With the month of Elul’s arrival this Shabbat, marking the weeks leading us into the High Holy Days, we are once again reminded that there should be more to one’s daily routine than tracking the latest tweets that will determine the news cycle, and more to our thoughts than bemoaning the state of a world that seems increasingly out of control, from extreme politics to extreme weather.
Our sages recognized that the soul requires a period of transition from the day-to-day concerns that consume us to the spiritual depth required of us in offering meaningful Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur prayers that call on us to better ourselves, from the inside out.
During the month of Elul, morning prayers in the synagogue conclude with the sounding of the shofar, an effort to shake us out of our complacency and focus us on eternal truths.
We may well need this time of cheshbon ha-nefesh, or accounting of the soul, more this year than ever, given the increasingly volatile nature of our society. Have we become immune to the shocking news of deadly shootings, including the murder of Jews at prayer in synagogue? Are we a nation increasingly turned inward, deaf to the calls for help from those abroad who seek our help in their quest for democracy? Is ours a country so divided, red and blue, that we cannot fathom each other’s frustration and pain?
Our friend Barrie Weiser, the longtime executive director of the Memphis Jewish Community Center, now retired, wrote this week to ask what we thought of his plan to convene a local discussion group of about a dozen men and women, representing a wide range of viewpoints, who would deal with controversial political issues in the U.S. and Israel. “Am I completely meshugah,” he wrote, in pursuing such an effort “as the Jewish world around us seems to be going the route of the Amazon, going up in flames?”
In other words, have we reached the point where we cannot have discussions, debates and disagreements with our friends and neighbors — even family members — without losing our temper and risking permanent rifts? If so, then politics has consumed us; we would no longer be a community in the true sense of the word.
Weiser wrote that when he shared his plan with a local rabbi, the rabbi expressed his reluctance to join the discussion group. “I wouldn’t touch something like this with a 10-foot pole,” he said. Weiser responded that he seemed to recall that there was a time when Jews debated serious issues and recorded them in a book “called the Talmud, but I could be mistaken.”
The rabbi laughed; point well taken. But the problem remains.
The month of Elul calls us to return to our better nature. Tradition has it that the Hebrew word “Elul” is an acronym for the phrase from the Song of Songs (6:3), “ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. The reference is to the relationship between the Jewish people and God, each precious to the other. And it can be extended to our recognition that each of us is created in God’s image. Perhaps if enough of us commit in this month of Elul to reviewing our thoughts and actions in a serious way, committed to changing ourselves, if not the world, the new year can bring more comfort than anxiety.