As the Hebrew month of Elul sweeps in, we begin a 40-day process of creating a new vision for ourselves, heralded by the sounds of the shofar as we prepare to greet the New Year 5784.
As upside down as it has been, this year I believe is a prelude; a new reality is at hand. Shortly, the sounds of Elul will be heard. Shortly, 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. Let us go forward, renewed.
“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 Lewis said, “our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfinished business.” This quote is found in the book Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie.
A time of soul-searching and moving forward
I choose to begin with the insightful words of Rabbi Lewis, having heard him triumphantly relate his personal tale of secretly visiting Egypt (because his wife permitted him to go, he said). In 1972, he wanted to learn more about the country, which had changed under president Anwar Sadat’s rule, and which would fight Israel the following year in the Yom Kippur War. When I heard the rabbi, a half century ago at the meeting of the Beth Shalom Sisterhood in Wilmington, Delaware, how excited we were as he related what it meant to “spy out,” like the spies sent by Moses, the largest Arab country neighboring Israel. His bravado and his sense of adventure, excitedly presented that day, I have carried with me.
At times recently, I have surprised myself and my family by attempting the unexpected for a man my age. Now, as the blowing of the shofar poignantly suggests that we make a change, I want to be reminded of the Lewis messages, meant for us all.
Lewis was a well-known Conservative rabbi in New Jersey for four decades. Albom had grown up in the rabbi’s congregation. Seven years before his death, Rabbi Lewis asked the author, his noted friend, to deliver the eulogy when he died. We can each feel the life of this spiritual leader through the conversations of the author and his “Reb” in Have a Little Faith. I have never read such a spiritual book about a rabbi.
Since Albom had access to all of the rabbi’s papers, he used parts of his sermons to construct a portrait of who his Reb was.
Pay attention to the loving words of a child, who can help us appreciate the significance of the notes of the ram’s horn in the following metaphorical tale created by Lewis.
“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’” (Have a Little Faith).
When the shofar blows, its sounds pierce the air. But are we concentrating to hear 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 this segment of the Jewish year?”
A HASSID once hurried past his rebbe on the first day of Elul. The rebbe asked him, “Why are you hurrying?”
“Well,” he said, “I must look in the machzor and put my prayers in order.”
“The prayer book is the same as it was last year,” the rabbi noted. The message next given is what Elul is all about:
“It would be far better [addressing us all] for you to look into your deeds and put yourself in order.”
Most important is to realize that we must put ourselves in order. The following story was related by Rabbi Bernard Raskas, to be a challenge as we count each day of the month.
Elul is marching into our lives. The blowing of the shofar daily is meant to arouse us. Let us challenge ourselves. Let all of us, worldwide, permit the shofar sounds to do their work.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading tells us how the ram’s horn, caught in the thicket, provided Abraham with the “chance” to change his mind and sacrifice the ram in place of his son. What does that substitution mean for us today?
The shofar urges us, no matter what, to start immediately; to get started, and never stop.
Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, a renowned Conservative rabbi in Philadelphia for five decades, was outstanding in the way he could focus on an important topic and make it possible for all to “see” what it meant. We can weave insights of his words – regarding the waste of waiting too long – into the sounds of Elul.
“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.”
If we listen well to the sounds of the shofar in Elul, we will be able to earnestly immerse ourselves in the Days of Awe.