The blessing of Elul

Soon, each of us will begin our heshbon nefesh, our soul-searching.

 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“If we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love, and behave in line with our faith,”  Rabbi Albert L. Lewis says, “our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfinished business.” This year, as upside down as it has been, I believe a prelude to a “new reality” is at hand.
The sounds of the Hebrew month of Elul, which began on August 21, activate the 40 days before Yom Kippur; soon, each of us will begin our heshbon nefesh, our soul-searching.
Let us not wallow in self-pity thinking of all we should have accomplished.
You really have to march forward renewed.
We cannot be as sanguine as we usually are about entering the period of repentance. Our burden, along with our actions this past year, is the coronavirus. There is no point theorizing where this “plague” was born.
It is at the doorposts of the citizens of Earth. Even marking the doorposts with a sign of some type will not halt coronavirus from entering our abodes.
So we turn to the different notes to offer us some “advice.” “Tekiah” is long and sounding an alarm; this virus is going to last a long time.
We have to work with all our strength to protect ourselves and our children.
“Shevarim” provides us the three demanding notes that make it clear coronavirus will rise and fall until hopefully it will end. Finally, “Teruah,” nine piercing notes – to frighten us again and  again but then the conclusion with the “Tekiah Gadola” –  the eternal Jewish sound of freedom from everything we have faced. I think it will be a long time before that final note is sounded.
Unfinished business and developing our own personal attitude to a crisis with no end in sight are my key points for inviting you to meet Lewis, whose personal tale transmitted with great excitement made me realize what I had the capacity to undertake.
In 1972, Lewis secretly entered Egypt. He wanted to experience the country, which had changed under Anwar Sadat’s rule and which would defeat Israel the following year in the Yom Kippur War. The day I heard him, he did not speak about armaments, though he probably saw them. He wove his opportunity to be a spy for himself into a new focus on the feverish activities of that Arab nation. His bravado and his sense of adventure, pungently presented that day, I have carried with me.
So at times, I have surprised myself  and my family by taking a chance. As the blowing of the shofar suggests we make a change, I want to be reminded of his messages, spoken, in fact, to all of us.
Lewis was a well-known Conservative rabbi in New Jersey for four decades. Mitch Albom, the noted author, had grown up in the congregation. Seven years before his death, the rabbi asked Albom, “Give my eulogy.” The eulogy does appear in Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith, an unusual biography of his “Reb.” More importantly, what is beautifully provided is the description of the life of Lewis through the conversations of the author and his “Reb.” Personally, I have never read such a beautiful book about a rabbi.
Since Albom had access to all of the Reb’s papers, he employs parts of sermons to identify who the Reb is. Initially, listen to the loving words of a child, who can help us appreciate what the notes of the ram’s horn mean.
“A little girl came home from school with a drawing she’d made in class.
She danced into the kitchen where her mother was preparing dinner.
“Mom, guess what?” she squealed, waving the drawing.
Her mother never looked up.
“What?” she said tending to the pots.
“Guess what?” the child repeated, waving the drawing.
“What?” the mother said tending to the plates.
“Mom, you are not listening.”
“Sweetie, yes I am.”
“Mom,” the child said, “you’re not listening with your eyes.”
When the shofar blows, its sounds pierce the air, but are we, ourselves, concentrating sufficiently to see and then feel, what the sounds really mean?
So I ask myself what can we learn, what can we hear, what can we feel, what can we see as we enter into a most poignant segment of the Jewish year?
Elul is marching into our lives, offering a challenge to which hopefully we can respond. The blowing of the shofar daily is meant to arouse us, and sound a charge to better face the unexpected coronavirus, with its unrelenting attacks. By now, Israel, larger countries, and many American states have sought to find daily answers to the virus through lockdown and emphasizing the wearing of  masks, in particular.
For me it is indeed troublesome that the free spirits of the world, from presidents to citizens, believe they have the right to do as they please. No masks, more crowding, more corona, more deaths.
I encourage all of you worldwide to let the shofar calls work. We are familiar with story of how the ram’s horn caught in the thicket gave Abraham the “chance” to change his mind and sacrifice the ram in place of the son.
What does that  substitution mean for us today? In my mind it says to us, “Don’t let corona overpower you!” We are tied up but we can escape like Isaac.
Another message of the shofar states, “Before you there is a blank canvas, whether that canvas is a literal one, or whether it takes the form of a notebook or computer screen. It awaits our touch.” The shofar urges us – no matter what, to “start immediately” on what is at hand, start and never stop.
The late Rabbi Sidney Greenberg was noted for the manner in which he focused on an important topic and made it understandable so we could all “see” what it meant. I have woven his concept of waiting too long as we face the days to come: We often wait too long to do what must be done today, in a world that gives us only one day at a time, without any assurance of tomorrow. While lamenting that our days are few, we act as though we had an endless supply of time.
We wait too long to speak the words of forgiveness, that should be spoken, to set aside the hatreds that should be banished, to express thanks, to give encouragement, to offer comfort.
We wait too long to be parents to our children – forgetting how brief is the time during which  they are children, how swiftly life urges them on and away. We wait too long to express our concern for parents, siblings, dear ones. Who knows how soon it will be too late?
We wait too long in the wings when life has a part for us to play on the stage. God, too, waits for us to begin now, this day, to discover in our daily activities what our life has been given to us to do.
Listen well in Elul to the sounds of the shofar and then you can earnestly immerse yourself in the Days of Awe. 
As one of the 10 outstanding citizens of Delaware in 1977, Rabbi David Geffen and his family made aliyah that year.