An urban executive with very little Jewish education started studying with a rabbi. He had been encouraged by one of his peers to give it a try and Torah study soon became a high point in his week. This encounter with his heritage boosted his Jewish self-esteem and gave him fodder to discuss with his family now that they started dining together on Friday nights. One thing that bothered him, however, was when the rabbi referred to their sessions as “learning together.” The executive called the rabbi on this one day: “We’re not learning together, rabbi. You are teaching me. Why not call a spade a spade?” “No, quite the opposite,” said the rabbi. “I learn from your world of experience and you learn from mine.” “What?” the executive replied, “Don’t patronize me! I barely went to Hebrew school and you are a well-trained rabbi.” The rabbi thought for a moment and responded: “Imagine you are racing Michael Phelps in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Who would win?” “Well, of course Phelps would destroy me,” said the executive. The rabbi stated, “Now picture the two of you dropped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Who would win in a race back to L.A.? You see, we’re both in the middle of the Pacific, you and me. In the vast world of God’s Torah, the deepest ocean in the universe, we’re even.”
The month of Elul, before the High Holidays, is the beginning of the season of t’shuva (return). Introspection is challenging and it’s easier to ignore issues. One is tempted to give up, to believe resolutions are futile and that next year will be just the same. We are all in the same boat: not quite tzadikim or resha’im (righteous or evil), all drifting in the great Pacific trying to survive.
Elul is the time to press reset, to clear the cache, reformat the hard drive. We blow the shofar every morning of the month in an attempt to awaken our souls from a tepid stupor of habit and mediocrity. We step out of our busy lives to figure out why we are living them.
We can only set personal goals when we perceive the disparity between where we are and where we could be. Hopefully, we do this crucial work before we show up in the synagogue on the first of Tishrei (the first day of Rosh Hashanah). Get an early start on t’shuva – that way, there’s still time for a rewrite if the first draft of our mission statement is lacking. Imagine hearing on a certain day in the future we can fill a basket with jewels from a king’s treasury.
How exciting! It would be dumb to show up with a basket already full of junk, leaving no room for the king’s gifts. Elul is the time to get priorities straight, clearing our basket so we can fill it with God’s light on Rosh Hashanah.
Jews don’t believe in original sin. We believe in original purity. Elul is like a spiritual car wash; we scrub off accumulated road grime and return to the candy-apple-red finish underneath. An important component of t’shuva is ownership. We try to figure out where we are falling short with God and take responsibility. The other ten months of the year we tend to pass the buck. Now we take the fall. Are we blaming our upbringing, family members or the rabbi for our issues? Just one more chocolate croissant? Just one more drink for the road?
The dog ate your tefillin? Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin, Judgment Day. This Judge knows every secret. We anticipate the prosecuting attorney’s arguments by analyzing our weaknesses and preparing a case explaining why we deserve another year.
The concept of t’shuva was initiated before the Big Bang. According to the Talmud, seven things were created before the universe, the first of which was Torah. T’shuva was second! Torah is the blueprint for all reality and t’shuva is an imperative for God’s highest creation, human beings, to have the chance to restore and maintain the relationship. So crucial is this relationship that the paragraph regarding t’shuva in the daily Sh’moneh Esrei is the only place God’s “desire” is mentioned (Blessed are You, God, Who desires repentance). God craves closeness with us and choosing to reciprocate is up to us. Our sages teach that Elul is a Hebrew acronym for “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,” from King Solomon’s Song of Songs. The intimacy God desires is not just a friendship or a parental relationship. God wants the deepest love from us, like the bond between spouses.
When we are in the synagogue during the holidays, the most important dialogue isn’t in the machzor (holiday prayer book); it’s in our hearts, helping God understand what we need in our lives. During Elul, we formulate this answer, getting realistic in terms of our abilities. Before we beg God for a better job, a raise or a spouse, we build ourselves into vessels for sustaining heavenly blessing. We do this in two ways: by bolstering our personal strengths and repairing our weaknesses. That way, even if we’re not in an actual synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, we stand confidently when delivering our holiday prayers.
By the time we get to Yom Kippur, we get the gift of a clean slate. Cleaning the slate with our fellow man is equally, if not more important. All the prayer in the world won’t substitute for a formal apology to a wronged friend. Don’t let guilt and disgruntlement fester. During Elul, our rabbis urge us to clear the air of the pain and suffering we inflict on others, especially those closest to us, with a simple “I’m sorry.”
We can utilize the power of the month of Elul to penetrate our essence, to bond with community, to demand the world become free from war, disease, disaster, cruelty and suffering. One of the amazing aspects of the High Holidays is having the opportunity to pray together. Using different styles of worship, in different buildings, in different countries, but still together – even during a pandemic. We are the Jewish People. We are one. Connected, needing each other. Humbly traveling through history, accompanied by our loving Creator. Masters of return.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. Visit his website at samglaser.com.