Lessons for the upcoming Elul

The lesson then is how to prepare for anything when we live in such an uncertain world.

Women of the Wall celebrating Rosh Chodesh Elul. (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Women of the Wall celebrating Rosh Chodesh Elul.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Danger is never where you think it is. It isn’t something you can prepare for, because by its very nature it creeps up on you until – pow, blam, splat! – the damage is done.
How about the concrete slab in my backyard that was tilted, though it should have been level with the ground? I never thought much about it until one day, in broad daylight, I put my foot down on it without realizing that the moss covering it was damp from the rain the night before, making a perfect slope, smooth and unhindered by any friction, as I slipped on it to break my ankle in two places. I spent the next six weeks in a boot (once the swelling went down) and am still in physical therapy almost four months later.
I could not have prepared for that accident, except by paying more attention to just how slippery that slope might have been.
The lesson then is how to prepare for anything when we live in such an uncertain world.
The Talmud has various instructions to help us. None of these prescriptions can take away the BRCA gene that predisposes Ashkenazi Jews to various cancers, or prevent a pandemic or disarm antisemitic shooters. But they can help us be aware of how we are living in the world and control at least some of those things that are in fact possible to control.
One of the strongest and most comforting lessons I have learned from my past eight months of daily Talmud study, is that the rabbis believe that planning ahead, thinking about a situation and how to control it, even in the face of what can’t be controlled, is the best form of agency. All the deeds we do can make a difference, even when we are not aware of their value.
For instance, in Tractate Shabbat 156b is the story of Rabbi Akiva, the Chaldean astrologer, and the rabbi’s daughter. The astrologer tells Rabbi Akiva that his daughter will die on her wedding night. The daughter is worried, but goes about her life, taking a pin out of her hair and sticking it in the wall. In the morning when she pulls the pin out of the wall, a dead snake also comes out, vanquished by her pin.
Her startled and pleased father asks her what she did to deserve swerving from the fate set out for her. She told him that when all the others at her wedding were busy, a poor person came to her door asking for food, and she gave to him the food her father had given to her. Her father tells her that she has done a mitzvah, and quotes a verse from Proverbs 10:2 that teaches charity will save from death.
THE CONTEXT for this story is a section discussing the meaning of personality stemming from when one born that pivots to stating there are “no constellations for Israel,” meaning that Jews don’t believe there are fates in the stars which can’t be altered. The conclusion of the story is Rabbi Akiva’s saying that charity will not just “save a person only from an unusual death, but even from death itself.”
This story is not teaching that those who die early deaths are deserving of them, but rather that we should never accept that we can’t change our fates.
The story says our actions are a way of protesting a fate that an astrologer might take for granted as inescapable. We say that we must attempt dissent from a bad fate that seems to be foreordained.
One way of protesting is in our behavior; another is verbal protest. If we see something and don’t say anything, we are in effect assenting to it, Yevamot 88a teaches, saying “silence is considered an admission.” If we see something wrong, we need to actively name it and tell others that it is wrong and why.
The principle is further illuminated by a story in Shabbat 54b that takes an extreme view of human abilities to influence the behavior of others saying, “Anyone who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.”
In other words, it is incumbent upon us to protest anything we see as wrong whether in our own households, our towns and our world. Jews should never sit idly by when they have the possibility of altering behavior and fate.
The most significant danger any of us will face in our lifetimes is an end to life. So as Jews, we prepare for death. That is what the High Holy Days, culminating in Yom Kippur, are about.
THE SYMBOLISM of Yom Kippur is to basically stage our own deaths by wearing shrouds in the form of white clothing, not taking in nourishment and not creating new life by engaging in procreative behavior. At this time of year then, the story of Rabbi Eliezer in Shabbat 153a can teach us much about averting spiritual danger.
He says, “Repent one day before your death. Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him, ‘But does a person know the day on which he will die?’ He said to them. ‘All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow, and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance.’
And King Solomon also said in his wisdom, “At all times your clothes should be white, and oil shall not be absent from upon your head.” (Ecclesiastes 9:8)
At this time of year, we are given chances. We can accomplish the things that we want to in 5781 even if we haven’t in the past. It is possible to avert the danger because not only do we not believe that fate is inscribed and permanent, we believe as Jews that we can speak out and protest against the way things are, avert wrong, and that we are capable of doing so whether we think so or not, whatever our past sins are.
Eruvin 19a contains a discussion about Gehenna, a biblical correlate of hell, teaching that among the Jewish people, “even the sinners among you are full of mitzvot like a pomegranate.” The statement is made more poignant by the fact that the one who says it, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish is in fact a reformed sinner himself, a robber literally seduced into the Torah life by a good-looking rabbi (as Bava Metzia 84a recounts).
That a former sinner can inspire the rest of us by letting us know – despite what we may believe that we are in fact as full of good deeds as a pomegranate – is heartening, letting us know there is room for all of us to learn and grow.
And yet, we still believe our fate is not sealed. We can try to live as though we don’t know how much time there is, as though we are running out of it (to paraphrase Lin Manuel Miranda).
Let us spend the rest of the month of Elul remembering that one of the best ways to avert danger is to protest, both against our own fate and those of our fellow humans, and by doing kindness to our fellow humans.
The writer is the editor of Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy (University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2020)