The last weekend in August marked the beginning of Elul, the Jewish month set aside for doing Teshuva, leading up to the Jewish high holidays. Teshuva means different things to different people, but basically translates as repentance, or returning to the path. You are supposed to take this time to look over your behavior from the past year and see where you went wrong, in your treatment of others, or of yourself, and warm up for the big communal repentance Olympics that is the high holidays. So it’s not a fun, happy time, and I just don’t have the energy for more self-flagellation right now.
Intellectually, I see the value in a month of self-reflection and taking stock of our lives and what we’ve done wrong and could do better. But emotionally, and spiritually, it feels like I’m beating myself with a hammer after having already been beaten by ten hammers. At some point, being told to blame myself for all of the wrongs done within my community, and in the world at large, feels like overkill.
I would much rather have a month full of peace and kindness, and people telling me how wonderful I am. I want my dreams to be filled with cotton candy trees and happy puppies, but that’s not how it goes in my brain. Most likely I’ll continue to have nightmares accusing me of failing to save puppies and babies, and the trees will all be rotten and dying.
One custom I don’t usually participate in leading up to the High Holidays, but maybe should, is the blowing of the shofar every weekday morning of the month of Elul. The idea is that the shofar, the ram’s horn that sounds like a dying ram calling out to its mother, is expected to wake you up from automatic pilot, the state where most of us spend most of our time. And the hope is, if you hear it a little bit each day, and build your awareness bit by bit, the long shofar calls and deep guilt work of the high holidays won’t feel so overwhelming.
Each shofar, or ram’s horn, is distinct. It has been emptied out and polished, but it still retains the individual character of the animal who wore it. It can be small or big, with one curve or more, each twisted in its own unique way. Like us.
Part of the power of the shofar, for me, is its imprecision. Whereas a musical instrument, like a trumpet, can make more beautiful and melodic sounds, the shofar captures something animal, something deeply human, that we often try to ignore. So we’re not just being woken up by a random loud sound, we are being reminded of our need to cry out for help, and reminded that we are supposed to cry out for help. Maybe listening to the shofar could remind me that repentance doesn’t always have to be about recognizing and correcting my flaws, instead it could be my reminder that needing other people, and asking for help, is a good thing.
And, maybe, just maybe, we’re being woken up out of automatic pilot in order to experience joy and hope more fully, instead of just being awake to what’s gone wrong.
But, still, what I really want for Elul this year is peace. I want to rest under my paw paw tree, in a cool breeze, with a pile of books, a sleeping dog or two, and a glass of ice cold chocolate milk. Is that so much to ask?
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?