By Rabbi Dan Lewin
We are deep into the Jewish month of Elul, which is regarded as the preparatory period for the Days of Awe ahead. But more than a preparation, it has its own unique flavor and role.
To begin, Elul is the month of spiritual healing. The primary pathway is teshuvah. Teshuvah, usually translated as repentance, is a unique mitzvah which takes place within the emotional makeup of the person, rather than a specific action. Put simply, it means that you regret past misdeeds while wholeheartedly believing that, if faced with the same situation today, you would act differently. All the rest is secondary. Even kapparah (divine forgiveness and atonement) is the consequence of this reflection.
On a deeper level, teshuvah literally means “return.” The soul is ageless. The eyes and voice of the fearful child, the youthful adult or protective parent, for example, are all in there together, working within the mind and body of the old person. Part of healing and personal redemption comes from listening and sorting through those layers of our personality, understanding them and finding unity — to get back in touch with the pure soul or essential self that transcends the many inner conflicts and characters accumulated over the years.
And as you progress spiritually in Elul, expanding the mind, you rewrite the narrative of your life, looking at past events through fresh eyes, and envisioning a future with more potential.
‘The King is in the field’
The Hebrew title Elul is formed when taking the first letters of each opening word in the famous verse: “I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me, who grazes among the roses” (Song of Songs 6:3). The personal initiative (I am to…), rather than a reaction, hints at the effort we make during this month. While we try to make the necessary changes in our private life — and change is never easy — the good news is that we are given extra assistance this month.
There is a widely known analogy in the esoteric texts to illustrate the relationship with G-d during these weeks. The “King in the palace” metaphor refers to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when our past deeds and supplications for a good, sweet new year are being closely evaluated. A palace, though a magnificent structure, can be cold and intimidating. Interaction with the monarch, who is removed from the people, is formal. An ordinary person invited for a meeting feels a sense of distance, fragility and humility. And though today, royal figures offer mainly aesthetic appeal, we can still glean components of the analogy to apply to spiritual life.
The field metaphor, in contrast, refers to the current period, Elul, when change is in the air. On a basic level, there is something mysteriously soothing about being in nature. More than the beautiful scenery, the constancy or the fact that man is more a bystander than a creator, the surrounding structure has a primal, calming effect on us because the soul feels secure. Perhaps there is a subconscious awareness that G-d is sustaining and guiding this intricate system — that everything is as it should be — as opposed to the chaotic world of technology which appears headed toward destruction or distraction.
Plugging the imagery into the higher relationship, to aid our efforts during this opportune time of reflection and growth, G-d comes down, so to speak, into the field, closer to the common folk. Every person is given a spiritual boost. It’s a unique time in the year of extra warmth, closeness, affection — and opportunity to flourish.
Furthermore, every human interaction during this time — even those that are initially unpleasant — is loaded with clear lessons, experiences that promote improvement. As a rule, hearing a critique, especially from a good friend or someone with your best interests in mind, should be appreciated, not rejected; that’s where the real growth takes place. Whereas defensiveness perpetuates blindness to flaws, cherishing criticism leads a person to great heights.
Pockets of escape
A sense of security and serenity is our most basic need. On the most undeveloped psychological level (of what, in Jewish mysticism, is termed “the animal soul”), everyone tries to form little pockets of escape during the day to flee from their deepest fears, rational and irrational — death, suffering, failure, embarrassment, disappointing others, not being self-sufficient — all of which remain buried in the subconscious.
We try to distract ourselves as much as possible to go into a place where things feel safe or exciting. New trips to look forward to, challenging hobbies, entertainment through which to temporarily escape or career advancement that validates a sense of worth. Sometimes, however, that fragile artificial construct isn’t good enough to mask the fears beneath the surface, bubbling into thoughts — and when that happens it becomes a question of how we handle that confrontation. Can the mind and body withstand the pressure?
The mind certainly cannot find its way out alone — it has already been infiltrated and is not well equipped to calm the nervous system. Furthermore, the more it sees, the more strength may be required to handle that unprocessed reality. Things can spiral downward easily. But it’s specifically during these moments that you realize how the feeling of being in control is largely an illusion. Until you can recover, you are just at the mercy of whatever comes your way.
It’s also within these uncertain moments that the most vital ingredient within the heart, a feeling of bitachon (confidence that everything will turn out well), must step in to dissolve anxious feelings. Bitachon reveals the root of our beliefs and is the source of good mental health. In its pure form, this feeling is not always rational or calculated — it flows from an essential personal relationship with the Creator that, for many people, must be developed with focus.
But the best way to cultivate this functional power is to practice it before the pressure comes. Trying to suddenly cultivate the feeling when the nervous system is depleted or going haywire is unlikely to succeed. Instead, begin when the mind is calm, during morning prayer or periods of reflection installed throughout the day. That way, when the mind is weakened, the inner reserves are more readily available to pull it back to safety.
Faith and feeling
Rosh Hashanah is the prime time to renew our commitment and strengthen our resolve. Many pages have been written about the fundamental duties of the heart, especially emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust), which some Torah commentaries regard as actual commandments.
To simplify in a nutshell: Emunah is a deep faith or awareness that G-d exists and runs the world. Bitachon is the calm feeling that G-d is with you at this moment — no matter what you’ve done or how things appear. As we near the big stage, while the “King is still in the field,” let’s fill our pockets with healthy bitachon instead of escape.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.