For Jews all over the world, the first days of the month of Elul have a strangely ominous feel to them. (The first of Elul was last Wednesday.) On the outside Rosh Hashanah is still a month away, Yom Kippur even further down the pike than that. There isn’t any real hint of fall in the air. School is still out. There are families in our midst who have not even left yet on their summer vacations, let alone returned. But on the inside—in shul, I mean, but also internally, in our hearts—things are slightly different. We’ve begun to sound the shofar every morning. No blessing, no elaborate liturgy, no big deal attends the ceremony….and yet, each single morning, that monitory blast of an ancient horn somehow reminds us that we are approaching that strange season of the year most of us somehow anticipate eagerly and also dread slightly, the season of family gatherings and divine judgment, the season of eating too much and drinking too much…and also of looking just a little too deeply for comfort into the mirror the Machzor holds up to us and invites us to peer into and say honestly what we think of whom we see looking back. And we’ve begun to recite the twenty-seventh psalm every morning and evening, that ancient poem that gently (but also not that gently) calls us to courage in the face of self-knowledge.
Many Jews have the custom of adopting some special exercise during Elul designed to help the process along slightly. Some undertake some special study project that they hope will make the process of honest introspection less painful to face. Others find some special kind of tzedakah that they hope will by its nature help weaken the natural inclination we all feel to look away when tradition calls upon us to look deeply and carefully at the men and women we have become….and to resolve to grow into finer versions of ourselves than we have attained to date. Still others undertake to discipline themselves by eating less or waking earlier or giving up some or another comfort to which they have become used, but which they now feel may be impeding their ability to stand before God in judgment without flinching or looking away or seeking dishonestly to self-justify with untruths. It’s a lovely time of year…but also a challenging one. I’ve always liked it very much.
Myself, I like to travel during Elul. I’m not sure where this came from. I’m sure I didn’t invent it. I’m not even sure I didn’t hear about the custom somewhere along the way and simply find it appealing enough to adopt. I haven’t always done it, of course. Some years it just wasn’t practical to get away. (When the kids were younger, there were always all those camp schedules to juggle towards the end of the summer.) But when I can…I find that in the weeks leading up to the holiday season there is nothing I can do to prepare myself more meaningfully for the chagim than finding the time to travel to some different place, to allow myself to exist outside my natural environment, to provide myself with a different, unfamiliar background against which to observe myself…and see myself clearly and without the distraction that a familiar setting paradoxically seems to introduce into the mix.
As many of you know, I came back Thursday morning from a week in Argentina. I went alone. Normally, Joan and I travel together on trips like this, but I was invited to be the scholar-in-residence at the winter convention of the Latin American region of the Rabbinical Assembly—August is mid-winter in the southern hemisphere—and Joan needed to be in Toronto to help celebrate her father’s eighty-fifth birthday, plus it seemed like a lot of money for us to pay for her to come along when I was going to be busy most of every day and she would have been on her own. (The tickets were also very expensive. Mine was covered, of course. But hers we would have had to pay for ourselves!) And so I went by myself on an Elul journey that was exactly what the doctor ordered. I had the best time! But it was also an important experience for me spiritually, even emotionally. And that’s what I want to tell you about this week.
First of all, I have to say that I could not have been received any more warmly or graciously. I spent Shabbos in Buenos Aires and loved every minute. I went to the NCI-Emanuel synagogue on Friday night and found about 350 people gathered for a service that featured incredible singing and ruach, plus a real sense of intense fellowship and warmth. (I brought back two CDs of the music they use and I can’t wait to share them with our community here.) And I had a similar experience the following morning at the Amijai synagogue, where I was invited to teach a class in the weekly Torah portion following services. (These synagogues seem to attract their largest crowds on Friday evening, but that also has to do with the whole Argentine custom of having dinner in the middle of the night. We left shul after ten on Friday night, went to the home of the president of the community, sat down to a full-course, elegant Shabbos dinner at 11 and by the time I got back to my hotel it was after 1:30 in the morning. And even then the streets were filled with people.) And then on Sunday we travelled to Rosario, Argentina, the country’s third largest city located about 200 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. The whole experience was wonderful. I stayed in a lovely hotel, spoke four times in the course of the convention (since I don’t speak Spanish, I delivered my remarks in Hebrew), was treated not merely as a guest, but as a truly welcome participant in the convention. I was even a guest at a real Argentinian barbecue held at the Jewish Community Center in Rosario, which was just great. (Did I really eat that much? I surprised even myself…but it was worth it! And it’s completely true that in addition to being a nation of late-night diners Argentina is a nation of inveterate carnivores.) And Rosario itself is a lovely place. I had a few free hours to wander along the lovely, traffic-free, pedestrian streets in the center of the city, to do a bit of shopping, to take some pictures, enjoy the feel of the place. Really, I couldn’t have had a more relaxing, pleasant visit. And then I came home…to summer instead of winter, to a mountain of e-mail and real mail and voice mail and bills and appointments, to real life. I happy to be back! But I’m also very happy to have gone on this unexpected journey to a very far-off place. (Buenos Aires is almost exactly the same distance from New York as Tel Aviv. It’s an eleven hour flight. Argentina is not around the corner.)
But the details of my stay—the exceptional graciousness with which I was received and the fun I had getting to know my colleagues from Latin America—are not precisely what I want to tell you about. I did learn a lot about Argentina in the course of my travels, of course. But, keeping to the spirit of these Elul journeys, there was also a lot I learned about myself on this trip. Seeing myself against a new backdrop, hearing myself speaking to a room of people I’d never met before (and with whom therefore I had no history at all), challenging myself not to rely on what people who have known me for years know of me but to present myself not as a work-in-progress but as the man I have grown to become at this specific moment in my life…that was an Elul experience of great worth. I allowed myself to see myself not as I prefer to think of myself as being, but as I truly am, as I look not to people who know me well but to people specifically who do not know me at all, to people who are meeting me with no prior considerations of any sort, who don’t think highly or negatively of me at all because all they know of me is what they can see at the specific moment in my life in which they are encountering me. It’s not that easy to put into words how this all feels. A little, it’s unnerving. (How often do we rely on our friends to ignore what we have just said and somehow to know what we must have meant?) And a little it’s also disconcerting, something like having the tailor measure you and tell you what size suit you actually need (as opposed to what size you tell yourself you “really” wear). But it was also exciting, even thrilling, to measure myself against the shadow I actually cast, against the image I actually project, against the man that others see when they look at me without prejudice and without any prior inclination to evaluate me one way or the other. Speaking in Hebrew was healthy for me too…since speaking in any language other than your native tongue requires you to weigh your words and consider carefully what you are saying in a way that it’s all too easy to skip when you’re speaking in a language you know so well you barely have to think about what you’re saying at all. And being in a totally alien environment was also a good thing, since nothing encourages you to float along on automatic pilot more than finding yourself in a framework where you know how everything works and what role everybody plays…and thus specifically not to feel even remotely obligated to ask yourself if the role you are playing is reflective of the person you truly are or merely of the role you have self-assigned yourself to play in the world.
So the short version is that Argentina was great. The food was great. The coffee—man, these people drink a lot of coffee, including long after midnight—the coffee was excellent. The fellowship I encountered at the convention was marvelous and very satisfying. (I made a lot of new friends!) It was a long trip, but completely worth it…and not only in terms of what I learned about a different country and its ways, but far more to the point in terms of what I learned about myself. I feel ready for the holidays now in a way I didn’t even just a week ago before I left. And all I had to do was undertake a journey of slightly more than 10,000 miles to feel that way. It was a long trip, but now I feel ready for Elul…and for what lies beyond.