Engaging with Elul as a Family

Special activities in preparation for the High Holy Days.

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Ex. 33:18-23:  He [Moses] said [to God], "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!" And He answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live." And the LORD said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."

Soon afterward, God proclaims the thirteen attributes of God:

"Ex. 34:6-7:  The LORD passed before him and proclaimed:  ‘The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment…'" 

The mystery in this story lies in what Moses actually sees. The Torah likely did not mean to imply that God takes a literal human form. Rather, God gives Moses a glimpse of the world by looking over God's shoulder; in other words, Moses sees the world from God's perspective. Elul is about trying to understand the impact that our actions have on other people. Perhaps when Moses says “Let me behold Your Presence,” God’s response isn't about literally seeing God from Moses’ perspective, but affording Moses the opportunity to see the world from God's perspective.

As a Family

Take turns looking over each other's shoulders. If your family members have significant height differences, pick each other up or stand on chairs to get higher, or bend down to get lower. Lie down on the grass and see the world perspective of the ants; follow around your pet dog or baby sister by crawling. What do you see now that you couldn't before?

Now think back to someone you are asking forgiveness from, or someone you need to forgive. Is there something you are not seeing because you are too stubborn to look at the situation from their perspective?

Recalling our Ancestors: A Visit to the Cemetery

Background

We chant in the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service: "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live, and who shall die…" For some, the image of God inscribing every name in either the book of life or death is compelling enough to provoke quick repentance.

As we count down to Yom Kippur, on which we will act "dead" by fasting and otherwise subjugating our physical needs, we prepare ourselves for the clean slate we will receive. By reviewing our lives and making amends, we afford ourselves the opportunity for a fresh start in the New Year.

As a Family

How can we use this season to teach our children the value of righteous living? It is traditional to visit cemeteries in the month of Elul. A brief visit to the graves of relatives is a tremendous opportunity for parents and other family members to share fond memories of their departed loved ones. Children love hearing family narratives, and will listen more closely to a story a righteous person than a lecture on how and why to do the right thing. If a cemetery visit is not an option, bring out photographs and other remembrances of your departed loved ones.

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Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is the Director of Jewish Family Learning & Life at West End Synagogue, A Reconstructionist Congregation in Manhattan. She has her M.A. in Jewish Education and Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary. She is also a senior editor of Jewschool.com and Director of Programming for Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.