Think Again: We all need Elul

For the religious Jew, the focus of Elul is – or at least ought to be – the discovery of all that is blocking an intense and intimate relationship with the Creator.

Elul (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)

We are fast approaching the High Holy Days – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But without the month of Elul, which precedes the Ten Days of Repentance, they are almost guaranteed to be an anti-climactic bust.

Regret about the past is only meaningful if accompanied by a serious plan for making the future different. And the formulation of such a plan requires a great deal of thought. Without preparation, genuine repentance is a virtual impossibility.
That is why the yeshivot of Eastern Europe would fill up during the month of Elul, with former students taking off from their everyday lives to spend a full month in preparation for the Days of Awe. The opportunity for increased Torah study was part of that preparation. But no less central was the once-a-year chance to reflect deeply upon oneself and one’s relationship to God, in the company of the friends and mentors of one’s youth.
For the religious Jew, the focus of Elul is – or at least ought to be – the discovery of all that is blocking an intense and intimate relationship with the Creator. But even for those who do not define themselves as religious, the questions that religious Jews ask themselves during Elul are relevant, and a month of intense soul-searching could only be for the good.
THIRTY DAYS of rigorous self-scrutiny, however, strikes most of us as impossible. Truth be told, 30 minutes of probing self-scrutiny would stretch most of us to the breaking point.
No word appears more prominently in Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzato, the classic work on the acquisition of positive character traits, than “l’hitbonen,” to contemplate. It is the absolutely essential tool for genuine self-improvement, for without it there can be no internalization of what one knows, and little expectation for change in the realm of behavior.
Unfortunately, “contemplative” or “reflective” are not adjectives that we are accustomed to applying to people we know – or to ourselves. And the inability to think deeply about anything, including ourselves, explains much of the shallowness that increasingly characterizes contemporary humanity.
Not by accident did Nicolas Cage title his work, on the impact of continual visual stimulation via our computer screens on our neural pathways, The Shoals. (Shoals are a shallow body of water or hazardous sandbar.) One reviewer commented on how the constant stimuli, as opposed to the breaks and white space of the printed page, have deprived us of our ability to read contemplatively and to absorb what we have read.
The shallowness of our beings was brought home to me sharply by my recent reading of A Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful biography of Abraham Lincoln. She includes parallel biographies of Lincoln’s three principal rivals for the 1860 Republican nomination, all of whom subsequently took leading roles in his cabinet.
Those biographies are built mainly from the epistolary evidence of the vast correspondence that was typical of educated people in those days – particularly politicians, who typically spent long periods of time away from hearth and home.
(Will contemporary biographers be given access to Twitter accounts?) The correspondence upon which Goodwin draws reveals relationships of several orders of magnitude with greater depth than the virtual “friending” of today. The amount of detail shared between spouses, of both their diurnal activities and their thoughts and feelings, astounds the contemporary reader. So does the emotional intimacy and longing for the beloved’s company – a longing expressed not just by spouses, but also by male friends for one another.
The difference is not just that people in the earlier period gave vent to feelings that we do not. It’s worse, much worse. We no longer have access to such feelings. The poverty of our emotional vocabulary expresses the poverty of our emotions themselves. Contemporary society, with its instant (and frequently illiterate) communication, and equally short-lived and utilitarian relationships, does not give rise to deep friendships – much less solid marriages.
SOCIOLOGIST DANIEL Boorstin lamented the decline of “inner directness” – the capacity to derive one’s values from within oneself, rather than from the behavior and opinions of others – in his 1950s masterpiece The Lonely Crowd. But he could never have anticipated how attenuated our sense of self would become.
Today’s teenagers, when asked to identify their highest ambition, routinely answer: To be famous. It hardly matters for what, just as long as others notice their existence. For without that notice there is no life at all, no independent sense of self to anchor one’s existence.
The absence of any deep sense of self lies behind the impulse to share every mundane detail of one’s daily life on Facebook: We are only living if someone else takes note of our activity. We have all become permanent pollsters awaiting the approval of our peers, whether in person or via cyberspace. We have no identity other than what others confer upon us.
Our lives lack any inner coherence; the effort to give them shape and meaning is too much for us.
In his 1970 Norton Lectures, literary critic Lionel Trilling contrasted an older cultural ideal of “sincerity” with a more modern ideal of “authenticity.”
In the older cultural ideal, a person shaped himself through the exercise of his free will, the choice of what aspects of his being to emphasize and what to suppress.
The modern ideal, however, views a person not as the shaper of his unique self, but as a welter of conflicting desires and impulses, to each of which he must pay obeisance – first this one, then its opposite. Being true to oneself no longer means living one’s life in accord with principles freely chosen, but following wherever desires lead. To do otherwise is unhealthy.
THE ABOVE portrait – admittedly a bit of a caricature – highlights the importance for all of us of a period in our lives like Elul. The questions that the approach of the Days of Judgment forces upon us are precisely those that we should be asking ourselves constantly, if we seek to become human beings of depth.
First, what makes me unique? What is my particular mix of strengths and weaknesses? Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, in Michtav M’Eliyahu, analyzes the different basic traits of the Forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and tells us that such a process of self-analysis is the precondition for finding our own path in divine service, within the parameters of Halacha.
Second, what am I living for and what would I be willing to die for? Without knowing what you are living for, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the late rosh yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, used to say, you are not really living, but just going through life like a zombie.
A friend recently related to me a eulogy he had heard for a 95-year-old man, in which the only thing the clergywoman officiating could say for the deceased was he took great pride in his fine head of hair and really loved his car, so much so that he used to sit in it and listen to the radio even when he could no longer drive. Who would want that to be the sum of one’s life? Finally, what is blocking me from achieving my goals? Without some regular heshbon nefesh (spiritual accounting), where one takes time to reflect upon how one used his time, what went according to plan and what went awry, it is impossible to discover either the patterns of failure or the keys to success. And without knowing both, it is impossible to go about drafting a reasonable action plan for the future.
THE MEDIEVAL work Duties of the Heart offers a parable for one who fails to repent for his sins. A group of prisoners manage to dig their way out of jail, and all but one escape through the underground tunnel. Only one prisoner refuses to join them. When the jailer discovers the prisoner left behind, he beats him.
What is the meaning of the parable? Why did the jailer beat the prisoner who did not join in escaping, rather than reward him? The answer is that the prisoner who stayed behind destroyed the whole purpose of a jail. Incarceration is supposed to be a severe punishment, from which any normal person would seek to escape at the first possible opportunity.
By failing to escape with the others, the prisoner showed that he was comfortable in the jail, and that for him it was like home. Similarly, the failure to do teshuva at this time of year is a reflection of growing comfortable with one’s sins.
All of us also find ourselves caught in certain patterns of self-destruction, to a greater or lesser extent. If we fail to uncover those patterns, we end up growing comfortable and at home in our own self-made prisons. Breaking out of those prisons requires constant self-examination.
Each of the three questions discussed – Who am I? What am I living for? What is preventing me from fulfilling my purpose? – is one that religious Jews are trained to ask. But they apply equally to every Jew.
That’s why we all need Elul: To think hard about the big questions.

The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.