LIVE Elul Discussion, Week 1

A beautiful garden is well-ordered and weedless. This is the month for getting our gardens ready. They need a lot of work . . .

אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
-Song of Songs 6:3

The first letter of each word in Song of Songs 6:3:



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.


In Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just), Chaim Luzzato (the Ramchal) makes much of Avodah Zara 20b (Babylonian Talmud or Bavli) which says:

The knowledge of Torah leads to watchfulness, watchfulness to zeal, zeal to cleanness, cleanness to abstinence, abstinence to purity, purity to saintliness, saintliness to humility, humility to fear of sin, and fear of sin to holiness.

By contrast to this emphasis on precision, care, and attention to detail, much “garden preparation” leading up to the High Holidays might be characterized this way: I sprayed, pulled a few clumps of crab grass, and covered the bad spots with mulch. We should be good for this season.

Most of us repent too little. Our knowledge of our own nature is too shallow. Our vision of the loftiness of God and the depth of his giving love is dull.

Chaim Luzzato also says:

There are but few who study the nature of the love and the fear of God . . . The reason they are neglected is because they are regarded as so familiar and commonplace . . . Indeed, one who is saintly is inevitably suspected of being a dullard.

Luzzato begins his book with the remarkable statement:

I have not written this book to teach the reader anything new.

In other words, study of discipline, character, wisdom, love and awe of God is not about information per se. It is about attention to detail, observation, discernment, prudence, persistence in observing, and constant exercise.

Rabbi Shaul Wagschal (The Practical Guide to Teshuvah) applies these ideas to the traditions of Elul:

If a person does not begin the practice of teshuvah (repentance) on the first day of the month of Elul, it is almost certain he will not ascend in spirituality during the month.

Anyone who has gardened much knows, weeds are persistent and vigorous. A once-a-season garden clean-up is as ineffectual as the once-a-year, half-hearted High Holiday routine many engage in.



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57 Responses to LIVE Elul Discussion, Week 1

  1. Derek Leman says:

    Another Jewish text whose point is rather similar to Avodah Zara 20b:

    For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
    -1 Peter 1:5-7

    • Shelly Dollar says:

      I’m not sure we repent too little. I take repentance seriously, and to make a commitment to change, to ask forgiveness with the integrity and intent of life alteration is to give totality of one’s soul. It is more than simple words of sorrow…it is the realization that we must conform to His will.

  2. Derek Leman says:

    Shelly, It was meant as a generic “we.” But still, I think I would be justified in saying none of us realize how high the goodness of God is, so we all look too low.

  3. Derek Leman says:

    Ira Stone, A Responsible Life, p. 44, “Left to ourselves we will choose the Yetzer HaRa (evil impulse) every time over the Yetzer HaTov (good impulse).”

    I compare this to weeds, like the Bermuda grass that grows in our various gardens. The good plants I want are so hard to grow. The Bermuda grass and other weeds are so hard to kill!

  4. Shelly Dollar says:

    Dunno…seems the higher we realize how high the goodness of G-d is, the more serious and harder repentance is. I guess I’m a bit confused as to what you mean by repent “too little.” If you clarify that, then I can figure out what I am talking about and if we are even on the same geometric plane.

  5. Derek Leman says:

    Shelly, maybe you thought I meant “we don’t repent with enough emotion” or something. I meant we repent of too few things and our vision of the good life should get ever higher. It is not a stationary target. So repentance is not all mundane and about little vices. Nor is it all dreary. It is also a continual aspiration to new heights in partaking of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4).

  6. Adi says:

    Hi Derek!

    • Derek Leman says:

      Good to see that you are here, Adi.

      • Adi says:

        A verse that has been with me is “When the lion roars, who is not afraid?”(Amos 3:8)
        I think many believers have a G-d is my friend and wants to be my friend attitude…I was having a discussion with someone on this because he was reading a book from a popular Pastor here in Orange County…made me think

  7. Krupa says:

    God’s deep and abiding love is the only thing that usually triggers a deep remorse in me… I tend to repent when I think of how much God loves me and how short I fall of reciprocating that love. You are right Rabbi Derek we have a very mixed set of standards and not a very lofty view of GOD – may be that is what is needed as a first step if we are be a repenting community.

  8. Derek Leman says:

    Our Father, our King, we have sinned before you.
    Our Father, our King, we have no king but you.

  9. Derek Leman says:


    I’m glad you brought up God’s love. I’ve been wanting to share this quite by George MacDonald (Scottish preacher, his writing much beloved of C.S. Lewis):

    Nothing is inexorable but love. . . . Love has ever in view the loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more.

    • Herbert says:

      Love is dicey. What about the billions of people who have never had any kind of love and have unfair deals in life to get their morsels ? how hard must it be for them to believe in love, leave alone a God full of love ?
      Love and Justice are two sides of the same coin. Unless both are present the idea of repentance can easily be hijacked as many recovering christians can testify.

      • Krupa says:

        Herbert, you seem to believe that existence or lack of love is depended on someone’s economic conditions. Granted there are many people who got a raw deal in life but even in extreme poor communities where the systems and structures are unfair and unjust one can see an expression of love given and received. Is it not the “Kingdom of God is within you” concept. People who have gotten a raw deal in life still have the capacity within them to rise above the situation and give and receive love and that process is enhanced when they are convinced of God’s steadfast character of love and justice.

  10. Shelly Dollar says:

    Ok….then I would say the answer is we repent too little because it is so much work. I agree with you- repentance is a constant change of character, making small changes sometimes each moment as we notice actions that are not inline with the character of G-d. Ultimately our actions should be in line with G-d’s nature.
    Some days it’s hard to just walk a straight line…
    Even as a small kid, I would try to make sure that anything that was still on my mind from the year…any wrong I had committed that still lurked in my head even if it sounded stupid….I tried to make right. I remember apologizing for silly things but thinking, if its still on my mind, it must be important in some way to me and so perhaps it was to the person I wronged. I should be as particular now as I was in 3rd grade….

  11. Eudora09 says:

    I was (and still am) one of the people who repents too little. For a long time I wasn’t even sure if I needed to repent…. and then I started attending a Messianic synagogue. One thing that helped get me geared up for the month of Elul was reading the daily prayer in the Amidah that is about repentance and that leaves a blank for you to fill in your particular sins. I still think I’m a little to general in filling in the blank.

  12. Sharita says:

    Hi everyone 🙂

    I think that too often individuals compare themselves to others more than they do to God’s standard of holiness. Aren’t such actions bound to result in “little repentance?”

  13. Derek Leman says:

    Shelly, exactly. So mussar is regular, daily discipline, not a monthly garden-clearing (to keep up my garden analogy). A short time 4 or 5 days a week in the garden does so much more than a once-a-month sweat-fest and broken lower back session!

    • Trish Camacho says:

      I really like that “daily discipline” vs. “once a month” effort. It would define us as “who we ARE” rather than what we “SOMETIMES do”. I am so thankful for G-d’s patience with me as I am very selective about disciplining myself! Thanks for this nudge in the garden!

  14. Derek Leman says:

    Sharita, good reminder. We pick easy targets (“I’m keeping up with him/her”) because we are lazy. But the beauty is in aspiring to great heights where God’s Presence is more potent.

  15. David says:

    I read something this week that was very insightful and seems appropriate for the coming year. One chassidic rabbi commented that the voice of the spirit usually only speaks to you once about a matter while the evil inclination usually nags you. For example, the prompting to do something good for someone will probably occur only once while the rationalization for not doing it will occur over and over. May we learn to listen to the inner voice and act with zeal, but not recklessness, before the evil inclination can have a chance to talk us out of it.

  16. Derek Leman says:

    Eudora09, so in your daily prayers you see an opportunity to think of specific areas to repent of. If you choose to, you could make it a discipline once in a while to put something beautiful in that blank, a repentance for something you’d not have considered if you had not bent down close to the ground and looked at the garden closely.

  17. Krupa says:

    Where is that point where we reach those great hieghts Derek ?and how do to reach it on a day to day basis… is it getting a deeper and more realistic understanding of who God is or is it really understanding his standards for our day to day living based on learning and absorbing the Torah (Instructions for life)?

  18. Derek Leman says:

    David, thanks and it is frightening to think the window is smaller to follow the good inclination! My wife got advice about our fruit trees. She was told, “There is about a one-week window, and if you don’t spray then, the bugs will not be defeatable.”

  19. Herbert says:

    I want to differentiate repentance of the haves and have-nots. As I see it the call of to repentance is in the direction of keeping justice and so those who failed to do it ( too wealthy, too powerful etc) are invited to repent and let go of their fears. On the other hand those who are victims, those who have been oppressed and outcast are also invited to heal by choosing not to settle for a lesser life or lose faith in the justice of a righteous God.

    • Krupa says:

      Great point Herbert but it is still about the “relationship” of the people that have with God and the people that “dont have” with God… and it is about abiding by and judging oneself against God’s standards and instructions for the “have” people and the “have” not people. Granted that God’s standards differ for the haves and have nots…. but when we live in a society where these standards are blurred – how does one abide and how does one know that one is not abiding… which is why there is very little repentence.

      • Herbert says:

        trust me, we all know when we need repentance when we are honest with ourselves. its only when we are in denial and are not honestly knocking on doors to find the truth that we make fools of ourselves.

  20. Sharita says:

    Exactly, I completely agree. There is so much beauty in aspiring higher. It is a beautiful type of work, but it is work, work that is provoked by love for God and his righteousness. Developing the discipline of actions such as mussar helps to combat the laziness.

    Btw, I’m lurking

  21. Derek Leman says:

    Krupa, as Lewis pictures it in The Great Divorce, even in the world to come, the Direct Being of God (what in Judaism is called Ein Sof) is always to the West. We continually move westward, but the mountains are never arrived at. Some might say Lewis is wrong, but I don’t think so. We get ever closer without arriving.

    But practically, on a daily basis, we do our exercises (prayer, deeds of love, study) and we grow a little at a time. The daily exercises show us more of his Inner Being and make our aspirations ever higher. Studying the disciplines and character qualities as well as ourself constantly reveals new weeds.

  22. Shelly Dollar says:

    Adding to what you stated….I seldom compare myself to others, but what I do compare my actions to are attributes that scripture ascribes to the character of G-d. When I am feeling emotional especially, before I speak, I often think…is this kind, gentle, honest, pure, reasonable, true, etc….it helps me repent from the actions that I might have taken had I acted without taking the nature I am to be molded into ….into account.

  23. David says:

    Eudora09, one of the methods that helps me repent is the prayer that immediately follows the Amidah, called the Vidui. It is the same prayer recited multiple times on Yom Kippur. It contains 24 key words, each one starting with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet (the last letter has 3 key words, hence the number 24). The idea seems to be that we have a never ending supply of wrongdoings.

  24. Derek Leman says:

    Herbert, thank you for always reminding me of the difference between oppressors and the oppressed. I doubt anyone is completely oppressed and not involved in some kind of oppression of others, but your point is valid. And for those too powerless to commit some of (I said “some of”) the great sins, repentance is, as you say, about belief in spite of hardship, seeing love where injustice is the reality. Very profound.

    • Herbert says:

      It is hard to believe in life when one is grossly treated unfair. It seems that everyone simply wants one to die and perish , dehumanizing them. To ask such a person for repentance is kinda hard. But even for such a person , the only beginning point to come back to life is (theologically or psychologically or politically or socially or economically), by honestly looking inward and ask themselves who they are and what life is all about. I have been told that God is nearest to such people.

  25. David says:

    Eudora09’s comment made me think of something else I read recently. It said that the sins we trample upon, i.e., the one we consider insignificant, are the ones that will surround us on the Day of Judgment.

  26. Sharita says:

    @ Shelly The same is true for me. I am constantly repenting in the same manner. I think that comparing ourselves to the character of God is absolutely reasonable and necessary for repentance.

  27. David says:

    Thinking before we speak and weighing what we said afterwards are essential components of Mussar. I think you would really appreciate the beauty of its teaching.

  28. David says:

    Why are Derek and I the only ones that have pictures next to our postings?

  29. David says:

    That’s a rhetorical question – more of an observation and a request for the rest of you to put one up there.

  30. Krupa says:

    David, I am looking forward to learning more about these essential components of Mussar this shabaat.

  31. Eudora09 says:

    I found this quote on the Riverton Mussar site from Rabbi Alan Lew.
    “Just choose one simple and fundamental aspect of your life and commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul. “A world in a grain of sand,” as the poet William Blake reminded us. Everything we do is an expression of the entire truth of our lives. It doesn’t really make any difference what it is that we choose to focus on, but it ought to be something pretty basic, something like eating or sex or money, if for no other reason than that these concerns are likely to arise quite frequently in our lives and to give us a lot of grist for the mill.”
    This idea seems really tangible to me.

  32. Derek Leman says:

    Eudora09, I think the choice of one aspect of life is easy for me: imitating the love of God. I don’t mean that if others make a different choice, that their choice is not the right one. But I do think love, properly understood–and that’s the key–is the sine qua non.

    • Eudora09 says:

      Thanks, Derek. That’s a big one. I was thinking on a much smaller scale for myself – like speaking to my children and spouse in a respectful, non-agitated tone. I gotta break this love thing down to its smaller component parts to get my mind around it.

    • Sharita says:

      My mother and I are discussing and that is exactly what she said.

  33. David says:

    Many of these points should make great table topic discussions around my Shabat table this week.

  34. Derek Leman says:

    Great discussion. Eudora09 gave a practical tip which is a good one to wrap this up with: choose one facet of your life, she prefers to think of a small and manageable area, and make it your main focus in all the spiritual preparation for High Holidays. Her example was helpful, respectful, healing speech in her home. Imagine if you focused on one area like this and make a permanent change. How much good would it do you and those you love?

    Good night and blessings to all.

  35. Shelly Dollar says:

    I agree…..I’d like to concentrate on a grain of sand. Something small that represents the larger picture….

  36. Herbert says:

    Good discussion. Thanks Derek for organizing this and for all those who dropped by with your precious comments.

  37. Eric says:

    As I enter into the labor of fall lawn maintenance I will contemplate the parallels between my lawn and my spiritual garden.
    My lawn care includes:
    A close mowing of the lawn.
    Verticutting (A verticutter is big heavy machine that has spinning vertical blades to cut roots that grow sideways; unlike grass roots)
    Overseeding (put down new grass seed)
    Frequent watering.

    I do this because I care about my lawn. If there are spiritual parallels then it reframes what it means for G-d to love me. It also refocuses me on what I need to do to eliminate the weeds in my life. I also better thank G-d for the fertilizer he sends my way.

  38. * says:

    This segment is great….just reading now (a little late) better late than never!

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