Elul: Days of Awe

After more than a week of power outages, lack of internet and wifi, and flooding followed by subsequent mildew, I can get back to a few posts. Getting upgraded to this year’s MS OFFICE package also was a setback.

What happened to Elul as a time when one has fear of heaven that one is going to gehena if one does not do penance? Were did the primal fear of God that the rabbis of earlier generations had? Do people today believe or not believe that this month is a time to appeal to God for mercy?

What happened to using the month for pious practices of solitude, taanis dibbur, fasting? We have recorded from many sources and I used to know rabbis who took on a vow of a self-imposed silence of no talking for the month. How come I wont run into anyone in the neighborhood who wont be speaking this month. What role model are these rabbis setting? The last time I saw it seriously practiced was by Rav Naftali, the assistant to rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Netzach Yisrael. He practiced it and encouraged many who studied there to follow suit by only speaking Torah in chevruta and nothing else.

Maybe it is just due to my isolation in East Coast modern communities? Where are they still practiced?

It is important to note that the Shelah was the cornerstone of Eastern European Judaism. The Shelah was the Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Kook for 200 years with many popular kitzur hashelah created. Anyone going back to the tradition? How can we lose the entire character of this time in the Jewish calendar?

The Shelah relaying on the Safed pietistic literature defines teshuvah as
T-taanit -fasting
S – sak -sackcloth
U ve-epher- ashes
V- vechiah crying – penthos
H- Hesped – eulogy and recognizing mortality.

Anyone for ashes, sackcloth, and crying? And if you think we cannot do these anymore, then why not? ANd what do you replace them with?
This period was a time for Tikkun Hamiddot- Jews worked on their character and virtues. They fought pride, practiced self-effacement, and limited their eating if they were not fasting.

Here is one tekhinah, that I found on the web, written for Rosh Chodesh Elul by Sarah bat Tovim:

With lovingkindness and great mercy, I entreat You to do with me; accept my petition….I pray that You may accept my tears as You did those of the angels who wept when Abraham, our father, bound his dear son; but the tears of the angels fell on Abraham’s knife, and he could not slay Isaac [Genesis 22]. So may my tears before You prevent me, my husband, my children, and good friends from being taken from this world….’All gates are closed, but the gate of tears is not closed.’ Merciful Father, accept my tears….wash away our sins with the tears and look on us, with mercy, rather than with justice. Amen.

Other pietistic practices to think about:
Some Breslover Chassidim travel to Meron on Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul in order to recite the Yom Kippur Katan prayers beside the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rebbe Nachman encouraged his followers to recite the Tikkunei Zohar. Reb Noson praises the custom of reading the entire TaNaKH during the days of Elul and Tishrei, finishing on Hoshanah Rabbah.

If we create a tikkun for web use should it be the avoidance of social networking or should it be a specific way to use the web in a way of awe?

10 responses to “Elul: Days of Awe

  1. You ask two questions: What happened to 1) fear of Gehenna and 2) pietistic practices.

    I would suggest they fell victim to 1) modernity and 2) pan-halachism.

    One of the key aspects of Modernity, as Rav Kook pointed out, is universalism. We live on a planet with many, many people on it. Are they all going to hell, since they’re not begging for their salvation? And on this very large planet, are we the worst of the worst? It’s easy to believe the myth, the tradition, that your prayer and piety will deliver you from hell to heaven if you’re in a closed community and you can believe that the “other” — the government, the peasants, the idolatrous priests — truly deserves hell. It’s less so if they’re your friends from the office — and if you have competing, universalist ideas. Cowering in fear may be an emotion we grow out of in our society.

    2) pan-halachism. In part, it’s a response to modernity: we don’t practice mitzvot as magic to ward off hell, but because we believe we were commanded. We don’t want to let God down; we don’t want to cross the explicit lines. But if it’s not a mitzvah, what good these practices? Safed was theurgic; our actions could move heaven. We are not. If we’re going to take on a practice that’s not in sefer hamitzvot, it’s going to be for its benefits in this world. So we have teshuva as 40 days of self-improvement.

  2. Anyone for ashes, sackcloth, and crying? And if you think we cannot do these anymore, then why not?

    I think that media overload killed our emotions. We are all the time plugged in, and that started decades before the internet, with newspapers and TV, but definitely grew by an order of magnitude or two with internet, and particularly wireless internet. It’s now a challenge to stay focussed for an entire shacharis without checking email on the cell phone. But profound emotions require a measure of solitude. Perhaps the Breslover hitbodedut should get a new lease on life among non-Breslever, too (in addition to the life saving Shabbat that forces us to log off for 25 hours).

    ANd what do you replace them with? … Reb Noson praises the custom of reading the entire TaNaKH during the days of Elul and Tishrei, finishing on Hoshanah Rabbah. If we create a tikkun for web use should it be the avoidance of social networking or should it be a specific way to use the web in a way of awe?

    Two excellent ideas. Tanakh should resonate, as there has been a resurgence of Tanakh learning going on for several decades now, and the approach of Mikhlelet Herzog et al. is definitely conducive to contemplative reading, since they read the text in larger chunks than the passuk befassuk of the once more common approach. That allows for beauty and emotions to be more readily absorbed, which are conducive to introspection (and emotions were what we wanted to arouse in the first place, anyway). As to social networking abstinence, since engorging on those social habits is what greatly exacerbated the issue in the first place, such abstinence – when realistically planned and managed – may be most appropriate. I may mention that in a sermon; thanks for the idea!

  3. Two thoughts:

    1 – As Larry said, we are not theurgic, but maybe that misses the point. More and more, I’m convinced that we don’t believe in an omnipotent God, but rather, we believe in a powerless God. Sure, in theory we believe that God is all-powerful, but practically, we don’t believe that God is truly involved in and taking action in our daily lives, or even in the larger sweep of events.

    2 – The pietist practices, and the mussar movement were based in a time when the power and scope of the Jew was sorely limited. In a world in which you can have influence and impact over little, it’s natural for religious practice to focus on the internal. Improving your character was something no czar or king could take away from you or stop you from achieving… but it’s also the path of the powerless.

    Today, Jews have tremendous power, both as individuals, and in various collectives. The practices of teshuvah need to speak to the challenges and opportunities inherent in our present milieu. Rather than not speaking for a month, an Elu practice could be to try and raise awareness for deeply-held cause for a month. In general, I’d say the tikkun we need is to recommit to using the power we have for positive purposes.

    The key struggles we face are distraction and loss of focus, laziness and over-comfortable apathy, and being self-centered to the point of solipsism. In Elul we need to genuinely find the other, invite him in, and rediscover ourselves in the other.

  4. Teshuvah has changed, because under conditions of freedom, sin has changed. The areas we most obsess over do not follow the standards sin model…intention to X , X is an objectively bad act, and we X. In these cases provided the standards and the morally/halachically relevant descriptions of what was done are accepted by one’s community, the exact nature of the sin becomes apparent to oneself and others By way of contrast, our big questions, who or whether to marry, how many children and how to steer them in helpful ways, how to use our limited time, how to save for our old age and how to enjoy life (a newly minted mitzvah), are all not reducible to single acts that are obviously good and bad prior to their execution. It takes decades for us to discover whether we made the right choices, or could have done
    otherwise. In effect life ends up as a sort of coming of age bildungsroman, that ends only late in life, if then. Meanwhile we are at best like the guy the who jumped from the 60th floor, who when he got to the 30th floor was heard
    to say “So far, so good.” Consciousness of how we have lived, as well as full understanding of our social worlds happens slowly, creeps up on us as it were,
    much like characters in a Henry James novel where the full horror of their situation dawns on them ever so slowly, and frequently after the time when anything could have been done. Many times it is too late to be mekabel upon ourselves a new life path for the future…the children are grown, middle age is over, the marriage is what it is….all that is left is a consciousness of how it went, how we ended up where we are.

  5. I would just note that it is very common for Mizrahi Jews to get up and be in shul at 4:30 am to say selichot all through Elul and – not ‘tzadikim ve-anshei ma’aseh’ but regular shul-goers, including those who don’t wear kippot outside of shul.

  6. not only do most people not have the sort of ellul you describe, but a “normal” (i.e., not axe-murdering or otherwise exceptionally bad) person who spends a month feeling inferior, worrying about being smitten, and engaging in “extreme” practices would be perceived by most, i think, not as pious but as pathological.

  7. I don’t see how this issue is any different than the tisha bav post. Modern Jews living modern lives don’t feel at all connected to anything far away from them and generally aren’t very introspective or even spiritually thoughtful.

  8. OK, it seems that everyone is on agreement that our appreciation for scared time is gone.
    1) Does that mean that we are condemned to creating Holidays that deal with contemporary life choices? Three weeks as business motivation, and High Holy days as toward a better you.Will the mode to explain religious life be only pop-psych?
    2) This lack that people see obviously plays into the phenomena of half-shabbos, wanting to get rid of yom tov sheni, and general malaise of ritual life.
    3) How many years before this corrosion of sacred time destroys observance as a whole? Many of your arguments apply not just to voluntary ritual practices but also to basic holiday obligations.
    4) Have we lost our sense of chronos? 19th and early 20th centuries were era of noting the differences in seasons, months, holidays in away that we have not seen for centuries. Passover has this special quality, Shavuot this quality, and Summertime this quality. Have we lost this?
    5)Does Heschel’s The Sabbath seem from another era because it does not deal with life’s choices?
    6) Finally, EJ- so what is teshuvah for our era? What would be a good teshua derasha for our era? Isaac- How do we overcome our inertia and ennui?
    7) Yehudah, I have gotten up for the coffee and shelihot but the cultural sense of Elul seems lost.

  9. Classical teshuva (recognition of the sin, regret, a determination for the future) works well in situations where sheer willpower is enough. We now know that there are many cases where weakness of the will is just a symptom, masking some long convoluted tale. If we now also consider these larger existential issues of being stuck somewhere in life, not totally clear how we got there or what is now possible, it seems at least to me that classical teshuvah really doesn’t work for the more difficult cases. I am inclined to think in our time the goals of psychoanalysis and tesuvah though not identical are similar. Teshuva might have more lenient ideas when it comes to resolving the transference, while psychoanalysis favors more Protestant ideas of autonomy. But in terms of the larger goals of greater ego strength, working through pathological narcissism, overcoming phobias and compulsions, the two are close. And the same for learning how to either accept or take responsibility of changing one’s situation. I would say Elul is set aside as a time when we emphasize the continuous inner work that has no beginning and no end.
    I have no clever ideas for a sermon, but I would like to point to a low brow, partially scripted, schmaltzy but moving example of coming to realize what one is ‘really’ doing. This week I learnt that the longest running reality show on TV is ‘Gene Simmons Family Jewels.’ From Wikipedia I learnt this Gene, aka Chaim, went to Torah Vodaath…yes, yes, yes. I also learnt he was the co-founder of the flamboyant heavy metal band Kiss. In watching season 1 on Netflix , I learnt he is Mr. Gashmiyus …a walking, talking, narcissistic yetzer harah. But this season (available on Hulu), after some psychotherapy, he goes to Israel, meets his siblings he never knew he had, sees his mother’s name at Yad Veshem, gets some more psychotherapy, and, and … Mazal tov he is getting married next month, after having two children and living with his girlfriend Sharon Tweed for 25 years. Existentially, he managed to finally change, recognize and overcome in some small but significant way his traumatic past, more than can be said for Mr. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard.

  10. 1 – Why the negative tone and characterization? Holidays that deal with contemporary life choices are relevant! And based on my read of Torah, they are authentic – the yomim tovim are intended to celebrate the good that Hashem has granted you in your life, as well as the historical/mythical moments of national birth. Is self-improvement doomed to be only pop-psych? Must we dress up our attempts at introspection in the language of the Mussar movement for them to be authentic?

    2 – Agreed. Irrelevance begs to be shed.

    3 – Left as it is, not more than 30 years. But reinvention and reimagination are already underway. And I do believe that a Shabbat with electricity and cell phones will emerge more fully in the next 10 years

    4 – Not entirely, though I’ll admit that for some the sense of chronos has more to do with Pesach=Florida and Sukkot=Israel. But no, I still think that seasons, the foods, the colors, the school year, etc. still support a sense of time.

    5 – Yes. And because its diction is out of the Victorian age. Generally, the work and intellectual products of pre-war Europe have aged rapidly.

    6 – I’m not sure how we overcome our inertia. I know that too many people spend too much time in the upper-middle-class/lower-upper-class hamster wheel. That the hours we spend in shul are wasted on rote and apologism instead of genuine learning and inspiration. That our big questions don’t seem to have a forum for discussion, and that we overemphasize minutiae of observance. How will all this change? I believe that as day school becomes an impossible answer for many families, they will bring new questions, new needs, and new modes of religious life forward. It is a secret blessing that the Orthodox community will grapple with, and it will be renewed by the challenge.

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