This was a first for me: When the shofar blew after davening on Wednesday morning, I felt a real wave of relief.
I normally put my tallis over my head before the shofar is blown, and wait to feel two changes: A humbling as I face judgment, and an increase in stress about that coming judgment. Today, the start of Elul, had the first of those two changes, but instead of stress, I felt relief.
Part of that relief was because I am no longer a shul rabbi. Elul's Shofar does not mean, "You are facing a gauntlet of three-day Yamim Tovim, you need to write 15 derashos, boy are you in trouble!" So a world of stress is gone from my shoulders.
And, Wednesday's shofar brought me relief because it is the starter's gun for real reform. I have spent weeks and months thinking about things I should be doing differently – but now the season has begun for implementing those changes. Think of it as "nesting" for the soul.
And a big part of it is that I welcome the arrival of these High Holy Days because they bring with them the world of honest emotion.
The intellectual pursuits of Torah study, teaching and debating, can be beautiful and inspiring, but they can also be depressingly empty. It is easy to be tempted into the superficial. It is easy to learn without the intensity required for long-term memory. It is easy to get caught up in making arguments to prove a pilpulish point, to explain an idea that is known to be incorrect, to determine that an author was consistent in his incorrect conception. It is easy to invest hours are in pursuing a reading that is not followed in practice, because it was the reading used by a particular scholar. It is easy to become involved in the pursuit of knowledge for all the wrong reasons - to demonstrate personal greatness, to defeat others.
In discussions of philosophy, unfounded doubts may be raised about fundamental elements of faith and unfounded assertions may be made in defense of those fundamental elements of faith. Theories are sometimes proposed even though their proponents themselves don't trust them, and archaic constructions explored even though the ideas involved have long since been discredited. I find that wearying.
Emotion, on the other hand, is honest and substantive and large to me, and real regardless of its stimuli and motivations. The crying of grief; the joy of a birth; the laughter and smiles of people enjoying each other's company; the love of a couple or of parents and children – to mangle a line attributed to Rav Chaim Brisker, "You can shlug up [refute] a dvar torah, but you can't shlug up the human heart." You can't shlug up humility, or tears, or commitment to improvement.
So Elul's shofar siren that summons us to self-analysis, to humility, to honesty, to regret, is welcome. Even though I know I will find myself short in many areas, I prefer that.