Rx Elul: Returning, repenting and reimagining
Center Field: Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.
Man swimming [illustrative] Photo: Thinkstock
The first time I plunged into a swimming pool after my surgery, the buoyancy was
liberating. For weeks I had felt leaden, earthbound, extremely fragile, and more
anchored by gravity than usual, as my leg healed. My Jerusalem half-marathon run
had ended in excruciating pain and me collapsing with my legs feeling like
jelly, the result of a fracture in my femur just below the neck of the bone,
meaning the hip socket.
One Hadassah hospital emergency surgery later, I
had a metal plate, five ugly pins, and an unexpectedly long road of recovery
ahead. Five months later, although experts tell me I am ahead of the norm, I
still have Trendelenburg’s sign, a fancy name for my persistent limp.
physiotherapist – like his colleagues among the most patient, fastidious,
generous- minded and far-seeing of our species – recommended I try
Still using a cane, I hobbled to the Jerusalem pool, with its
fabulous long lanes. I felt great, as my arms propelled me forward, my feet
splashed happily in the water, and I enjoyed some exercise that wasn’t formal,
repetitive, torturous physiotherapy for the first time since my
This summer, during a three-week family vacation in the
Laurentian mountains northwest of Montreal, I kept swimming.
plunged into our lake, the greater resistance in the water due to the currents
surprised me. And I was struck by the contrast between the pool’s artificial
sterility, with its clear, chlorinated water and its brightly colored floor,
versus the lake’s delicious mysterious muck, with all the natural particles
floating around as you swim.
Feeling stronger, I decided I wanted to swim
across the lake, a daunting project I had never attempted in 20 years of summer
visits there. My wife swam it annually and quite effortlessly, as I happily
kayaked alongside for safety. As a New York City kid, I am not from the
water-people or the jocks. I never undertook an athletic challenge when young –
my schoolyard status came from mastering baseball statistics, not running,
jumping, or swimming.
It was a bizarre twist of fate – perhaps a
punishment from the gods for defying my sedentary destiny – that the first time
I had undertaken a major athletic challenge, the marathon, I somehow ended up
injured. I therefore approached this lake-crossing with trepidation. If my first
big challenge ended in the hospital, where could that next one take me?
Fortunately, on the day I decided to cross the lake, I was not alone. My 15-
year-old joined me, and we each had an escort – my 12-year-old and 10-year-old
kayaked alongside us, armed with floatation devices.
I started strong. My
rhythmic stroke-stroke- stroke-breath, stroke-stroke-stroke breath crawl created
a soothing symphony of sounds in the water. But about two-thirds of the way
across, having considerably lengthened my route by veering off course, my heart
started pounding faster.
The shore was looking mighty far
With each stroke-stroke-stroke breath, I thought of the water’s
primal pull. We get to enter another world so easily, without having to launch
into space, with no real equipment necessary. Our sages, who made immersion into
the mikvah, the ritual bath, a central mitzvah, taught that from water comes
salvation, and that when a person immerses completely in the water, it
replicates death. Afterwards, it is as if a pure, reborn creature
RECOVERY FROM trauma, be it physical or mental, is a form of
rebirth, as is repentance itself. My Shalom Hartman Institute friend and
colleague Yehuda Kurtzer, in his fascinating, thought-provoking new book Shuva:
The Future of the Jewish Past, calls his chapter on repentance: “returning as
Kurtzer writes that “moments of rupture enable us to
strategically identify what to take with us and what to leave behind, to become
whole with the past as we move into a transformed future.” As the most powerful
beings on the planet, humans have the capacity to write and rewrite their life
This dance between death and rebirth, injury and recovery, sin
and repentance, rupture and reimagining, is central to the new field of
“Resilience studies” introduced in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back by Andrew
Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. The book teaches that resilience of all kinds –
personal and collective, economic and political, social and systemic – reflects
what the child psychologist Ann Master calls “ordinary magic.”
not about heroics but about using commonplace skills of adapting to new
circumstances. Resilience ultimately entails “preserving adaptive capacity,”
being able to change circumstances, to heal from wounds, to strengthen muscles,
to change course, to repair relationships, to adapt to new economic conditions,
to innovate new technologies, and, perhaps most challenging for us humans, to
apologize or forgive.
This “ordinary magic” is essential in this new
month of Elul. Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a
period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience
and strengthens it.
Heart pounding, arms churning, legs kicking, I
actually picked up the pace and made it to shore – just as my son
We all sat on what we have dubbed “Mud Island,” playing with the
natural sludge, absorbing the sun, enjoying our triumph.
flew, er, swam, briskly. I wish I had emerged from the water fully cured, with
no sign of that darned Trendelenburg, but real life is not
Still, I return from vacation strengthened, refreshed,
recovering, and ready to plunge into our powerful season of ritualized, yet – if
you do it right – very real rupture, repentance, reimagining and rebirth. And I
look forward to spawning a year of more meaning and humility, of more goodness
and greatness, of revitalized relationships and more fully realized ideals.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a
Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I
Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book
is Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism is Racism.