Elul – The Return of Longing and Longing for Return

Our son was born on Rosh Hodesh Elul. I did not know that, when he was born. I did not live, then, in a world that included Jewish months, Jewish seasons, Jewish time. The holidays I had grown up with were the ones one might expect from a family that only sporadically lit Friday night candles: The High Holy Days, Hanukkah, Passover.

My adult life has been a long journey of return. I expect the remainder of my life will not differ.

The rabbis say that Moses ascended Sinai for the last time on the night of Rosh Hodesh Elul. He went to recover the covenant, to make it anew after the first tablets were destroyed by doubt. Hope seemed broken beyond repair. And yet, Moses ascended. This time, the Holy One told Moses to carve the tablets. This time, the covenant would be carved and inscribed by both human and divine energies.

Moses learned that the covenant would have to be a joint project. The Israelites stayed below, reflecting on the burdens they had schlepped into their new lives. How could they let go of things they no longer needed to carry?

Elul was then – and is now – a month for reflection.

This year, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, the day our son would turn thirty, my husband, Ralf, spent eight hours in an emergency room. By phone (I wasn’t allowed inside the hospital) we went step by step through ugly possibilities. Had he suffered a stroke? A heart attack? Why that sudden loss of vision? Why the awful and debilitating flush of burning over his entire body? Why the nausea, why the dizziness? He joked despite his own fear; I walked through our little ranch house numb to everything around me.

In the end, none of the direst possibilities were fulfilled. We returned to a calmer present, and to Elul.

The name of the month of Elul has exactly the same numeric value as the word binah, wisdom. We reflect on the stuff of the past year, on the pain and trouble we have carried, the misguided decisions and the hasty actions we could wish away. It is a time to reflect on hopes and dreams yet unrealized. It is time to acknowledge our longing to draw near to God.

Elul is also an acronym for a well-known phrase from Song of Songs: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li: I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. During Elul, we hear the call of our Beloved in the shofar that is sounded each day. That primal sound awakens us, reminds us.

For what? To discover our own wisdom. To reflect on who we are now and who we long to become.

Our covenant is rewritten and reinscribed every year. During the month of Elul, we partner with God in the renewal. As this year ends, we define what we long for in the next.

I have never felt the need to rush into the loving embrace of the Holy One quite as I have experienced it this year. I was called to come home, to acknowledge my own longings, to embrace a New Year that would be filled with all that my soul is starved for in this broken world. I want clarity and truth. I want the knowledge of what is right and the doing of what is right. I want to nourish the earth I stand on and the creatures I share it with – that has become an imperative. The list of my longings is long.

There are days left in Elul. Days left to complete my list of longings, and return.

May this month birth our homecoming.


Broken to Whole – An Elul Story in Three Parts

Part 1: Naming What is Broken

About two years ago a young woman arrived in my life and irrevocably altered it.

CALA Demonstration

For the past two years, I have watched this young woman grow from strength to strength. She went back to school to acquire skills to help her understand and combat systemic oppression. She spends most of her energy in community activism and organizing.

She serves as secretary and grant-writer for the board of the Community Activism Law Alliance of Chicago (CALA), an award-winning organization that brings lawyers and activists together to offer free legal services to marginalized individuals and communities. CALA fights for workers, for victims of sexual and domestic violence, for immigrants of all kinds. CALA offers free workshops and free legal representation, advice, training, and pro bono support to those who are not simply underserved, but utterly isolated.

Dream Riders cheering each other on with Serafina Ha in the most amazing green pants I have ever seen.

She also brings her indefatigable spirit to her work as a community leader, filmmaker, interviewer and publicist for NAKASEC, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, a grassroots organization working on behalf – especially – of Asian immigrants. This past summer, NAKASEC has been sending its young people out to demonstrate, to speak, to bike for more than a month across the west coast to help make the gifts and hopes of immigrants real for those willing to hear their voices.

She listens to the stories of those who have been hurt and harmed; she imagines any way she can to help heal and free those she serves. And then she builds those ways and makes them concrete.

Part 2: On Broken Things

If you love a musical instrument you own, you do not want it baking in a car or freezing in the hold of an airplane.

I needed a guitar I could travel with – for teaching and for leading services. But the guitar I wanted was – at least for me – a rather expensive endeavor. For good reason: it was made with an inventive technology that allowed its owner to take its neck from its body and pack it up into a package so neatly that it could be placed in an overhead bin on an airplane.

I listened to the demos of guitar players far more skilled than I on and off for many months. I put aside money. Finally, I contacted James Brawner, owner and partner at Journey Instruments to think through my options. We talked about the guitars, music-making, even a bit about what we were doing with our lives.

Just a day or two before the guitar was about to arrive, James wrote me an email. He had received a note about the guitar indicating that it had suffered some small nicking on the wood near its neck. But I was leaving on a trip for which I really needed the guitar for a service I was leading. I wasn’t sure what to do – send it back? Take it anyway?

I grew up in a world of broken things. Having a newly-made guitar arrive in even a slightly damaged state triggered unhappy memories. I called James and confessed my uncertainty. He generously told me to take the guitar on the trip and pray with it. We would work it out when I got back.

I took the little guitar to ALEPH’s 2018 smicha week, where I was teaching. Then she helped me lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.

I returned from my trip and called James. I was still uncertain, still fighting the childhood memories of having things harmed and broken, of knowing harm and hurt. I could send the guitar back, James said. He could also offer me a discount if I decided to keep her.

I called James back. “James,” I said, “I want the discount.”

Part 3: Transforming Brokenness into Wholeness

I explained. I had prayed with that guitar. After all, I said, all of us have been harmed and hurt and even broken.

I wanted the discount not because I needed it, but because I wanted to give it to organizations offering hope and strength and help to those who have been harmed and hurt and broken. My little guitar wasn’t perfectly whole, but, in the end, her small hurts could be the agency of healing.

James was so delighted that he told me he would match the money he was sending to me and give it to organizations he loved.

I got the discount last week. Today I added a little money to the discount so I could round it up. Then, I sent half to CALA and half to NAKASEK.

In honor of the young woman who walked into my life two years ago in Grant Park, Chicago. In support for the work she does. In the name of those she serves.

This blog post is dedicated to Serafina Ha.


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