We are all Jews-by-Choice in Elul

I started my day yesterday at the Seattle Mikvah (ritual bath), where I was serving on a beit din, a panel of three rabbis, supervising a conversion for a baby who, through adoption, is now part of a Jewish family! Often, I am also privileged to witness such ritual moments for adults who have chosen Judaism, too. Within the Kavana community, together with many Jews-from-birth, we have many individuals who have chosen, along the way, to identify with the Jewish people and participate in Jewish life (whether or not that has entailed a formal conversion process). I always appreciate the opportunity to celebrate this powerful choice!

I started my day yesterday at the Seattle Mikvah (ritual bath), where I was serving on a beit din, a panel of three rabbis, supervising a conversion for a baby who, through adoption, is now part of a Jewish family! Often, I am also privileged to witness such ritual moments for adults who have chosen Judaism, too. Within the Kavana community, together with many Jews-from-birth, we have many individuals who have chosen, along the way, to identify with the Jewish people and participate in Jewish life (whether or not that has entailed a formal conversion process). I always appreciate the opportunity to celebrate this powerful choice!

Today, many converts to Judaism prefer the terminology of "Jews by choice."  But, as sociologists have pointed out, in contemporary times, all Jews are -- in effect -- Jews by choice. In our society, there is no external pressure towards observance or affiliation. And so, we are left to choose for ourselves how we will forge our paths of connection and identity.

This is a time of year where choice is a dominant theme. This week's Torah portion, Parashat Re'eh, begins with God setting out the array of choices: "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse" (Deuteronomy 11:26). The blessing is defined as what will follow if the Israelites live in accordance with God's commandments; the curse is what will result if they "turn away from the path." As a way of helping the Israelites visualize this dichotomy, Moses instructs the Israelites that as they actually enter into the promised land, they are to physically pass between two mountains, Har Gerizim and Har Ebal. On Har Gerizim, the blessing will be pronounced, and on Har Ebal, the curse. By passing between the two, the Israelites are forced into a moment of higher cognition, in which they become explicitly aware of the choices they face and all that might follow from their decisions.

This weekend is also Rosh Chodesh Elul - the beginning of the Hebrew month of spiritual preparation that leads us towards the High Holidays. In his book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew weaves the image from Parashat Re'eh together with our entry into the month of Elul. He writes:

"We have to come to see our life very clearly, clearly enough so that we can discern the will of God in it, so that we can tell the difference between the blessings and the curses, so that these things are arrayed before us as clearly as mountains, as we intone their names from the valley in between -- that sliver of eternity on which we stand and that we call the present moment.

This is why we are advised to spend the month of Elul in the regular practice of introspection, self-examination, and silence. We no longer perform the great pageant of the blessings and the curses, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. But this pageant was a ritual, and the inner process that this ritual was trying to express in visual form persists. Today we have our own ritualization of it: the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days, the time when it is made equally clear to us that everything depends upon our own moral and spiritual choices. And although we no longer have the two great mountains to help us see this choice in concrete form, we do have the month of Elul - a time to gaze upon the inner mountains, to devote serious attention to bringing our lives into focus; a time to clarify the distinction between the will of God and our own willfulness, to identify that in us which yearns for life and that which clings to death, that which seeks good and that which is fatally attracted to the perverse, to find out who we are and where we are going...

I love Rabbi Lew's image of the inner mountains. In this read, the month of Elul becomes a time to try to awaken ourselves to choices we had forgotten that we get to make... after all, it's human nature to go on auto-pilot, to get stuck in our own patterns and stories and forget that we are making choices all the time. The mountains lie within us, always.

A famous High Holiday image -- of a balance, or scales -- also relates to the two mountains. Maimonides (a.k.a. Rambam, the great medieval Jewish philosopher) writes that "one needs to see himself all year as if he is equally balanced between innocence and guilt... If doing one mitzvah, behold he has tipped himself and the entire world to the side of innocence and brought about salvation for himself and for everyone else." (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4)

Maimonides' articulation reminds us that the choices we make aren't always as large and grand as mountains; sometimes they are as small as adding a tiny weight (a paperclip? a feather?) to a set of scales. And yet, it doesn't take more than this to tip balance just a bit toward the good. Powerfully, Maimonides claims that micro-actions can be enough not only to influence our life on a personal level, but also the fate of the world as a whole… in other words, every little choice can matter.

With all of these images swirling -- mountains that represent blessings and curses, scales where a single act has the potential to tip the balance toward the good -- we enter into the month of Elul through the gateway of Parashat Re'eh. Now is the perfect time to ask yourself: what do you want to do with the coming month, and the coming year? What choices -- both large and small -- will help you move yourself, personally, and help us move ourselves, collectively, toward the good, and towards blessing? What does your Judaism-by-choice look like? This is the core spiritual work of the season.

Below, you'll find many events that have the potential to connect you to the Kavana community and to a broader circle of fellow travelers. I hope you'll join us tomorrow evening for our final Shabbat in the Park of the summer, and also pick some activities for the month of Elul -- whether writing, davening, gathering, singing, and/or learning -- that can help you enter into this communal framework of the season of choice. Lastly, I know that there are many in our Kavana community still exploring their connection to Judaism. The WCR's Intro to Judaism class, listed below, could be a great way for anyone to learn some basics, or could be a point along the pathway to a mikvah conversion for anyone seeking to become, literally, a Jew-by-choice.

May the new month of Elul, which begins this Saturday and Sunday, hold blessings for us and for all the people of Israel. May it inspire us to choose paths of blessing, for ourselves and for the entire world. Amen!

Shabbat Shalom, and Chodesh Tov,
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum