FRIDAY, August 10th

This weekend, on Shabbat and Sunday, we welcome the Hebrew month of Elul. Please join us for Rosh Chodesh davening, complete with hallel this Shabbat and Sunday. On Sunday we will also begin one month of sounding the shofar.

Elul is a very special time, when we say “the King is in the field,” meaning that it is easier to talk to God at this time than at other times of year. This has to do with the name of the month spelled א-ל-ו-ל, which is understood as an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine) a phrase from Shir Hashirim(6:3) that speak of tremendous intimacy between the Jewish people and God. The verse continues הרועה בשושנים “He pastures among the lilies,” which can be seen as another reference to God’s accessibility—He is, in a sense out in the fields, where anyone can speak to Him.

Rosh Chodesh Elul is also the day when Moshe ascended mount Sinai to fast and pray for forty days and forty nights, culminating in the reconciliation between God and the Israelites after the sin of the golden calf, and the receiving of the second set of tablets on the tenth day of Tishrei (aka Yom Kippur). Thus, Rosh Chodesh Elul marks the beginning of a forty-day season of teshuvah and atonement which will reach its climax on Yom Kippur. Though we are not able to climb Mount Sinai or fast for forty days, as Moshe did, God makes this a little easier on us by making Himself accessible to any ordinary Jew who wishes to do teshuvah.

I know personally, when Rosh Chodesh Elul rolls around, I start getting anxious about getting ready for the holidays—all the meals I have to cook, the sermons I have to write, the events and services I need to plan. However, I try to take a little of that nervous energy and channel it into the real work of this season, which is teshuvah.

The more we do our homework during Elul—engaging in serious reflection and cheshbon hanefesh (personal accounting), the more effective and meaningful our prayers on the Yamim Nora’im will be. I encourage each of us to decide right now on some simple way that we are going to use the month of Elul to do that work. Perhaps that means setting aside twenty minutes each night with a pen and paper to write down things we are struggling with or that we need to do teshuvah for. Perhaps that means taking one long walk by ourselves each week for the next four weeks and pouring our heart out to God. Perhaps that could mean taking a moment each time we say the Shemoneh Eshrei, taking time during the blessing of Teshuvah, to reflect on what we need to do teshuvah for. Perhaps it means simply committing to reading one book about teshuvah this month (I recommend Changing the World from the Inside Out by Rabbi David Jaffe). Whatever we choose to do, it should be something realistic and doable, but also something that has the potential to really change our thinking and behavior. The daily blast of the shofar during Elul can serve as a little reminder to stay engaged in that work, so that Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement, does not catch us off guard.


FRIDAY, August 3rd

Moshe is a master of rhetoric. Take this passage from his words to the Israelites, which we will read this Shabbat (Devarim 8:11-14)

השמר לך פן־תשכח את־ה׳ א-להיך לבלתי שמר מצותיו ומשפטיו וחקתיו אשר אנכי מצוך היום

“Guard yourself, lest you forget Hashem, your God, and do not keep His commandments, his laws and his statutes, which I command you today.”

So far the passage is what one might have expected, but then the verse takes a surprising turn

פן־תאכל ושבעת ובתים טובים תבנה וישבת ובקרך וצאנך ירבין וכסף וזהב ירבה־לך וכל אשר־לך ירבה

“Lest you eat and are satisfied and build good houses and live in them and your herds and flocks multiply and you have plenty of silver and gold, and everything you own will multiply…”

At this point it sounds like Moshe is saying if we aren’t careful, heaven forbid, we might become very prosperous. What’s wrong with being prosperous? Having aroused our curiosity with this seemingly counterintuitive sentiment, Moshe continues in the next verse “ורם לבבך ושכחת את־ה׳ א-להיך המוציאך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים”

and your heart becomes haughty and you forget Hashem your God, wh took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves.

With this statement, the statement begins to make more sense—the concern is not that we will become prosperous per se, but that in spite of, or perhaps because of, an abundance of material success, we will forget God’s role in giving them to us. Prosperity is actually a double-edged sword—of course, we want to be safe, and well-fed and comfortable, but the more comfortable we are, the greater the danger of complacency, the greater the danger we will forget that all our blessings actually come from God. When we become prosperous and successful, Moshe warns that we are at risk of deluding ourselves into thinking that we are the authors of our own success, and will say to ourselves, כחי ועצם ידי עשה לי את־החיל הזה

“My own power and the might of my own hand have made this wealth for me.” (Ibid v. 17)

It’s easy to remember God when we feel we need something from Him. But when our basic physical needs are taken care of, it’s all too easy to forget God. This is why the Torah commands us to bless God after we eat “When you eat and are satisfied, bless Hashem your God…” to remind us in our moments of satisfaction to cultivate gratitude, which is the opposite of haughtiness and pride.

This week and throughout the year, let us notice and appreciate when our needs or wants have been met, or when we have managed some personal or professional success, and express our thanks to God in those moments. For everything, we achieve or do is only possible with the help of God.


SUNDAY, July 22nd

This coming Sunday, we will observe the fast of Tisha B’av. We will take day out of our lives to mourn, not only the destruction of the temple and the 2,000 year exile of the Jewish people, but also the violence, tragedy and destruction we see in the world today, which are symptoms of the same underlying brokenness. There is much work to do to remedy and combat the darkness around us, but for one night and a day, we stop and simply mourn, because before we can change what is broken, we have to acknowledge what is broken.

Saturday night, after Shabbat ends, we will gather in shul and sit on the floor in the dark reading Eicha, the book of Lamentations (bring your own light source to read by).  After services that night, and in the morning after Shacharit, we will recite Kinot (elegiacal liturgical poems) that bewail the great tragedies of our history from the sin of the Golden Calf to the destruction of Shoah. This is not a happy experience, but it can be a deeply and a powerful experience if we open ourselves up to the solemnity and the sorrow of this day.

Please see below for a full schedule of programming at KI throughout the fast day, featuring classes and talks by our guest rabbi from the Torah u’mesorah Seed Program, Shaya Ungar.

I invite you to join us, not only in fasting and attending shul, but also in another important project related to the fast. The Rashba says that on fast days, one should give to Tzedakah the money one saved by not eating and drinking.  In that spirit, KI is partnering with an organization called Fast for Feast to collect donations and split them between Leket Israel (the largest anti-hunger organization in Israel) and the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services.  I encourage you to visit in order to join me in supporting this effort; it doesn’t have to be much: $10, $18, whatever you’d ordinarily spend on food and beverages for the day.  In this way, together we can connect our fasting and prayers to the concrete, practical work of building a more just, righteous society here and in Israel.

May Zion be rebuilt and may peace come to Jerusalem speedily and in our days.

Wishing you an Easy Fast,

Rabbi Garth Silberstein


FRIDAY, July 13th

This Friday marks the beginning of the month of Av, when, according to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6), we must begin reducing simcha (joy) in anticipation of Tisha B’av, when we mourn the destruction of the Temple as well as many other calamities that have befallen our people on this day throughout history.  Over the centuries, the Mishnah’s vague instruction to reduce simcha has become codified in a whole series of restricted activities that mirror the practices of those in deep mourning. Some of these restrictions include abstaining from wine and meat, dancing, bathing and even wearing freshly laundered clothes.

For many of us in this day and age, these observances can feel superficial, and divorced from any genuine sadness over the destruction of the temple.  However, if we can find a way to enter into them with full kavanah, they possess a deep spiritual power.  The Talmud (Taanit 30b) states “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit to see her joy, and whoever does not mourn for Jerusalem will not see her joy.”  We can read this statement as a simple tit-for-tat: God will reward those who mourn the destruction of Jerusalem by allowing them to witness the joy of redemption and God punishes those who fail to mourn by not allowing them to witness that joy.  However, another way to read it not as a description of reward and punishment, but of the natural consequences that flow from our actions.

Many of us resist feelings we perceive as “negative,” including and especially sorrow and grief.  This is perfectly understandable—these feelings can be very painful.  When we are confronted by something that provokes those painful feelings in us, whether that’s the destruction of the temple or any other manifestation of the world’s deep brokenness, we employ any number of strategies to avoid those feelings.  We try to avoid paying attention to what is in front of us, or we cultivate an attitude of cynicism and nonchalance, or we numb ourselves with food, alcohol, drugs, TV, social media, and any number of other distractions.  The problem with this is that in trying to avoid certain feelings we come to numb all of our feelings and make it harder to access not only our capacity for grief, but our capacity for joy as well.  Moreover, by avoiding looking at sadness and suffering squarely in the face, we hobble our ability to respond with appropriate compassion and action to combat it.

Thus, if we fail to mourn for Jerusalem, perhaps it’s not that we will be not be present at her rebuilding, but that even if we are present, we will find ourselves numbed to the joy of the day and incapable of participating in it.

Tish`a B’Av and the days leading up to it invite us to enter into sorrow, so that we can also open ourselves up to the experience of joy. I invite us to approach the mourning practices of this season not as a burden, but as an opportunity to feel and express emotions and thoughts which normally we keep hidden.  If we are able to do this, we will emerge on the other side of this fast more awake to both the sorrow and the joy of our world, and with greater strength for the work of serving God and our fellow human beings.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein