Friday, August 23, 2013

Cookies, Elul, and G-d

“Teshuvah – repentance – does not come to embitter life but to sweeten it.”
HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook

A few days ago, trying to get a jump start on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) cooking, I found myself scraping cookies off  the baking pan, as, for some inexplicable reason, they had flattened out to such an extent that they had the width of nano-cookies.  The recipe had been one of my mother’s, and I had loved them as a kid. My mother, obviously, made them perfectly.
My mother does most things perfectly, except, apparently, teach me how to make pineapple chocolate chip cookies. We've had our differences, obviously, over the years. She still hasn't figured out why I live in Israel, and is calmly waiting for the phase I’m going through to pass.
But my mother is the quintessential homemaker – unlike me, who just pretends.
Which brings me back to Rosh Hashanah cooking.
I hate cooking. I didn't always. I used to enjoy looking through cookbooks, trying out new recipes, and waiting for reactions (i.e., compliments). It took me several years to understand that a) the kids didn't eat anything; b) the husband eats anything; and c) I’m not a very good cook.
So now, I cook what I like. Which is pineapple-chocolate-chip cookies. See c) above.
Taking me a long time to learn my mistakes got me to thinking about the subject of Teshuva. 
We are just past the halfway mark of the Jewish month of Elul, which is the month that leads up to Rosh HaShana.

The letters of the Hebrew month Elul are aleph (א), Lamed (ל), Vav (ו) and Lamed again. There is a tradition that these letters stand for Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li" אני לדודי ודודי לי [I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine – a reference to the relationship between G-d and the Jews (Song of Songs 6:3)].

It is believed that during the month of Elul, G-d is more accessible, more reachable, than the other months of the year. "Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon him while he is near".[Isaiah 55:6]
According to this Chabad Websiteit is “the month of divine mercy and forgiveness, the most opportune time for teshuva (“return” to G‑d), prayer, charity, and increased ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew), in the quest for self-improvement and coming closer to G‑d.”

According to Jewish tradition, it is incumbent upon Jews to do teshuva during the month of Elul.
While teshuva is usually translated as ‘repentance’, Chabad translates the word teshuva as a return to G-d, which is far more correct. defines repentance thus: 
rɪˈpɛntns, -ˈpɛntəns/ [ri-pen-tns, -pen-tuhns]
1. deep sorrow, compunction, or contrition for a past sin, wrongdoing, or the like.
2. regret for any past action.

The word ‘repentance’ has strong Christian connotations.
Which brings me to this story:

The Baptist Church decided to restore its biggest building and Joe was hired for the painting job. He bought the paint, but because the church was so large, he had underestimated how much paint he would need so he thinned the paint with turpentine to make it go further. It took Joe three days to paint the inside of the Church. On the third day, the job nearly completed, there was suddenly a clap of thunder. The sky opened, and the rain poured down. Lightening flashed, and split the roof of the church. The lightening hit Joe and he fell from the scaffold, landing outside among the gravestones. Joe opened his eyes and looked up at the heavens and cried, "Oh, God, forgive me; what should I do?" And from above, a mighty voice roared: “Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!"

But I digress.

I like the Chabad’s translation far better.
The idea of teshuvah is not just to admit your sins. It’s not enough to say, “yep, I robbed, plundered, coveted my neighbor’s car, and ate ham. I’ll try not to do it again.” That’s repentance.
The act of teshuva is to examine your past behavior and to understand your weaknesses, your faults, and your foibles, and to move to improve them.
(Isn’t foibles a great word? Last week, my husband used it –“One of my foibles is to….”, and I answered, “Foibles!!! What a great word! I have no idea what it means, so obviously I don’t have any!” One of MY foibles is to deny I have any foibles, the recognition of which is part of the process of teshuva.)
Indeed, I would think that Judaism is the only religion where it is mandatory annually to self-examine oneself and seek to improve oneself, in your actions, your thoughts, your love of others; to define and isolate your weaknesses, and recognize and further intensify your strengths.
The idea is to do more of what’s good; give more charity (even 1 NIS more), do more kind deeds (smile more, say please and thank you and excuse me, give hugs), listen to others (stop talking on the phone when someone is talking to you, show interest and remember what others tell you); and do less of what’s bad (try not to yell at your kid, don’t interrupt, stop procrastinating [there’s one of my pet foibles! – I’ll do it tomorrow]).
But the first step is to recognize within you your negatives and positives. For me, that’s the hardest part. Negatives are comparatively easy (lose my temper, too sensitive to others’ silly remarks, at times lazy, TERRIBLE housekeeper, procrastinate [notice I left that for last?]). So I try and work on that; I’ll only yell at a kid for three sentences and not whole paragraphs or chapters. I try not to take silly remarks to heart; I’m getting off the couch really; I’ll do the ironing maybe tomorrow. OK, so the last two still need lots of work.
And I must call my mother more often.
I have far more trouble finding my strengths and recognizing them and increasing them. It’s seems to be easier admitting my failures than my achievements. Except when I make a pretty darn good lemon meringue pie; that I brag about. But I’m not sure that’s what counts…. And anyway the bragging part ruins it all….

In essence, teshuva is hard work. But at the end of the day, it’s an invaluable tool to help us improve our lives and the lives of our loved ones and bring us closer to godliness. Teshuva is one of G-d’s gifts to humankind.
Like cookies, teshuva sweetens the soul. 

Teshuva returns us to G-d.

"The Holy One, blessed be His name, said to Elijah, 'Behold, the precious gift which I have bestowed on my world: though a man sins again and again, but returns in penitence, I will receive him." (Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 28b).
Great is teshuva: it brings healing into the world"; "it reaches to the throne of the Lord";[Hosea 14:2,5]
"it (teshuva) brings redemption";[Isaiah 59:20]
"it (teshuva) prolongs man's life";[Ezekiel 18:21 and Talmud Yoma 86a).
Sincere (teshuva) is equivalent to the rebuilding of the Temple, the restoration of the altar, and the offering of all the sacrifices. (Talmud  Sanhedrin 43b)

In Judasim, there are two types of mitzvahs: those between man and G-d and those between man and man. During the month of Elul, we concentrate on those mitzvahs between man and man that need strengthening, slander, gossip, and bearing false witness (lying) are examples of commonplace and persistant sins of which almost all of us are guilty.
As Elul progresses, we change our introspection from internal to external, so that by Rosh HaShana, cleasned of our personal sins, on the path of personal good behaviour, we ask forgiveness for the transgressions we have committed as a nation. We ask forgiveness for the sins of others, because we are responsible for each other.
What other nation has this notion of national responsibility? What a blessing to be among such a people!

In the words of HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook from his book The Teshuvah of Rosh HaShanah:
The mouth of the shofar is narrow, and then it grows broader. This alludes to the path of teshuvah. As the Rambam explains, first, there is individual teshuvah, and then a general teshuvah. The first is an introduction to the latter.  That is to say, the teshuvah of the month of Elul is an introduction to the teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah. 
In Elul, we are engaged in personal teshuvah.  But on Rosh Hashanah we rise to the level of the desire of teshuvah not only for the entire nation—”recite the malchiyot before Me in order to coronate me over you” (Rosh Hashanah 16a)—but for the entire world: “Rule over the entire world in Your glory.”

 Wishing everyone a productive month of Elul, and a sweet and joyous New Year – full of pineapple-chocolate-chip cookies!

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