The Jewish month of Elul, which preceeds Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, is a time of reflection, self-evaluation and and return. I want to share with you this wonderful piece written by Hazzan (cantor) Natasha Hirschhorn of Congregation Ansche Chesed in Manhattan:
There is a story about Satan, known as an “accuser” in Jewish tradition, who gathered his assistants together one day to talk about the most effective method of destroying the meaning of people’s lives.
One said, “Tell them there is no God.” Another suggested, “Tell them there is no judgment for sin and they need not worry.” A third proposed, “Tell them their sins are so great they will never be forgiven.”
“No,” Satan replied, “none of these things will matter to them. I think we should simply tell them, ‘There is plenty of time.’”(Chasidic)
When I first read this story, I felt the proverbial finger pointing straight at me – an accomplished procrastinator… But while I’ve always experienced a fair amount of guilt accompanying my shifting deadlines and to-do lists that never see their items crossed off, I felt the Satan’s judgment was too harsh… Can my delays in action truly be affecting the very meaning of my life?
This year as I was doing physical therapy for my back, I discovered an unpleasant truth. It turned out that the very exercises I found the most difficult and painful were the ones my body needed the most in order to heal and get stronger. According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, our souls going through Teshuvah, repentance, must operate on a similar principle – “To give money, for instance, is for some of us a molehill, whereas to apologize for having offended someone is a mountain. Now beware if you offer a sacrifice to God, make sure that you offer what really costs you dear, for God would not appreciate a fool’s deal”.
We may feel the need for a personal Teshuvah all year long, but our tradition really makes us face the challenge in the 40 day stretch from the beginning of Elul until Neilah* . This time period seems to highlight both a search for the meaning of it all, and a sense of urgency – the Book will be sealed, the Gates will be closed… In other words, our process of introspection must be honest and thorough, but it has a deadline!
The understanding that the task of true Teshuvah can’t be easy by definition, combined with the finite amount of time to accomplish it, can feel simply overwhelming. The one Gate that is the most difficult for me to enter, may be the only one leading me to my higher self… Even with 40 days to go, how can I hope to find a way in before the Gates close?
Perhaps, given the not uncommon propensity for procrastination, the very existence of a deadline ensures that we begin the process at all… The circular nature of the calendar reminds us that having made it at the last Neilah doesn’t guarantee us the coveted insider’s spot in the coming year. Each time we must begin anew; to enter the last month of the year ready to challenge our souls and to seek the Gate – ever elusive and yet, ultimately, within our reach. Each Elul, we must begin the spiritual labor with both a sense of urgency and a feeling of hope. And, through this difficult journey, we pray, to rediscover the meaning of our lives.
Hazzan Natasha Hirschhorn
Congregation Ansche Chesed of New York
* Neila is part of the end of the service on Yom Kippur