In the society in which we live, therapists are much in demand. Mental, emotional, physical and family problems have all now become the province of the therapist. But as the old joke goes regarding how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb - only one but the bulb must want to be changed, therapists can only benefit those who want to be benefited by them.
Since most problems of this type were themselves originally occasioned by the lack of discipline and commitment of the subject, the therapist has a difficult task indeed to improve the situation. I am aware from most of my discussions with friends of mine who are therapists that the single greatest difficulty in treating and helping people is the refusal of many to truly come to terms with their own reality and its problems.
To a certain extent, all of us live in a dream world about ourselves and our surroundings. We substitute what we would like to be for what really is, and therefore we are subconsciously constantly frustrated and disappointed by the inability of our fantasies to match the reality of our existence. Our political leaders are adept at confusing reality with fantasy and propose solutions that cannot be held to be realistic in the real world. So too many of our spiritual leaders propose solutions to our spiritual malaise without taking into account the reality of our problems and therefore the inadequacies of these solutions.
The key to successful therapy is ruthless honesty and keen self-appraisal. Enter the month of Elul on the Jewish calendar.
Elul has traditionally been seen by observant Jews as the time of preparation for the days of judgment of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. This is certainly accurate. But Elul is more than that. Its deeper purpose is to allow us the ability to face reality - to see ourselves, warts and all, in true living color.
It is meant not so much to focus us on our hopes and future plans as it is to delineate our past errors and current misconceptions. It is a time to look at ourselves and not at others, to see the small picture, so to speak, and to ignore as much as possible the noise and distractions and follies of everyday life.
Therapy requires an ability to step outside of the box that encases us and see ourselves in a different light. Elul is therefore a great therapist, for it affords us the environment to see ourselves in a true light. But as in all therapy, it can only do so if we are willing to look ourselves in that new and even troubling light.
In Jewish history, there were people who would close shop on their regular lives, so to speak, for the entire month of Elul to achieve the proper circumstances of self-help and recognition necessary for successful therapy. In our more complicated world, where we are perforce and oftentimes involuntarily in touch constantly with everyone else, it is much harder to achieve this separation. Nevertheless we can all admit that taking time out and looking at our true selves, our behavior, speech, attitudes and relationships, instead of just cruising along on inertia, can be of immense therapeutic benefit.
Unlike other types of therapy, Elul therapy is free of charge. But it requires dedication and commitment. Our mind span regarding any given issue is a very short one. We live in a sound-bite environment that pervades our own judgments of ourselves and others. A Polish nobleman once asked the great Rebbe of Kotzk, "Why do people think you are so great? What is your main attribute?" The rebbe replied: "I have trained myself to be able to fully and exclusively concentrate on one subject for a number of hours on end."
In our present society expecting people to concentrate on their own self-analysis for an entire month seems beyond our grasp. Nevertheless, being able to do so for a few moments a day seems a reasonable task and certainly a very worthwhile goal. Therapy, to be beneficial, has to be constantly reinforced and strengthened. Every day of Elul counts in our quest to become a better person and live a more meaningful life. We should all enroll in the Elul therapy program that has just begun. We will find great rewards in the coming years of our life.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator. www.rabbiwein.com