[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]
Ever since my days in yeshiva in Israel, Elul has been a long month of introspection and preparation for Rosh Hashanah, a mix of awe and anxiety, a little asceticism and, perhaps, some degree of neurosis. The longer I go in Elul without conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh [spiritual accounting], the more nervous I become. I’m not ready, I won’t be ready, I need to make sure I haven’t missed any opportunity to fix things, and so on. [I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but I find it actually is healthy for me. Concentrating on these issues for a specific, intense period of time helps me, even if it’s not for everyone.]
In truth, though, Jewish law allows us to walk into Rosh Hashanah cold.
Indeed, for many good Jews Elul is a period of getting back from the summer, putting the kids in school, going back to a work grind, grasping the last days of sun and warmth, anything but introspection. They may go to minyan and hear shofar, they might say Selichos, but the first time they really stop and say, “What has this year been like?” is when the chazan starts that unique Yamim Noraim tune for Borchu.
Going by the letter of Jewish law, that’s fine. But how can that be a ‘real’ Yamim Noraim? Where is the opportunity for teshuvah? If Elul is really meant to be prep time for Rosh haShanah/Aseres Yemei Teshuvah/Yom Kippur, why is there no prescribed observance beyond our customs of shofar and selichos?
Should Rosh haShanah be a planned spiritual experience, like the beautiful sunset you know is coming and which you can prepare to watch with a picnic blanket and a sketchpad or a camera and a friend? Or should the opening notes of Borchu be a surprise, like a stunning rainbow you encounter after a bend in the highway, just after you emerge from the shadow of a mountain?
I can see advantages in both, of course. On the simplest level: Preparation enables a deeper transformative experience, but Spontaneity can take you by surprise and present a new way to see the world. And there is much more to say here, of course.
I thought about the question this year when we read Vaeschanan, as I noticed the difference between the Torah’s two descriptions of run-up to Matan Torah [the presentation of the Torah] at Sinai:
Parshas Yisro, Shemos 19 – The Jews arrive at Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, Moshe shuttles back and forth between them and Gd for six days with messages about their preparation to receive the Torah, spouses separate from each other for three days (one of which Moshe adds on his own, apparently), mikvah and korban and bris milah and so on, followed by clouds and thunder and lightning and a loud shofar. Major preparation.
Parshas Vaeschanan, Devarim 5 – No preparation. HaShem spoke to you at Sinai, and this is what you heard.
You can decide to tell the story with or without the six-day lead-in, but your decision changes the story entirely. In Yisro it’s a story of preparation for kedushah [sanctity] followed by the experience and message from Gd. In Vaeschanan it’s a story of the message from Gd, period.
Rosh HaShanah can be like Yisro and the sunset – a month of build-up, of preparation, followed by a sublime experience. Or it can be like Vaeschanan, the sublime, rainbowish experience itself. We are offered either option.
Our sages counselled preparation, and hence the shofar and the selichos, but they stopped short of legislating it, perhaps because they understood that preparation has its drawbacks, too. To some extent, we need to be taken by surprise.
And perhaps a greater message, beyond Rosh haShanah, is that a Jew should seek holiness and inspiration in both forms. In day to day life, we should look for holiness in both the sudden and the process, the spontaneous and the scheduled, the pre-programmed sunset and the rainbow startling us around the next turn on the highway, and learn to take advantage of both.