At the end of a summer of so much war and terror for our people and for many others, it seems inconceivable to enter into the new month of Elul with pure hearts. There is nothing more defiling than the death, blood and violence we have seen these past few months.
It has taken its toll on all of us in many different ways.
Too many families are in mourning for those they have lost, and too many innocent people have lost their lives. Add to that sadness the amount of anger, fear and frustration at how we and others have been portrayed in the international press and by those who we thought were our friends, and anything short of rage seems intangible for many.
Regardless of what is happening around us, Jewish tradition offers us this period of time to honestly reevaluate how far we are from who we could and should be. It is not just about who we are in relation to God, but who we are in relation to others, and to ourselves. The Mishna in Tractate Yoma assures us, like the texts of the Mahzor (High Holy Day prayer book), that God will forgive us on Yom Kippur (Yoma 5:2).
Later talmudic texts offers further examples of the complexities and difficulties of achieving peace with colleagues, friends and community members (BT Yoma 88a-b); these texts affirm how difficult it is to ask for forgiveness, but how necessary.
This spiritual business of atoning before God and others is complicated enough most of the time, but this year it seems particularly complex.
Even if we’re kilometers and degrees of mourning away from the core of the conflict, just gliding into Elul – the month before Rosh Hashana – and preparing for the New Year as though it’s “spiritual business as usual” is impossible.
This period of Elul, in which we will, God willing, see more calm and less war, will hopefully give us the opportunity to do some difficult self-examination and accounting for our souls – a heshbon hanefesh – the kind of serious self-evaluation that Jewish tradition teaches should be at the core of any attempt to lead a spiritual and ethical life.
But is it possible to engage in such self-critical reflection even in a time of war? When mourning those murdered by vicious enemies? Perhaps this year we must be so focused on our own survival, self-defense and daily struggles that the spiritual tasks of Elul should wait; no one can be asked to be too reflective when under attack.
It’s possible that this is a time to focus on our armor: on how we must armor ourselves with all the rightful acts of self-defense, and forget what being in a war does to us as a people.
But even our sages knew of the complexity of war and the spiritual state, even when we are justified in our rage and fear because of all that has befallen us.
While preparing for the possibility of war with his estranged brother, Esau, the biblical Jacob is terrified. In a midrashic interpretation of the encounter between the brothers (Genesis 32:7), the sages ask about an apparent repetition of words in the text: “‘Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed.’ R. Judah ben Ilai asks: Are not fear and distress identical? The meaning, however, is that he was afraid lest he should be slain, and was distressed lest he should slay” (Genesis Raba 76:2). He was appropriately afraid to be killed, but knew that killing another, even in self-defense, was also terrifying and not without its lasting impact.
Jacob then struggles with who he is and who he must be, and is renamed in the middle of the night: Yisrael – Israel. “Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and you have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29).
Jacob prepared for battle and protected his family and his home front, but at the same time was also ready for the possibility of reconciliation. The scene that could have ended in mutual slaughter surprisingly ends with the two estranged brothers kissing and crying, and agreeing to part in peace (Gen. 33:4). While this is obviously an unlikely conclusion to the current conflict, Jacob’s sensibilities should still instruct us. Yes, we absolutely must protect our present and future with all the power and might necessary. But we cannot become impervious to how it affects us.
The only way our souls can remain pure and our nation capable of self-critical reflection as we move through Elul, toward the New Year, is if we recognize that ultimately we don’t want to have to be the warrior. It’s not only about a sovereignty and military victory, but ultimately we must remain focused on who it is we strive to be, the nation of a people who seeks not war, but peace; a people that seeks peace and pursues peace – with God, ourselves and others – even in the most unlikely moments (Psalms 34:15).
The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s national director of recruitment and admissions and a President’s Scholar, and also teaches at the Shalom Hartman Institute.