The following thoughts were shared last week in Stowe, Vermont, at the 2013 Summer Institute for Current Graduate Fellows and Davidson Scholars.

Here we are deep into Elul – the month of introspection, reflection, and contemplation. We hope, as we inch closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that we will be able to gain clarity, say what we need to say to others, say what we need to say to our God, and/or say what we need to say to ourselves. This Institute, as far as I can remember, is the closest an Institute has ever been to the High Holidays. When we get home on Friday, Rosh Hashanah is just 12 days away.

For me, the Summer Institute is a great place to be during Elul and you are just the people that I want to be with. Putting 80 contemplative and passionate Jewish thinkers, feelers, learners and leaders together in the Green Mountains to learn from each other and from our invited faculty creates a feeling of soulful retreat – a time set out of time to use each other as mirrors for our own reflection.

Our rabbis teach the following mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashana: What happens when a person blows the shofar into a pit or a cistern? If the sound of the shofar is heard then the listener fulfills the obligation of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. But if it is the sound of the echo that the person hears then the mitzvah of hearing shofar on Rosh Hashana is not fulfilled (RH 3:7).

On the surface this is matter of Halacha. Our rabbis imagine an extreme situation and use it as a way to determine what it really means to hear the shofar. But I can’t help but see this mishnah as a metaphor for the work we need to do during Elul. By distinguishing between the essence of the shofar’s sound and the echo that is created around it – we are reminded to always distinguish between the Essence of a thing and the echoes that inevitably surround that essence.

We all get caught up in the echo. Sometimes at the end of the day I have so many voices bouncing around in my head that it is hard for me to discern which one of them is mine. And it is not just in my head that the echoes abound – life is full of distractions that divide our attention and keep us from hearing the most essential of the sounds. And if we get stuck in the mire of distracting voices we will be prevented from focusing our attention on things that are truly important. How much energy and time is wasted worrying about things that are non-essential?

Elul is a month-long leadership retreat that sets time aside to refocus our attention – the echoes fall by the wayside and we concentrate on the essential. It is an empowering idea – because it’s mere existence is a statement that getting to the essence is possible to do. But it takes work and discipline to release ourselves from the echoes.

Do you know how the monkey trappers in Thailand catch a monkey? They hollow out a coconut with a hole on one end, place a banana in it and hang it in a tree. Eventually a monkey comes around, sticks his hand in the coconut, grabs the banana and is stuck. Of course, the monkey got his hand in the coconut so if he wanted to he could get his hand out – he just needs to let go of the banana, unclench his fist and release himself. But, just like us, the monkey has a difficult time letting go of what is unessential (in this case, the banana) and to experience the essential (his freedom). Elul is 28 days dedicated to letting go of the banana. (That is why bananas are not a traditional food on Rosh Hashana).

We can’t just hope that it will happen – we have to be purposeful and have a disciplined practice to distinguish the echoes from the essential. Let me share with you one of my Elul practices that allows me to do personal teshuva – that is, return to my better self – in advance of Rosh Hashanah:

Starting three Eluls ago I determined that I would focus this month each year on gratitude. It is an essential trait of being Jewish: When our people’s namesake “Yehuda” (Judah) was born Leah said, “For this one I will thank God, therefore she named him Judah”. Jew and Judah are both from the same word for gratitude – todah.  Being Jewish means being part of a people that expresses gratitude. Being Jewish leaders means modeling this trait.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov writes, “Gratitude (celebrates) with her sister joy and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted.” (Morinis, p. 85)

So each Elul I make a plan to express extra gratitude – I call someone from my past that had a pivotal role in forming me as a Jewish leader and thank them.

Two Eluls ago I called my Hebrew school director from when I was 15. It had been 20 years since I had seen him last. Among other things, he taught me about the painstaking but rewarding work of reaching out to people individually to bring them into community. I told him that by doing that for me he began my process for caring about Jewish life as an adult.

Last Elul I called the former dean of Hebrew Union College, from when I was in graduate school. It had been 17 years since I last spoke with him. We weren’t ever very close, but I got to know him when I volunteered to serve on the admissions committee as the student representative – something that I strongly recommend each of you do – in fact, after this institute call your admissions director and volunteer. I thanked him for that experience, which was precious to me then, and even more so now. “You see,” I told him, “part of my job now is guiding a selection process each year. I learned from your example that each fellowship application that sits before me represents someone’s personal aspirations, dreams for the Jewish People, and nothing less than their soul. And as Jewish leaders we care for people’s souls. Each applicant needs to be treated with care and respect, regardless if the answer is yes or no.

This year I called my supervisor from my first job after graduate school. It had been 15 years since I had last spoken to her. I told her that from her I learned both the joys of pluralism and that with hard work and vision – the Jewish Community could unite around essential matters such as Torah learning, social justice, and civic engagement. 

Expressing genuine gratitude helps both the giver and receiver filter the essence out of the echoes. Maurice Sendak, the author of “Where the Wild Things Are” tells this story about expressing gratitude:

“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”’

Gratitude is delicious and is (in this case) literally nourishing. Gratitude is a soul-trait and a leadership-trait that must be practiced. That is, gratitude needs to be expressed purposefully and frequently – and the more you do it the more you exercise that gratitude muscle – and you get better at it.

Gratitude is good in and of itself but it is also good leadership – when people know you appreciate them – value their time, their efforts, their talent they will be open to working with you. They will want to be on your team. When the rock band Rush accepted their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year – they were the only band that evening to thank the roadies. At this pinnacle moment of their careers they were mindful of thanking the guys who schlep the equipment on and off the stage each night. What a rush it must be to work with Rush!

So practice gratitude. James Taylor said it so well – “Shower the people you love with love, show them the way you feel!” Do it in public on occasion but do it in private, always. Go out of your way to do it – call the person who had an impact on you so long ago to let them know that you still think about their effect on your life.

Elul is perfect time to do that. But so is Tishre through Av. Because when you are really successful in breaking through the echo and hearing the essence, what you find is that ultimately what is essential are the people who are along for the ride with you. People are the essence. The clear discernible blast of the shofar in Elul and on Rosh Hashana is one way of waking us up to this essential reality.

And it goes both ways – you know how good it feels when you are appreciated. We are all together in the business of working tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish People. No one will truly ever know the blood, sweat, tears, love and joy you put in to make sure that this community is served with the excellence it deserves. There will be so many who were impacted by you and your work and for whatever reasons it just won’t occur to them to let you know. But every now and then someone will call you out of the blue and in his or her own way thank you and tell you that your hard work really mattered.

And you will eat it up, and you will be nourished.

Shana Tova.

Or Mars is the Director of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Class 6, and the Jerusalem Fellows.  Or lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, Rabbi Sharon Mars, and their three children – Adi, Tova and Tal.  He can be reached at