by Rabbi Elana Rosen-Brown, August 17, 2018
As I prepared for tonight’s sermon, I listened to all of my favorite Aretha Franklin songs. Belting out loud to the Queen of Soul, albeit with much less agility and grace, is one of the many ways I’ve found over the last twenty-five years (or more!!) to return, at once, and immediately, to my essential nature and find a place of flow and contentedness no matter what storm of the mind, heart, or planet is currently raging. I bet, whether or not you consider yourself a singer, you can relate.
My favorite song: “Spirit in the Dark:”
I'm gettin the spirit in the dark
I'm gettin the spirit in the dark
People movin, aw, ain't we groovin?
Just gettin the spirit in the dark.
Tell me sister, how do you feel?
Tell me my brother, brother, brother, how do you feel?
Do you feel like dancin? Then get up and let's start dancin
Start gettin the spirit, spirit in the dark
In the Atlantic Magazine this week writer Hannah Giorgis wrote—“Aretha Franklin sang with a power and conviction that healed. She transformed pain—both others’ and her own—into jubilation”.
And you can feel that in Spirit in the Dark. We don’t get to hear the answer—brother—how are you feeling? Sister, how are you feeling??? We know from our own experience that there’s no way all of the people asked that question actually feel like getting up and dancing. But by the end of that song, we see it, we feel it, the transformation of pain into jubilation.
And that is precisely what we are here to do during the month of Elul.
At this moment we have arrived at another turn around the sun, another cycle of the Jewish calendar,
At this moment we hear again the call of the shofar
At this moment of entering the month of Elul
we begin to allow ourselves to look back on the events of 5778, the events of this past year.
So much has happened for each one of us. Many of us have lived a full spectrum of grief and joy, laughter and loss in just this one year. And no we didn’t always feel like dancing. But sometimes, oh sometimes how we did!
And now, here we are again on the brink of a new turning.
How do we take the words to be real:
Hashiveinu Adonai Eleicha v’nashuva chadeish yameinu k’kedem.
Turn us back to ourselves O God and we will return.
Renew our days as in days of old.
How do we feel in our bones:
Achat Shaalti me’eit adonai atah avakeish.
Shivti b’veit adonai kol y’mei chayai.
Just one thing do I ask of God, that I might dwell in God’s house all of the days of my life.
How do we use these lines to turn our pain into jubilation, to find our spirit in the dark?
How do we return to ourselves, our true nature?
How do we return to our loved ones?
How do we return to those from whom we are estranged?
How do we return to a state of oneness with the universe and all that is?
I believe the answer to our questions lies in the line Achat Shaalti me’et adonai otah avakeish, shivti mi beit adonai kol y’mei chayai…and a few Aretha Franklin lyrics.
Let’s begin with the first words:
Achat Shaalti m’eit adonia.
Just one thing do I ask from God. Achat Shaalti. Just one thing.
This phrase asks us for focused attention. It requests of us a narrowing of our field of vision. A refining of our intentions for this month of Elul. It requires of us to shut out the noise of the world, to clear away the mind clutter, to make space to hear ourselves think. We must.
For each day, during the month of Elul, Just One Thing.
We owe it to ourselves to clear a space, to make for ourselves a sanctuary in time, to use this month to hear our deepest truths.
Achat Shaalti could have been the title of Dr. Richard Hanson’s book—but instead he chose to go with the more conventional and widely-understood English title “Just One Thing”.
His central thesis—
That by honing in on just one thing—just one practice, or action, per day—we can “light up neural networks of deep well-being and resilience.” Focus and a narrowing of intention on Just One Thing is a gateway for turning pain into Jubilation.
To use Hanson’s language--In the past year each one of us “have been pushed around by external forces – from the economy to the people we live and work with – and by reactions to these that come from ancient reptile/mammal/primate/caveman circuits inside our own brains.”
Elul is a time to honor Achat Shaalti—Just One Thing.
How can you clear a space for yourself, free from the noise, during this month of Elul?
Otah/Atah Avakeish—it is you that I seek. I always alter the word Otah to Atah to make the seeking more personal.
During the month of Elul it is said that we begin with our backs turned away from one another, away from ourselves, away from God. But by the end of Elul we find ourselves again face-to-face, panim el panim, having found a way to approach one another.
Over the past year small hurts have added up.
Every single one of us:
We’ve hurt ourselves
We’ve hurt one another
We’ve hurt our world
Inadvertently, without meaning to, just through the process of living and being human.
We begin with our backs turned—having forgotten ourselves in small or big ways, having forgotten our loved ones or feeling estranged, having forgotten our essential essence for connection with community and the world. But by the end of Elul we turn back towards the beloved—we come face to face—we do this by actively searching and seeking that which we may have momentarily lost. We long to return, to make whole what is broken. That is our passion and purpose.
It is you I seek!
We do this through a process of Teshuvah.
We ask ourselves—to whom is my back turned at this moment? With whom do I long to reconcile?
What actions can I take to see my old friend, my family, myself, more clearly?
Perhaps the questions on this list are your Just One Thing for Elul. In the course of our lifetimes how much clutter builds up through the pain of our to-do list of people that we haven’t yet forgiven, haven’t yet cleared up some matter or another. What burdens that keep us from dancing!
This Elul please don’t feel overwhelmed. Choose one person to seek out in your Teshuvah work, choose just one relationship to mend—and perhaps the relationship you need to mend is the relationship with yourself. If so, start there.
Shivti B’veit Adonai—dwell in the house of God.
What does this line mean to me? In it’s shortest form—to feel held by the universe, to feel filled with compassion for self and others, to know the feeling of abiding love and safety in the world as it is regardless of circumstance.
As we enter into the process of self-inquiry and Teshuvah this Elul, looking with clear-sightedness at the ways in which we have missed the mark in this past year it is essential that we do so from a dwelling place of beit adonai. Our Jewish tradition does not want us to beat ourselves up during this month. It is not a tradition of blame; it is not a tradition of self-flagellation. Judaism acknowledges and celebrates the shadow in every human being. As the late Lubavetcher Rabbi Reb Schneerson said: it is the goal of the spiritual life to draw the darkness and light within ourselves into communion. We should not feel ashamed nor castigate our shadow, and it would be detrimental to banish it. Instead our goal is to love the darker parts of ourselves and draw them in, close. To make friends with them.
Our goal for Elul is to hold ourselves with such kindness and compassion that we are able to have the courage to approach the things within ourselves and in our lives that are most difficult. Take the time to speak to yourself with kindness. To forgive yourself. It is only through building your sanctuary of compassion that you can embark on the work of Teshuvah.
Kol Y’mei Chayai—all the days of your life.
I hear this phrase and I am transported to life’s immediacy.
Kol Y’Mei Chayai:
Tell me, the Psalmist asks, What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
And that’s it isn’t it?
On Rosh Hashanah the beit sefer hachayyim—the book of life is opened and it stays open for ten days. The pointedness of the exercise is almost too great to bare.
During the month of Elul we can hold the preciousness of life a little more lightly.
Take the time each day during this month to notice moments of blessing.
Take the time each day to notice—what is the thing in your life that makes you want to sing, that makes you want to dance, that keeps your spirit going in the dark, that makes you feel like you’re skipping hand and hand with God.
Whatever that thing is do more of it. And if there are things in your life keeping you from dancing—how can you clear them out of the way to make space for you to get down to it and start feeling the spirit.
So—let’s create a short playlist to Achat Shaalti with the Aretha Franklin cliff notes—if that works for you better for you to use her songs as your guideposts for Elul:
Here we go! (Ask congregation to respond to the question which Aretha Franklin song corresponds to the line from Psalm 27):
Achat Shaalti—Just One Thing—The Only Thing Missin’/Say A Little Prayer
Atah Avakeish—Day Dreamin’ and I’m Thinkin’ Of You/You’re All I Need To Get Buy
Shivti B’veit Adonai--This is the House that Jack Built Y’all/Precious Lord Take My Hand
Kol Y’mei Chayai--A Rose is Still A Rose/RESPECT
"It's the rough side of the mountain that's the easiest to climb; the smooth side doesn't have anything for you to hang on to," Aretha told Ebony in 1964. During the month of Elul we’re standing on the edge of Deuteronomy looking over to the Promised Land…with miles to go before we sleep—still on the rough side of the mountain. But perhaps the path forward is less complicated than we think, particularly if we infuse it with just a little more music.
In 1972 Aretha Recorded a version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone for her live album Amazing Grace which she recorded in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles with stars like Mick Jagger and Gospel legend Clara Ward in attendance. I am forever grateful and awed that a person, a spirit, a soul as gifted and towering and majestic and transformative as Aretha ever graced this earth, and graced our lives with her voice. But the real gift that Aretha gave us was access to God—when we were filled with her music we no longer felt alone, or unsettled, or in pain—we were transformed. The process of Elul is to find that spirit, that love, that everyday possibility within ourselves for oneness with the universe and to share it, out loud, with all our soul and all our might, with the world.
Kein Yehi Ratzon