Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Four Weeks of Elul - Week Two: Our Spiritual Selves

For many of us who are fortunate enough to live in the State of Colorado, the Rocky Mountains provide a backdrop of beauty that fills us with awe. Spending time in, or simply gazing at the mountains from a distance can often prompt us to feel both grateful and insignificant. On the one hand, we give thanks for the opportunity to appreciate their splendor.

When we hike, bike, ski or simply go for a drive in the mountains, our mind opens and our consciousness expands to give thanks for the glorious vistas we encounter.  On the other hand, when reflecting on the evolutionary processes that had to occur for the mountains to form - the millions of years, the geological upheaval and the movement of glaciers - we sometimes can't help but feel small and unimportant in contrast to the vast expanses that spread out before us.

These two contradictory experiences - feeling grateful and insignificant - are the central building blocks of spiritual growth. Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa, an 18th century Chasidic master, once taught that every person should carry two pieces of paper: one in each pocket.  In our left pocket should be written the words: "I am nothing but dust and ashes."  In our right pocket, it should say:  "For me the world was created."  On those occasions when we are feeling full of ourselves and our accomplishments; when we feel invincible and important, we should reach into our left pocket to remember that we are mortal, fallible and, in the vast reaches of God's creation, merely a blip on the cosmic screen of existence.  But on those occasions when we are feeling too small and insignificant, we reach into our right pocket and reflect on the fact that our lives are a gift and we are incredibly fortunate to be alive.
Becoming a spiritual person is less about what we believe and more about what we feel.  Spirituality is about keeping one's balance between gratitude and existential angst.

During the month of Elul, our process of Cheshbon Ha Nefesh - self reflection and evaluation  - one of our tasks should be contemplation our relationship with the Divine (however we define that word...) and our Jewish sacred texts and traditions.  The following questions are designed to provoke introspection and self understanding. As always, they should not be perceived as a complete listing – they are merely a beginning. If you have other questions that you think may help others in our community, I would love to receive them.  I will post them on my blog – which is linked to both Facebook and our Temple Emanuel website.


  1. How often during the course of the past year have I taken the natural beauty that surrounds me for granted?
  2. What events have caused me to question my faith during the course of the past year?
  3. When/where was the last time I felt close to God (however I define God)…?
  4. Jewish tradition teaches that all of us are created in the Divine Image.  When was the last time I looked for holiness in the people that I love the most?
  5. What aspects of my personality reflect the values that I have inherited from my family? From society? From Popular culture? From my own inner holiness?
  6. When was the last time I was able to pray without any distraction?
  7. How often, during the course of the past year, have I been able to set aside my own needs for something bigger than myself?

Again, these weekly lists are in no way complete.  They are designed to help us as we prepare for the High Holy Days.  If any of these questions has caused to you want to speak to me or any of the other clergy at Temple Emanuel, please do not hesitate to call us at 303-388-4013.  You can also send me an email at

May you utilize these and all of your questions to help you gain a better understanding of your spiritual selves.

L’Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

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