With only 30 days left in the year, Elul is a time of yearning, forgiveness and return.
“Remember! Only 30 more shopping days left!”
The last week of November was a magical time back in the “Old Country.” I never endangered my life shopping at Filenes which, in those far off times, was only in Boston. Macy’s was still the site of many near-death experiences for those of us who like the adrenalin rush of hunting for bargains.
The nonstop hype was delivered breathlessly and repetitively. “Just today, ladies and gentleman. Yes! Just today!” was a typical opening for a 10% reduction on socks. It all ended with New Years, leaving precious little behind in its wake, other than the disheartening return to facing the juggernaut of routine soul-numbing life as usual.
Everything is different when the Jewish month of Elul arrives. It, too, is 30 days before the Big Day, which in this case is Rosh Hashana. It is not a time in which we strive to find some sort of balance between shopping and dropping. It is a time of love, yearning, reconciliation, forgiveness, and return.
What does “return” really mean? What are we trying to get back to? Jeremiah proclaimed, “Return, virgin of Israel, return to these, your cities” (Jeremiah 31:20). We are compared to a virgin, who can at last return to her betrothed groom, and to an exile who is able to return to the land now rebuilt, that was last seen empty and desolate.
No one can return to a place they have never been to. Have we ever really felt close to God and yearned for Him the way a bride yearns for her beloved? Have we ever really identified so closely with the fate of the Jewish people that our personal achievements fail to provide us with enough satisfaction to dull the ache of national estrangement from what we were meant to be as a people?
For many of us the answer is silence. And for many there are moments of beauty and connection that we wish would last forever. There are times when we feel totally connected to the Jewish nation as a whole, glued to the news. How many Katyushas? Do I know anyone in Haifa? What can I do to help?
BODY AND SOUL MICROCOSM
The difference between the way we relate to Elul and how we relate to the end of November is a microcosm of the way we relate to our bodies and our souls. The body wants to own, to buy more and more. The soul wants connection, deeper and deeper.
The great illusion of life is that the body (which we all intellectually recognize as only mortal) feels real and permanent. The soul (which we all know is infinite since it part of God Himself), feels vaguely unreal because it is intangible.
The sages tell us, “One moment of return and good deeds in this world is worth more than the whole life in the World to Come” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:17). This is the world of enormous spiritual opportunity. It is the setting of “trial by fire,” as our passions, jealousies, petty hatreds, burn within us. Every victory has profound impact on our connection to God and to man. In the deepest sense, our self-esteem is built, brick by brick, by choosing to conquer our impulsivity and cravings.
The problem is that we are too myopic to see the panoramic vista that this sort of battle opens up within us. We are too busy fighting. We fail, again and again. We let our failures define us and erode our belief in the fact that we are fighting a winnable battle. We all too often submit to the dictates of our bodies and silence the yearnings of the soul. We give up the struggle.
One of my recurring nightmares is one in which I see myself as a patient in an old age home. I am sitting near a Formica table in a large room with a T.V. blasting away at no one in particular. Lunch, served in cheery orange melmac, is in front of me. My last words as I leave the planet are, “I asked for white meat.”
That’s it. No Shema. No bedside farewell accompanied by blessings and moral instruction. The winner and all time champ is the body, soon to be interred in the earth from which it was formed. In my worst nightmare the soul is the undisputed runner up in the most significant race that any one of us will ever run.
What makes it even worse is that daylight doesn’t relegate the nightmare to the cobwebs of subconscious thought; the fearful vision is completely plausible. In fact, the Talmud tells us that there is no way that the soul can possibly win the battle without help from its Creator.
GOD IS NEAR
This time of year is the time when God’s closeness to us is most easily grasped. It is as though an invisible curtain that we ourselves designed through bad choices, fear and pain can now be drawn aside. Elul is compared to the time of year that God, by way of parable, is likened to a human king who resides in his palace and is virtually inaccessible to the average person. Once a year, the king tours his kingdom with the goal of getting to know his subjects. Anyone can go to the royal personage and tell him whatever is on his mind and in his heart know that the king is there to hear him.
How do we find the King? There are various practices for Elul that attunes us to its power.
1. Recite Psalm 27.
King David, the Talmud tells us, was given some of Adam’s lifespan. Thus, like Adam, his soul is a composite of every soul that will ever be placed in a body. The book of Psalms gives us words that touch the essence of every possible human experience from the deepest possible angle. Psalm 27 is the one that helps us resolve the conflict between our bodies and our souls. The first verse says it all, “God is my light.” This means that He not only created the physical world, but He guides us through it with His light. Just as turning on a light in a dark room helps a child to recognize that lions and tigers are really just coat racks and blankets, we can similarly let God’s light remove our fears, sins, and limitations..
(To Be Continued Next Week)
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