LIVE Elul Discussion, Week 2

The task is large, unending, but we are not free to ignore it. This is not a labor to be accomplished in one great effort or in occasional exertions. The task is the conforming of our minds and spirits to complete love and awe of Hashem . . .

Four are among the tiniest on earth,
Yet they are the wisest of the wise:
Ants are a folk without power,
Yet they prepare food for themselves in summer;
The badger is a folk without strength,
Yet it makes its home in the rock;
The locusts have no king,
Yet they all march forth in formation;
You can catch the spider in your hand,
Yet it is found in royal palaces.
-Proverbs 30:24-28

Michael V. Fox says in his masterful commentary:

Though these four creatures are small and seem to be weak, they overcome their vulnerability through cunning: the ants by preparing their provisions in advance of need; the badgers by living in inaccessible crevices of cliffs; the locusts by attacking in disciplined formations; the spider by living in palaces.

HOW IT WORKS: I will post a few texts and some of my reflections as a discussion starter. Discussion will happen in the blog comments until 10:00 p.m. Eastern time. Use the refresh icon on your browser to read as new comments come in.

IF YOU’RE A FIRST-TIME COMMENTER: WordPress will ask you to register. Sorry, but I can’t prevent that. And I will have to approve your first comment. But I will be doing that during the hour of discussion and your comment will appear.

IF YOU WANT TO JUST LURK: Please at least say hello and make a short comment. It will be more fun for all if most people at least say something.

RULES: This is discussion about repentance, mussar, High Holidays, and God. Anti-Jewish comments, rudeness, comments of excessive length, and similar misdemeanors will get you deleted. But I expect the best of those who show up and I doubt there will be any unpleasantness.


Many efforts are habitual, repetitive, requiring constant labor and attention on a frequent basis. Pursuing a lifestyle of love and awe (ahavat Hashem and yirat Hashem) is this kind of effort.

Sometimes we fail to advance in study of Torah, biblical texts, tradition, wisdom, mussar, and similar valuable areas because we are willing only occasionally to devote an hour to the work, or even twelve hours here and there. But work in this kind of learning is better accomplished through disciplined, habitual learning over a long period of time.

The kind of learning that brings us closer to godliness involves slow, patient learning. We have to learn ourselves, how we work, the workings of our animal nature, the impulses of the Yetzer HaRa (evil inclination), and the potentialities of the spirit (that which elevates us above animals and relates us to God). We have to observe the workings of other people, as we often learn ourselves best through observing others and also in order to best serve and bear the burdens of others. And we have to learn the virtues of awe and love in their many facets.

What task could really be greater than the improvement of our love and awe of God? What High Holiday prayers, scriptures about repentance, mussar texts, or anything pertinent to this discussion would you like to share? What does it mean to love God? What does it mean to regard him with awe (fear of God)? What steps of repentance might be helpful and shareable with others on an Elul journey?

This entry was posted in ethics, Holidays, Love, Mussar. Bookmark the permalink.

69 Responses to LIVE Elul Discussion, Week 2

  1. wendeth says:

    looking forward to observing and note taking

  2. Allison says:

    I’ve often struggled with the idea of repentance because to me it has often implied negative emotions like unnecessary guilt. It has made me think of someone’s judgmental eyes (whether that person is a conservative clergy man, or a negative/oppressive view of G-d) watching over everything I do.

    Then when I started reading the books of the contemporary religious scholar Marcus J. Borg, I stumbled across his definition of repentance, which seems so much more positive to me:

    The biblical meaning of “repentance” is quite different from an apology. In the Jewish Bible, the Christian Old Testament, “repentance” means “to return” – that is, to return from exile, to return to life in the presence of God, to a life centered in God.
    In the Christian New Testament, the word “repentance” carries this meaning, and one more. The roots of the Greek word for “repentance” mean “to go beyond the mind that you have.”

    So apology and repentance, forgiveness and repentance, are quite different. Apology and forgiveness do not in themselves imply change. Repentance does.

    And I suppose that it is what it means, to me, to love G-d…to return back to him. If “sin” means “to miss the mark,” then to repent means to do our best to hit the target correctly again. To live a life more centered in G-d, to believe that there is good in this world and to hold onto the hope that good will always triumph over evil in the end. And to contribute to that goodness by practicing lovingkindness toward our fellow human beings. To help create G-d’s kingdom on earth.

  3. wendeth says:

    I like that Allison, and it just shows what knowing the context of the text means and how it can improve our lives.

  4. Derek Leman says:

    Thank you, Allison. And repenting for things that bring guilt and shame is part of the process. But there is also a kind of repentance, I think, that gets beyond these. It is an aspiration to something higher, to the kind of love God has, to the kind of beneficent will to bear the burdens of others that Messiah showed us. It is repenting toward more so than repenting from. Perhaps it is a step that comes best after we have already spent some time preparing the ground with repentance from wrongs.

  5. David Cook says:

    Something I read about the month of Elul is that its letters form an acrostic (more like acronym) for the Hebrew phrase, “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li”. This is a verse from the Song of Songs 6:3. Translated, it says, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” It speaks as much, if not more, about God’s love for us as it does for Him. God’s love for us is unconditional. May our love for one another be unconditional in response.

  6. Allison says:

    Definitely! Context is EVERYTHING.

  7. Derek Leman says:

    In Mesillate Yesharim (The Path of the Just), Chaim Luzzato says, “A man who goes through life without regard to whether or not he follows a virtuous way is like a blind man who walks along the edge of a river.”

    He says this while discussing watchfulness. So, the meaning is that if we do not take regular spiritual inventories, getting to know ourselves and being truthful about our condition, we might fall in the water without warning.

  8. Allison says:

    It is repenting toward more so than repenting from. — Wow, that is great, Derek…I really like that point of view.

  9. Hey Derek,
    Great discussion. My question in what way can this month be seen as a communal repentance? Can we intercede and ask for repentance on behalf of others?

  10. Derek Leman says:

    David, I have been fortunate to discuss mussar with you and your mention of unconditional love brings something to mind. You mentioned to me before I had read about it, and I think it is beautiful, that a major emphasis of the mussar teachers is bearing the burdens of others. This is the kind of thing unconditional love means. But the clause “bearing the burdens of others” is so much more specific. It is a messianic task, filled with the idea of gift-love and sacrifice.

  11. Derek Leman says:

    Steve, do you mean talking to one another and confessing things to each other? Or do you mean two people praying for a third person who is not present? Tell me more about what you are asking.

  12. More on the two people praying for a third who is not present, but more like 2 groups.

  13. David Cook says:

    I would agree that the idea of bearing the burdens of others is a messianic calling. We are called to serve, not to be served, to liberally quote the words of Yeshua. The greatest among us shall the servant of everyone.

  14. Allison says:

    That’s a wonderful quote by Chaim Luzzato. The metaphor of a blind man walking along a river to stand for not living a virtuous life reminds me of how originally, the term that we have translated to “Hell” in the scriptures was original “Sheol,” meaning a pit that we can fall into if we do not follow the way of G-d. And of course, this quote from Yeshua himself from the Gospels:

    “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)

  15. Derek Leman says:

    Steve, that would be fine as long as the person not present was not gossiped about, that nothing was shared that could cause embarrassment without the most urgent purpose. If it was a very general and non-specific prayer for a person to acquire faith and to be improved by God’s love, no problem.

    But communal repentance from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur functions more this way: we stand shoulder to shoulder praying together in synagogue, all repenting. In sharing the grief over our sins we comfort one another.

  16. Thanks Derek. Really value your answer!

  17. David Cook says:

    Getting back to the idea of repentance, I read an interesting translation of the verse in Psalm 51 that says, “create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.” In Twerski’s Living Each Day, he translates it as, “Create in me a new heart.” Thus, the idea of Teshuvah means becoming a totally new person, cleansed of his former mistakes.

  18. Derek Leman says:

    Later in the section on watchfulness, Luzzato says, “This is one of the cunning artifices of the evil Yetzer, who always imposes upon men such strenuous tasks that they have no time left to note whither they are drifting. For he knows that, if they would pay the least attention to their conduct, they would at once repent of their doings.”

  19. Jeannie says:

    hello, I’m here 🙂

  20. Yahnatan says:

    Unexpectedly free, I’m lurking for the moment. Keep up the good posts!

  21. Derek Leman says:

    I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean . . . I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules.
    -Ezekiel 36:25-27

    Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
    -John 3:5-7

  22. Derek Leman says:

    Wendeth, Jeannie, and Yahnatan:

    Glad to have you lurking. But feel free to jump in!

  23. Allison says:

    Great quotes, Derek. Another thing that Marcus Borg has written often in his books is what it really means to be “born again”…and he defines it as the death of one way of being and the birth of another way of being — a life more centered in G-d and love and justice. That, after all, is the goal of repentance.

  24. Derek Leman says:

    Anyone have a thought about why I shared the verses from Proverbs 30 in discussion about repentance?

    Four are among the tiniest on earth,
    Yet they are the wisest of the wise:
    Ants are a folk without power,
    Yet they prepare food for themselves in summer;
    The badger is a folk without strength,
    Yet it makes its home in the rock;
    The locusts have no king,
    Yet they all march forth in formation;
    You can catch the spider in your hand,
    Yet it is found in royal palaces.
    -Proverbs 30:24-28

  25. Derek Leman says:

    Allison, while Borg and I do not agree on all things, on this point I think he is right. The birth from above starts with our faith, involves a miraculous empowerment to love that changes our outlook, and results in a life committed to bearing the burdens of others (or, if we resist the new life, misery and unfulfillment that we can’t explain).

    • Allison says:

      Bearing the burdens of others is something I struggle with as well….because I have the kind of personality that I sometimes bear the burdens of others too much. I take on the sorrows of those I care about, often to the detriment of myself. But of course, it’s a positive trait as well, and something that Yeshua calls us to do. It’s all about finding balance, I suppose.

  26. Allison says:

    Derek…perhaps those lines can mean that no matter how small and insignificant we think we are, we can rise above it to be good, G-d-centered people. Perhaps a reminder for us to not use the circumstances in our lives as an excuse to treat others poorly? After all, no matter what/where we come from, we our responsible for our own actions and we are not slaves to our past.

    • David Cook says:

      Your comment reminds me of something else I read in Twerski’s Living Each Day that is worth sharing. He interprets Proverbs 20:27, “The soul of man is the lamp of God,” as meaning that everyone has the responsibilityi of shedding light upon the world. We do need to rise to our calling and be the city on the hill and the lamp upon the nightstand.

      • Allison says:

        Thanks, David, for sharing another wonderful piece of commentary from a secondary source! I’m learning so much from this discussion. 🙂 The metaphor of Yeshua as a lamp to light the way for the whole world has always been incredibly meaningful to me. But just as we can light a candle from the flame of another candle, it is not only Yeshua who must light the way for the world…it is our responsibility to be the lamp as well.

        And I’m reminded of this quote from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you give rise to that which is in you, what you have will save you.”

  27. Derek Leman says:

    Listing your answers so far as to why Prov 30:24-28 relates to repentance:
    -Encouragement to zeal
    -Rousing us from lethargy
    -Taking away the excuse “we are too small”
    -Taking away the excuse “life is too hard to be kind”
    -Taking away the excuse “we’re not capable of such great things”

  28. Yahnatan says:

    Derek’s great opening quote from Michael Fox (“Though these four creatures are small and seem to be weak, they overcome their vulnerability through cunning”) calls to my mind the individual’s battle with the yetzer hara. When we find ourselves regularly giving into certain temptations, it may be that within that struggle lies the potential for great holiness, if we are able to acknowledge our weakness and “overcome our vulnerability through cunning.” The kind of cunning I am talking about is often counterintuitive (or at least it was to me at first)–it is less about trying to become stronger for the next “battle” with temptation and more about resigning myself to my own weaknesses and (prayerfully) attempting to be “as clever as a fox” in finding ways to avoid and eliminate these temptations.

    What I find interesting is that at the heart of this process of being honest about myself I find and experience the presence of God.

    • David Cook says:

      Derek and I had a discussion about this very topic yesterday. To overcome the evil inclination we must learn to outsmart him. The story of Ulysses and the Sirens comes to mind.

      • Allison says:

        This is all incredibly insightful. I never thought of using cunning or out-smarting to avoid temptation to harm ourselves and others. I wish I had something more eloquent to say, but…wow. 🙂

  29. Derek Leman says:

    Now I will add Yahnatan’s insight to our running list of ways Prov 30:24-28 relates to repentance:
    -Encouragement to zeal
    -Rousing us from lethargy
    -Taking away the excuse “we are too small”
    -Taking away the excuse “life is too hard to be kind”
    -Taking away the excuse “we’re not capable of such great things”
    -Reminding us cunning (positive sense) is needed to overcome the subtle Evil Inclination
    -Cunning trick: do not meet the Yetzer strength-to-strength but weakness-to-strength

  30. Derek Leman says:

    The spider says to the Yetzer, “I am nothing, but I dwell in palaces provided to us by God.”

  31. Derek Leman says:

    The locust says to the Yetzer, “I am nothing, but I meet the Yetzer as part of K’lal Yisrael (the congregation of Israel) and/or the People of Messiah.”

  32. Derek Leman says:

    Okay, you guys make up what the badger and the ant says to the Yetzer HaRa (Evil Inclination).

    • David Cook says:

      The ant says, “I too am nothing. I have no leader to tell me what to do, nor anyone to honor me for having done it. I simply see a need and fill it, doing my part for the community.”

  33. Shelly says:

    lurking late…shalom all.

  34. Derek Leman says:

    Hey, Shelly, welcome.

  35. Allison says:

    The ant says to the Yetzer, “I am nothing, but I can still feed the community” (which can be a literal feeding, or a spiritual/emotional/intellectual one).

  36. Yahnatan says:

    The badger says to the Yetzer Hara: I am nothing, but I know how to place myself in structures that protect me like a rock.

  37. Derek Leman says:

    David, great line for the ant: “I simply see a need and fill it.” How many times do we see a need and say, “I hope someone else fills it because I like sitting on my tuches!”

    • Allison says:

      It’s a widely reported phenomenon that when people hear something bad going on in their neighborhood (a gunshot, a domestic disturbance, a fire, or what have you), it’s often the case that none of the witnesses will call 911 because they assume that someone else has done it. It definitely seems to reflect David’s line for the ant, and how we expect others to do good so we don’t have to.

  38. Derek Leman says:

    Allison . . . “feed the community” . . . awesome!

    Yahnatan . . . “place myself in structures” . . . this is too good!

  39. Derek Leman says:

    Allison, you might enjoy reading Mesillat Yesharim by Luzzato and this edition on amazon is the best one:

    • Allison says:

      Thank you so much! I had never heard Chaim Luzzato before this discussion and already I’ve been looking him up on Wikipedia and trying to find where I could read his works. I appreciate the link.

  40. Derek Leman says:

    Jewish mussar has much in common with certain Christian classics of devotion, like Francis DeSales, Introduction to the Devout Life and Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ. Augustine’s Confessions and Bernard of Clairvaux’s Homilies on Song of Songs are also among my favorites in classic Christian writings.

  41. Jeannie says:

    Here’s to wishing 10:00 were not so close. Love the discussions. Struggling through the tidal waves of life and fears and decisions and needing the shalom that only comes from repenting…

  42. Shelly says:

    I was watching Criminal Minds last night…was the episode where Reed failed his range test and couldn’t carry a gun. The big line that came out of the show was…you can kill a man without a gun.
    I think that with both the ant and the badger, they used instinctive G-d given skills to avoid evil and untimely death. They prepared for what would attack them…the hidden sin as it were or the blatant sin. Starvation, lack of protection…we have to be prepared with a watchfulness and a readiness for the prevention of sin so we walk a straight line…

  43. Derek Leman says:

    Bernard using the analogy of the woman’s love in Song of Songs as our love for God, “She loves most chastely who seeks him whom she loves and not some other thing which belongs to him.”

    • Allison says:

      In the past I’ve mostly interpreted Song of Songs as being about erotic love (but an erotic, romantic love as given to us and blessed by G-d). I’ll have to re-read it in the context you’re talking about, i.e. G-d’s love for us.

  44. Derek Leman says:

    People will kill you with a stare, as you point out, Shelly. And people are dying for want of love.

  45. Derek Leman says:

    Jeannie, praying rest in the infinity of God’s love for you. Tidal waves can never cross his vast fields. Unmoving, he moves all opposition and evil ceases far before touching the outer rays of his glory.

  46. Allison says:

    Wow, how fast has the past hour gone by! I’ve enjoyed this discussion more than I ever thought I would and I will definitely be participating in the next one! I have a feeling I’ll want to re-read the comments in this thread and take notes.

  47. Derek Leman says:

    SHALOM, everyone. It is 10:00 and I am off to my trundle bed filled with dreams of inexorable love, the love of God that cannot be stopped, not even by my pointless resistance.

  48. Allison says:

    Shalom, Derek, David, etc!

  49. benicho says:

    noooooo! i missed it.

  50. Yahnatan says:

    Rediscovered this great quote from Chassidic master Rabbi Zusya of Anipoli via Chabad this morning; it seemed like a great followup to last night’s discussion:

    I learned seven things from the thief:

    1. What he does, he keeps to himself.

    2. He is willing to take risks to attain his goal.

    3. He does not distinguish between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ things, but takes equally exacting care of each and every detail.

    4. He invests great effort in what he does.

    5. He is swift.

    6. He is always optimistic.

    7. If at first he fails, he is back time and again for another try.

  51. Derek Leman says:

    Thanks, Yahnatan. He keeps what he does to himself. Yes, a great killer of success is being more about talking than doing (“I’m on a great new diet,” is a refrain rarely followed by weight loss). He is back time and again for another try. Here is the key: habitual, repeated effort with a clear goal.

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