During the last week of summer vacation, I bravely decided to accompany my children on a three-hour hike in the Yehudiya in the Golan. My wife is a great believer in such bonding experiences, and I wanted to prove to my children that I’m not quite over the hill. And so I was persuaded to forego my preferred vacation activity of lying on the grass reading.
If my goal was to prove myself to my children, I’m not sure the venture was a success. From the time we descended into the gorge, I did not take a single step without trepidation. Never the surest-footed of climbers, the passing decades and added kilos have done nothing to improve my nimbleness. Every time I lifted my foot, I found myself scanning the ground ahead carefully for the surest and driest place to put it, even as my children gamboled ahead oblivious to the danger that I perceived lurking under every rock.
I found myself thinking frequently of a friend who shattered his ankle on a similar hike and who had to be evacuated by helicopter. As he was being lifted into the helicopter, the chain by which he was being evacuated nearly snapped. There were enough slips and half-turned ankles on my journey to make that precedent not altogether irrelevant.
Needless to say, my trepidation with every step made me feel more than a little ridiculous. At the same time, it struck me that the hike was a perfect moshol (metaphor) for all our spiritual efforts.
The highest accolade that one religious Jew can pay to another is to describe him as a yarei Shomayim, a God-fearing person. G-d-fearing refers to someone who is always aware of living his life before G-d. That constancy makes fear, or awe, of G-d, the bedrock of all Divine service. Just as I had to stop and look before every jump from one slippery rock to another, a G-d-fearing person does not speak or act without first considering whether his words or actions are fitting for one standing in G-d’s presence.
Ideally, the hike in the Yehudiyah should have served as a reminder of the task facing me a few days later, with the beginning of Elul. The forty days from Rosh Hodesh Elul to Yom Kippur correspond to the third period of forty days that Moses was alone with God on Mt. Sinai. On Rosh Hodesh, Moses went up to the mountain, and on Yom Kippur, he descended with the second set of tablets.
These forty days are considered "days of favor" when God, as it were, draws closer to us in order to make it easier for us to return to Him. That special closeness to God is captured by the verse from Song of Songs, "Ani le’dodi ve’dodi li (I alone am to my beloved and my beloved is mine), ‘’ the first letters of which spell out Elul.
Knowing that God has drawn close, however, creates its own special tensions. If God reaches out to us, and we don’t respond, then we have spurned him. If we ignore His extended hand, we have not only missed a priceless opportunity but removed ourselves even further from Him.
So if these are days of favor, they are also ones of fear and trembling. The sense of precious moments slipping by – moments that must be accounted for – is always present. (It is said of the Vilna Gaon that one Yom Kippur he cried bitter tears over his inability to account for six minutes of the preceding year.)
That fear is not altogether unpleasant. Far from it. During Elul, there is a certain intensification of life. One’s attention is riveted on a specific objective, and all one’s senses are sharpened. Victory is measured in small conquests. One former yeshiva student described the process in a beautiful article in Ha’Aretz last week: "Repentence in Elul does not consist of world-changing explosions, but of small decisions – to refrain from gossip, to count to 10 before speaking, to pray better, to help a friend a little more." The key is to break free of routine, of the tendency to speak and act automatically, which is the great enemy of all spiritual growth.
The importance of the task at hand makes one feel fully alive. Former soldiers often remember the combat of their youth as the high point of their lives – the time when they were most intensely aware of their own existence and its preciousness. Religious Jews experience something of that same intensity during the month of Elul.
When war veterans savor their memories, one crucial aspect of their remembrance is that of being part of a group of comrades similarly focused on the task at hand. The repentance of Elul, like warfare, is never so fully experienced as in a group. Anyone who has tasted Elul within the walls of a yeshiva is doomed ever after to feel that something is missing from his Elul. For that reason, it was common in Europe for men to leave their families and businesses during Elul to return to the yeshivot in which they had studied in their youth, and even today many return to their former yeshivot to pray on the High Holidays.
Once one has left the yeshiva, there is only the morning shofar blowing to remind us that it is Elul. The shofar, writes Maimonides, is a wake up call to all those in a spiritual slumber. But like all the metaphors for our spiritual tasks, the shofar blasts too often fail to achieve their purpose. Metaphors, it turns out, are a lot easier to think of than to internalize.
God has not exactly been sparing of late about reminding us of the fear that is meant to be our constant companion in Elul. The Friday before Rosh Hashanah last year, I found myself in the Manhattan office of El Al, after having hitched a ride from Chicago, desperately trying to secure a place back to Israel in time for Rosh Hashanah.
One of the El Al staff came around and announced that El Al would be flying two planes back to Israel on Shabbat, and anyone who wanted to fly on Shabbat should so indicate. The woman behind me was going back and forth with her companion, "Should I go on Shabbat or shouldn’t I?"
Uncharacteristically, I interjected myself into her conversation. "What are you thinking about?" I asked her. "Last year, the Palestinians declared war on us two days before Rosh Hashanah. Three days ago, less than a week before Rosh Hashanah, thousands of lives were snuffed out and the two magnificent skyscrapers dominating the New York skyline sent crashing to the ground. Don’t you think that maybe, just maybe, God’s telling us that we’re not doing something right? What more does He have to do to wake you up?"
Apparently she was used to being accosted by madmen, and did not respond. I should have been relieved. What if she had turned the tables on me and challenged me, "And you, with all your years in yeshiva, all the ethical discourses you’ve heard, all your clever mosholim -- what does it take to wake you up?"
Can it really be that Rosh Hashanah is only a week away, and Elul has not yet begun?
Related Topics: Elul, Jewish Holidays
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