I find it hard to believe that we Jews have finally entered the month of Elul on the Hebrew calendar. This is the month in which we Jews prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. A time in which we try to wrap our minds around the idea of judgment and redemption as well as the hope for forgiveness all with the time span of a month. Elul is the month that symbolizes the purity of spirit; we are to picture ourselves standing before a great king in heaven with only our deeds before us, begging for one last chance to fulfill our destiny of commitment to God. I must admit this has been a difficult last month for those of us who cling to faith. It is heartbreaking to see the world of religion turned into such a place of violence and intolerance. The Gaza war has finally come to an end and as the blood soaked Middle East cries out for no more blood no one seems to listen. We have watched in horror as we saw an American journalist beheaded in a disgusting, brutal act of violence all proclaimed in the service of God. I find it a difficult time to ask so many in the world to turn to the realm of religion when so much intolerance seems to envelop that world. Many of those who declare their love for God appear to be drenched in so much blood, but faith has something to offer humanity and I am here to make a plea for a sane faith.
This past year was a difficult year for my community and me. We have been struggling to find meaning in Judaism as so many in my religion have turned to the more secular pursuits of life and view the faith of their father’s and mother’s as a quaint past time not necessary for their meaningful daily life. The pews have gotten emptier each Shabbat (Sabbath) and the new generation that has inherited their faith sees the old commitments as passé, something that was meaningful to their grandparents but that has little relation in their daily life. In a world of Facebook and Twitter and thousands of friends and followers online, who has time to contemplate the Holy One and the acts of creation on such an ancient calendar as the Hebrew calendar and the month of Elul.
As I prepare for the high holidays in the month of Elul I am reminded of a line in the haftorah (reading of the prophets) on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. “I will build you and you shall build and it will be built, the virgin of Israel; you shall yet ornate your tambourine and you shall go out dancing merrily; you shall yet plant vineyards in the hills of the Shomron.” This unique line sticks to my mind because it gives a repetition of the line we will build and it shall be built. The line in Hebrew is ‘ode ebaney Nivnot’, a line the Zionist halutzim (pioneers) used in one of the folk songs from my youth, singing ‘We come to the land to build her and be built by her’.
This was the name of the program I first entered in Israel after college in 1991, Livnot U’Lehibanot, a program of volunteering where we would build houses and parks for the underclass in Israel and in return the hope is that our faith would be rebuilt in the process.
I found my faith in Israel back then in 1991. While building a wall for a park in the ancient city of Tsfat, I saw a God in my tradition that had relevance in my life. Through the simple act of kindness to others I saw something in Judaism that I felt was missing in my life. I turned to my faith with a passion, studied the ancient text and, in a sense, through this act of building I became rebuilt. This is what faith is to mean to humanity. We are to build on the strength of others, not tear them down. God demands we look within our soul and see the love of humanity he birthed to us in the act of creation; this is why on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birth of the world. The month of Elul is the time we turn to our faith again and search for the love of humanity that God imparted to us that has preserved us to this day.
The great kabbalah teaches of this verse that we are to turn to the light of faith. Light has to cancel the darkness outside. A great deal of light transforms darkness into light and faith in God is to transform the world from the darkness of hate to the light of love.
God can seem so distant from us as we see a world often drenched in hate and intolerance but we must not stop searching for that unique light that burns in all of us. There is a great Chasidic tale that speaks of this. Once there was a student who was with his Rebbe for many years and when the Rebbe felt he was going to die, he wanted to make even his death a lesson. That night the Rebbe took a torch, called his student, and set off with him through the forest. Soon they reached the middle of the woods where the Rebbe extinguished the torch without explanation.
“What is the matter?” asked the student.
“This torch has gone out,” the teacher answered and walked on.
“But,” shouted the student, his voice pleading his fear, “will you leave me here in the dark?”
“No, I will not leave you in the dark,” returned his teacher’s voice from the surrounding blackness. “I will leave you searching for the light.”
God is with us always but he left us the task of searching for the light in all humanity and this task begins this month in Elul as we turn together and search for the light of humanity in all of us and plea for the goodness of all.
As a start, I’d like to paraphrase something that I’m told was originally said by the wise, beloved Rebbe, Mr. Rogers. When one person or a small group of people do something really bad, look for inspiration to the larger group of people who run to help the victims and make things right. We can each be a part of that larger group and do our small parts to make things right in the world and inspire others to join us.
Rabbi Jeffrey Lipschultz
Livnot Chevre #T35