The Gift of Elul
I write this on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Now to far too many American Jews, that statement is practically meaningless. And that is a source of great sadness for me. For the month of Elul offers us Jews a very special gift; the gift of spiritual self examination and preparedness. Yet too many of us are either unaware of the gift, choose to ignore it, or intentionally cast it aside.
Elul is the month which precedes our High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. For we Jews, these holy days are supposed to be dedicated to profound introspection and personal redirection. They are a time to consider our lives as we have lived them so far – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and to honestly challenge ourselves as to how we can choose to change for the better. How can we make of ourselves better Jews, better parents, better children, better siblings, better relatives, better friends, better neighbors, better co-workers, better organization members, better citizens in our local communities, our states, our nation, and our world, better human beings in the eyes of our fellow human beings and God.
Such a serious task cannot begin to take place overnight, or even in the course of the ten days spanning Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Putting aside the actualization of those necessary changes, even the task of serious self-examination requires more time than the holy days permit. And this is where the month of Elul comes in. For this entire month we should be honestly thinking about ourselves, the people we are and the people we aspire to become. This is the month of introspection, so that when the Holy Days themselves arrive, we can focus our attention not so much on what changes are needed in our lives but rather how can we best go about successfully making those changes.
A long time ago someone correctly pointed out to me that while we think of ourselves as one, we are really three. There is the person who we actually are, the person who others perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to be. As long as those three are separate and apart from each other, we can never truly find happiness or satisfaction in our lives. It is only when we successfully bring the three into alignment – so that the person we are and the person others perceive us to be, are identical to the person we aspire to be – that we can truly be happy with ourselves and satisfied with our lives. It is this process which is the heart and soul of the true High Holy Day experience. But in order to successfully achieve it, we cannot begin this quest on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. We must begin in the month of Elul, as early as possible.
Yet I am saddened by the fact that so many of my fellow Jews are so far removed from any of this. They choose to ignore the gift of Elul, and many of them reject the meaning and purpose of the High Holy Days themselves. So many of these Jews see the High Holy Days as little more than an annual gathering of the clan; as an annual Jewish check-in time. They go to synagogue, they greet old friends and acquaintances, many of whom they may not have seen in a year, and they leave satisfied that they have fulfilled their Jewish duty for yet another year. They have done their ethnic thing, for that is what Judaism has become to them; some sort of vague ethnic identity and nothing more.
I have to admit that as a rabbi I am stymied as to how I can help reawaken in such Jews a spiritual awareness, nevertheless a spiritual hunger. The whole purpose of the Jewish religion, and especially the High Holy Days, is to strengthen our connections with God and with others. What these people seem to be missing is the fact that the spiritual aspect of our lives is not mere mythology but concrete reality. Spiritual health is just as essential to our well being as physical health. One can maintain a well balanced diet, exercise regularly, and run marathons. But even as their bodies are in excellent physical condition, if these individuals insist upon leaving the life of their souls untended, they will forever remain spiritual invalids. True, they may not perceive of themselves as invalids, but they are like a person with a born physical or mental disability who, having known nothing else in their life, they have no appreciation for what they are missing. Spiritually, they are like my son Joshua – a 27 year old man with autism – who has not got the foggiest idea of what it means to live an adult’s life with adult pleasures; who lives in his closed off world of children’s videos and the fulfillment of his basic physical needs. Like Joshua, who is unaware of what it means to live an adult life, such people are unaware of what it means to live a true spiritual life. While many of them claim that they believe in God, none of them have ever really let God into their lives. They have no idea of what it means to live with God as a true companion; as a real presence in their life. This is because the God they claim to believe in is an abstract rather than a reality. We do not walk with abstracts. We do not talk with abstracts. And abstracts most certainly neither walk nor talk with us.
Now you may consider me a freak or a weirdo but I openly admit that I talk with God, and more importantly, God talks with me. Indeed, without question, these are the most important and meaningful conversations that I hold in my life. When God and I do not talk, that is when I am at my loneliest.
When do we talk the most? During the month of Elul. This is the greatest gift of Elul. Conversing with God. As I consider my life – my strengths and my weaknesses, my successes and my failures – God is my closest adviser, serving as both fan and critic. It is God more than anyone else who helps me to grasp where I have gone wrong and where I can do better, as well as how I can preserve the best parts of who I am. Now this is the same God who is available to each and every one of us for consultation. As God helps me, God can help you. All you need to do is believe – truly believe – and reach out; open the conversation. God will talk with those who talk with God.
Once you permit yourself to connect with God in such a way, while you will find that there is still a pleasant ethnic aspect to the High Holy Days, it will be their spiritual aspect which will move you and shape you. You will sense the hunger for personal change and you will understand that in sincerely seeking such change, you are never alone in the task. You have a companion and co-worker, counselor and adviser, role model and friend; the truest of all. The One who will never desert you.