Down in my basement there is a stash of old stuff that can’t exactly be thrown away, and can’t exactly be kept. Old paint cans, rusty cans of Raid, a computer monitor from 1998. For many years my husband and I have been planning to gather it all up and head out on a date to the county Toxic Waste Fair.
Since the fair is only held twice a year up in some remote part of the county, and we can only go on a Sunday, we’d been waiting a long time. When the big day finally arrived we loaded up the back of the van with all the stuff we’d been stepping over for years.
Several neighbors wanted to get in on the action and came running out with caked over plaster containers, lighter fluid, and old car batteries. Loaded down, we drove up to the parking lot behind the county’s cooperative farm extension where we were greeted by men in baggy rubber yellow pants, big plastic gloves and yes, masks.
In his most sincere nature-man voice, my husband, having gotten out of the car to help haul our colorful garbage, asked, “So what do you guys do with all this stuff?”
“We dump it in the river,” the gloved one said.
“What?!” my husband and I screeched in unison.
“Just kidding,” he shrugged. “I dunno really.”
As we pulled away, lighter, feeling good fulfilling our eco-responsibility, I started to think: But isn’t that what we Jews do? Every year as the High Holidays approach, we take inventory. We are supposed to stop stepping over things inside us, take a real look at ourselves, and at some point, toss the bad stuff in the river.
And be lighter.
While there is something cathartic about tending to our deepest selves, we can’t just toss out character traits and feelings the way we dispose paint cans. The unconscious mind keeps a tight hold on these, even if they no longer serve us well.
Besides, it’s August, so I don’t feel like doing much of anything, let alone working on my own character. And, it’s one thing to get rid of the junk in my basement; it’s another thing to make a date with myself to take an honest look at what’s toxic and what’s not in my kishkes.
Reflection, forgiveness and love are in the air – three things you need to explore your psyche.
But it’s also Elul, the Jewish month of preparation leading up to the High Holidays. The Talmud writes that the Hebrew word for Elul is an acronym for the verse “Ani l'dodi v'dodi li," – "I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me.” It is the time of year that reflection, forgiveness and love are in the air – three things you need to explore your psyche.
During Elul God comes closer. It’s not that He won’t listen the rest of year, but if you are going to gather up the stuff inside of you that hurts – mistakes made, festering resentments, relentless grief, attitudes that don’t serve you well – and consider letting it go – then it’s best done when God is waiting right there to haul it away.
I wish the path to spiritual wellness was as smooth as the road to the county Toxic Waste Fair. Still, it’s not as difficult as it seems. We just need a few tools, like time alone, pen and paper, a bit of faith and maybe some tissues. Practically speaking, embracing Elul means writing down fears, mistakes, character traits and old angers that still simmer. And listing people we have hurt and who have hurt us. It means thinking about asking for forgiveness, forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. And asking God for help when it seems like too much.
Funny, though, for some reason neither of us can pinpoint, we left a few old paint cans in the basement. Perhaps to remind us that we can live with imperfections in ourselves and others. That progress and effort count. And that some stuff takes longer to dissipate or recycle into something useful.
My husband and I enjoyed the trip to the Toxic Waste Fair. Good scenery, quality time together, and the feeling of having done the right thing. We’re not sure what exactly does happen to all that stuff, but it did feel good to clear it out, let it go and make room for new things.