"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.
No one can return to a place they have never been to.
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.
Our self-esteem is built, brick by brick, by choosing to conquer our impulsivity and cravings.
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..
2. Reciting Selichot.
The Selichot prayers begin in Elul (Sefardic Jews begin on the first of Elul, while Ashkenazi Jews begin the last Motzei Shabbat) and continue until Yom Kippur. The main theme in selichot is the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy. God revealed His true nature to Moses when he begged to know God as much as a mortal can.
Ultimately God is unknowable. Our ability to know is limited by the fact that we live in time which distorts our sense of reality. We are physical and have short lives, and have enormous emotional subjectivity. Because God is unknowable and transcendental, we try to make Him smaller, so to speak, so that He seems more approachable. The worst manifestation of this was the building of the golden calf. Moses wanted words that would give the Jewish people access to God as much as humanly possible.
Each of the 13 attributes exist within us as well. When we join together as a group and proclaim these attributes aloud as we do during the Selichot prayers, we affirm who God is and who we are. This has such force that the Talmud tells us that the attributes always generate change.
Here is a brief rendition of the attributes and their meaning.
1-2: "God," "God" (the four-letter Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh):
The Almighty is telling us that He is unchanging. He has infinite compassion for us before we sin, knowing that we are only human, and when we fail to live up to our humanity He is open to our changing and returning. Because of this, His name, which means "Being," is invoked twice, once for before and once for after our fall and return.
3. "The Force": Unlike human compassion that is limited by our patience and fragility, God's compassion is comparable to an unstoppable force.
4. "Who is Merciful": He gives to the "poor"; those of us who are impoverished spiritually
5. "And full of Grace": He gives freely and in abundance
6. "He is Patient": God gives us time to change, and when we must endure suffering in order to change our direction, He gives it only to the degree that the person's individual situation demands.
7. "and has much kindness": God chooses to judge us favorably when our motivations are mixed
8. "and true": Even if someone has made many mistakes and done terrible things, God will still reward him for whatever good he has done.
9. "creates kindness for thousands of generations": He empowers the forces of good to endure forever. An example of this would be that literally everyone who is alive today is affected by the goodness that Abraham, our forefather, did in his lifetime
10. "Carries sins of desire": God will allow sins to act as a springboard to bring a person to a higher level than they ever could have achieved without repentance. An example would be the case of someone who takes on himself to keep kosher, and is tempted every time he passes a non-kosher eatery.
11. "and sins of rebellion": Even when a person is so full of self that he feels a need to control or attack every human or God-given law, if he opens himself God will broaden him enough to see beyond the limits of his ego.
12. "and sins of negligence": When the source of sin is a passive, uncaring and alienated relationship to life, the source is invariably despair that comes from thinking, "Nothing I do makes much difference anyway." God will give the greatest gift of all – hope -- when there is willingness to take responsibility. This is true even if the underlying attitude has been there for years.
13. "and cleanses." Even the callousness that is the seemingly inescapable result of developing bad patterns of responding to life and to other people can literally disappear through tshuvah, repentance.
When we mirror these traits to all of the imperfect people in our lives (meaning everyone including ourselves), we find the Godliness that is latent in all of us, and strengthen its voice.
When we do our best to change, we must make an honest appraisal of who we are, and the choices we made to emerge as we are now. When we do this honestly, we will notice that we have made mistakes.
The first step to change is confessing what went wrong within us to God. No person should be involved. No one can give spiritual clarity; no one can erase spiritual and emotional damage. The second step is to recognize that all bad choices are ultimately damaging, and to give yourself permission to feel regret. The third step is to make practical down to earth changes in behavior.
If the sins affect other people, then there are two additional steps. The first one is to make material restitution where that is a relevant possibility (for instance returning money that you know is not yours if you use the Torah's standards), and the second is to achieve reconciliation by asking forgiveness.
Let's be sure to use the month of Elul well, to let it draw us to living authentically, and to feel greater openness, love and forgiveness.