Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be.
Not what is a synagogue, but what ought a synagogue to be.
Not what prayer is, but what prayer ought to be.
Focus from is to ought, and our mindset is affected. Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future.
Ought challenges my creative imagination, opens me to the realm of possibilities, and to responsibilities to realize yesterday/s dream.
Ought and is are complementary. Without an is, the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. Without an ought, the great visions of tomorrow fade.
Ought demands not only a knowledge of history, but of exciting expectation. Is is a being, ought is a becoming
Ought emancipates me from status quo thinking.
Ought is the freedom of spirit.
Ought we not Ought? (Rabbi Harold Schulweis)
What is this summer like? Hot, hot, hot! But how have we used these dog days of summer as the days and weeks now rush to Labor Day and this year towards Rosh HaShanah but hours later. Have we made the time to catch our breath and found some time for rest, relaxation and reflection? Are we fully aware of what the calendar tells us and even who we really are, what we ought to be doing and ought to be becoming?
We become aware of the nearness of these moments of transition as our calendars tell us figuratively to turn the page to August (only a month left of summer) … or in Jewish terms to turn the page to Elul, (the Hebrew month with 30 days to get ready for Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) August is a time to pack in as much of summer as possible. Elul is the time to get yourself ready for the sacred time of the new year heralded by the sound of the shofar for a time of introspection and self-examination.
The Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, earned widespread fame for what today we’d call “personal self-help”. The story is told that Rabbi Kagan was once in a distant village. In search of a ride home, he met a wagon driver and asked the driver, who did not know his identity, where he was going. When he learned that the driver was going to his village, he asked if he might go along. The Hafetz Hayyim asked the driver why he was going there, and he responded excitedly, “I am going to meet the Hafetz Hayyim to prepare for the High Holy Days.” Though still not revealing his identity to the driver, he responded, “Oh, I know the Hafetz Hayyim, and believe me, he’s not so wonderful.” With that the driver punched the Hafetz Hayyim in the face and threw him from the wagon.
When he recovered and reflected on the incident, the Hafetz Hayyim said the driver taught him an important lesson, “Never speak badly about anyone, not even yourself!” From this we learn that the Days of Awe, our High Holy Days and the idea of repentance call upon us to reflect and deal honorably with others, including ourselves. To be inscribed in the Book of Life, we need to realize that life is not fiction. God’s inscribing us is about our cheshbon hanefesh, the personal accounting of what is and what ought to be, about how we have been living in the year soon ending … and about how we ought to live in the new year.
It is no easy thing to be human – so much to tempt us and so difficult to be strong. Our basic humanity hinges upon our being able to discipline ourselves to do the right things, to make the right commitments, to embrace the right people, to do good, to work for tikkun olam, repairing our lives and our world. Elul, and August this year, amidst summer’s heat, is about asking yourself questions: Have I healed or have I hurt? Have I helped or have I hindered? Have I been a model for those who look to me, or have I fallen short of my potential? As one of my hero’s and teachers, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We cannot allow wrongs to pass unnoticed; we cannot all retreat to the convenience of being busy: living as a Jew mandates that we be responsible, face the challenges, address problems and make a difference!
For us and our families, and for our world,
Amidst August/Elul & summer’s warmth, may what is be filled with blessings
And may what ought the future to hold in 5774 be filled
with sweetness, human kindness and peace.
Rabbi David Gelfand is rabbi of Temple Israel of the City of New York.