By Rabbi Dan Lewin
We are now in the peak of summer heat. For some, this period signals the last chance to take a family vacation before the school year. For football fans, it marks the intense competition of training camp, the preparations for the eagerly anticipated season opener. In the Jewish world, we just entered the final month of the year, Elul — the onset of a different training camp, preparation and anticipation.
Elul is known as the month of stock-taking. Although Jewish life already contains designated moments for daily introspection, the self-assessment during Elul is deeper and more detailed. Along with the sober reflection, a review of the achievements and failings of the past year, Elul also presents an exciting time, an opportunity for much-needed change and new beginnings. There is a custom of blowing the shofar every day, both as “practice” for Rosh Hashanah, and to remind us to shift gears and meet this challenge.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in his memoirs, beautifully describes the vibe in the shtetl of Lubavitch when the month of Elul approached: “Though summer still lingered and the day was bright and sunny, change was in the air. One already smelled the Elul-scent; a teshuvah-wind was blowing. Everyone grew more serious, more thoughtful…. All awaited the call of the shofar…”
Change begins with tension
Appropriately, the Torah readings during this month contain more explicit moral directives that relate to this time of year. The opening lines of last week relate what is perhaps the most important principle in the entire Chumash—the power of free choice: “See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” The blessing will come when we fulfill the commandments and the curse if they abandon them. The choice is ours.
This theme appears again (chapter 30:15) during the portion of Netzavim, where we find a parallel statement. The passage again begins with the word re’eh (“see, I have set before you…”), with three descriptions now set before us: between life and death, good and bad, and blessing and curse. All of these are incorporated into the final punchline of the unit… “and you shall choose life!”
An obvious question when reading this is: Why is the command necessary? Who would ever choose death over life, curses over blessings? The short explanation is that the internal process that drives our actions can cloud our awareness, often making these two options unclear—to the point that one cannot always tell, without some toil, what path is truly good. Indeed, the mystical sources explain that one of the prime features of evil—both within and without—is to cover the truth. More practically, the person loses sight of the big picture or consequences. So, even if the wisdom and knowledge to distinguish is already there, temporary forgetfulness scrambles one’s thinking and leads to bad judgements, impulsive decisions, etc.
Choosing with freedom
Every day we face a series of choices that involve distinguishing between some level of good and evil, a blessing or curse, and life affirming actions. Often, the choice would be obvious were it not for competing desires inside us, often subconscious leanings, wherein the sense of what is pleasurable or profitable (in the short term) compete with what is morally and eternally good. Consequently, destructive actions can pose as “life” while the true blessing may be hidden, or doing “the right thing,” may seem unappealing or even beyond our present capability.
This is also why the abovementioned verse uses the verb “see,” implying a more direct perception. [There is another verb often used to convey a message, “hear,” as in “Hear O’ Israel…” In the Torah, these two verbs convey two levels of awareness. “Hearing” refers to a more distant and indirect contact whereas “seeing” refers to a more tangible and potent experience.] The power of free choice, the ability to determine our own destiny, is something that we must not just hear, but see. To choose “freely” one must first be able to see clearly.
So, as the moth of Elul enters, we are given signs from all angles that welcome the wind of change, from the resounding shofar blast to key lines in each parsha. Our job is to embrace the time, dig down and arouse our innate sense of good as the dominant force inside. As we become more conscious of the drive behind our daily decisions, we can begin to detect the tension between the layers of motivation. And when we catch ourselves being pulled in two directions, we can then remember the inner power, the command, to “choose” life. The more that we begin to “see it,” the easier it will be to make these truly free decisions. Furthermore, during Elul, we are given an extra boost—”assistance from above”—in our spiritual work, as in the famous analogy of “the King is in the Field.” Ultimately, it is this effort and the little moments of tension during this month that end up defining our new year.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.