilliantly by our very own Rebecca Stevens, is the balancing act of looking at our lives with clear eyes, and it requires some discomfort, even bravery. I want to recommend that you get an Elul hevruta, someone to talk and process with throughout this month, both for accountability and perspective. Elul is a time for approaching one another with even more compassion and gentleness than usual, as we face things about the world, and about ourselves, that might need adjusting. 

I want to bless us as we enter this month of doing this holy work together, let us build the world the Torah envisions through working every day toward being the people God put us in this world to become.

I want to ask us to stand as I say the traditional blessing for entering a new month:

May it be Your will, God and God of our ancestors, to make us new again in this month. Help us be forces of good and blessing. 

Give us long lives: lives of peace, lives of blessing, lives of making good money, lives of strong bones and a stone spine; lives full of awe at God’s power and mystery; lives of accountability; lives in which we free of shame and indignity; lives of joy and honor and weight; lives in which we find and do what we love in this Tradition, and in which we act with a sense of God’s presence at all times; lives in which we fulfill each other’s deepest desires, and we say, Amen

Repeat after me: 

Rosh Hodesh Elul begins tonight.

May this month be a blessing

May the Holy One bless us and all people everywhere with

goodness and blessing (amen!)

With joy and with gladness

With redemption and with comfort

With good money and with steady work

With life and with peace

With news of good days and better to come!

With full and complete healing!

With a redeemed world, and all say Amen.