Friday, September 16, 2011
Elul is our Janus, our god of looking forwards and backwards at the same time. Being monotheists, of course, we have no gods but God…but we still have Elul, this strange, holiday-less month that slithers through Jewish time at the end of the year as we prepare, yet again, to face the future by staring down the past, and then daring to advance the number of the calendar year by one and thus to wander forward bravely or timidly into whatever the new year brings.
It’s a strange month, suggestive in a dozen different ways of its (and our) native ambivalence about things in general. Is it the end of the year? Clearly, it is—by every reckoning Elul is the last month of the Jewish year—and yet it looks more to what lies ahead than to the past. Shul-Jews begin on the very first day of Elul to hear the shofar, the herald of the holiday season, being blown every morning in synagogue. The twenty-seventh psalm, the song singled out by our sages as the most supremely suggestive of the feel of the spiritual agenda of the yontif season soon upon us, begins to be read morning and evening. And, indeed, the faith-based bravery with which the poet recommends that his readers address the most daunting of life’s challenges—physical attack by vicious enemies, the death of our parents, the rage of people jealous of our successes in the world, denunciation at the hands of liars to whom the possible penalties for perjury mean nothing at all—is tempered by his wistful admission that only the fortunate few get only to see evidence of God’s justice and goodness in the land of the living, and by his dour understanding that one pays for the privilege to wait for God in this world with the years and decades of one’s life. It’s that kind of poem. It’s that kind of month.
So Elul becomes this strange mixture of things. Bounded on the one side by Tisha Be’av, the saddest (at least in the pre-Shoah world) of all Jewish days, the residue of Tisha Be’av in Elul is not melancholic at all but upbeat: all the haftarot that we read in synagogue during Elul during the weeks following Tisha Be’av are odes to faith, to hope, to confidence, and to the glorious destiny that awaits the Jewish people on the other side of the messianic moment. At the other edge of Elul, of course, is Rosh Hashanah, one of the happiest of holidays, an occasion for feasting, for family time, for apples and honey, But the run-up to the holiday is distinctly less merry that the festival itself: as we make our way through Elul we are all of us drawn to self-examine, to consider our flaws, our faults, our moral inadequacies, and our ethical shortcomings. So as we prepare to sit down to tables laden with the best foods and cakes, and with more wine than any of us should probably drink, we are also spending time on the dark side, visiting the chambers of our own hearts and either liking or, if we are being completely honest with ourselves, mostly disliking what we find there lurking. More ambivalence, more mixed messages, more crossed signals! That is what Elul is, I believe: a month-long festival of insecurity, uncertainty, and ambivalence out of which we come only slowly as the holiday approaches and we find it in us to place our faith in God, to resolve to grow into finer versions of ourselves, and, as ever, to hope for the best. Elul is my favorite month!
But this is not any Elul. Adding to our sense of ill ease in this specific year are a dozen outside factors, each of which all by itself would weigh heavily on all of our shoulders and all of which together feel beyond burdensome. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 last Sunday is in that category and has its own Janus-like quality: should we be more sad that so many innocents died on that horrific day or more happy that we have somehow managed to prevent any subsequent terrorist attacks of that magnitude on American soil for a full decade? The aftermath of the so-called Arab spring is in that category as well: as Americans we are obviously pleased by the fall of tyrants and the collapse of dictatorships. But as Jewish people whose hearts beat with Israel it is impossible not also to wonder what the future is going to bring. And if the recent events in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey are harbingers of worse to come, then the future seems somewhere between troubled and truly bleak…and that makes it concomitantly more difficult simply to declare ourselves pleased with fall of a Mubarak or a Kaddafi and be done with it. They were, by all accounts, bad men who deserved to lose their power. But how can my pleasure at seeing despots deposed not be tempered by the realization that I have no idea what may yet come…and that the specter of all or most of these liberated (if that’s the right word) countries coming under the sway of violent, radical Islamism must be part of the picture for all thinking people?
Weighing the most heavily on me personally is the debacle about to be upon us at the United Nations. As all my readers know, I could not possibly have a lower opinion of the U.N., an organization that lost any pretense of moral credibility decades ago and which exists, as far as I can see, simply to further its own malign agenda. I didn’t used to think that! When I was a child, we celebrated United Nations Day in school every fall on October 24. We collected money for UNICEF. We had school trips to the U.N., where we were told excitedly by tour guides wearing pins bearing the names of their exotic homelands that we had left American soil and were in the only building in the entire world that was actually owned by the entire world—or at least jointly by all the member states of the U.N.—and which existed solely to further the cause of peace between nations. I do remember asking my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. D’Antona, why exactly it was that the Soviet Union got three votes in the General Assembly while the United States and every other member state only got one, but I do not recall being as put off by the answer—which can only have been because they demanded it and the rest of the world lacked the courage to say no—as it seems in retrospect that I should have been. Mind you, I was ten years old in fifth grade, so what did I know? But as the United Nations now prepares unilaterally to reward the Palestinians for decades of counterproductive terrorism and self-defeating intransigency with a cloak of unearned respectability—a step that will somehow end up making it seem that it is Israel that is being unreasonable by not cheerfully agreeing to its own demise unilaterally by withdrawing from territory it won in a war that was foisted upon it by others absent a real, enduring peace on which generations to come can rely—I find myself not especially surprised by the hostility of the world towards Israel (which I am nowhere near naïve enough not to understand in its larger context as merely the latest gilgul of the same Jew-hatred that has stalked the world for millennia), but flummoxed nevertheless by it.
In this month-long celebration of ambivalence, I find myself—what else?—ambivalent. Surely, I tell myself, the U.N. only means well. Surely, they feel that by bringing the Palestinians into the family of nations, even in a way that lacks any actual importance in terms of actual geo-politics on the actual ground of the Middle East, they will be encouraging them to accept the dignity of national identity, to renounce terror, to agree finally to live in peace with the Jews of Israel in a corner of the world clearly big enough to accommodate them both. Surely, I continue in my happy reverie, when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon notes, as he did the other day, that he is “sympathetic” to the frustrations of the Palestinians,” he must imagine that he will make them less frustrated by encouraging them to refuse even more adamantly to negotiate in good faith with Israel. But why should they? (Why abandon a policy that has worked so well?) Has the Secretary-General noticed that Hamas continues openly to call for the destruction of Israel and continues to launch rockets against civilian targets? And that Hamas has explicitly distanced itself from the goings-on in Turtle Bay this week, the better later on to sound reasonable about continuing its terror war against the Jews of Israel? Perhaps the Secretary-General assumes that Hamas will just go away once the “good” Palestinians are rewarded for having been sufficiently impotent to prevent the bad ones from attempting to murder the children of Sderot in their beds in the first place. Sounds like a plan to me!
And so we attempt to gear up for the holidays. Elul is happy/sad and serious/joyous. What can I say? I’m a Jew—I like being off-balance! Even the weather is part of the larger picture, at least in the Northeast. Is this summer? Sort of, it is. (It was 87 degrees the other day.) But it’s also fall, also sort of. (There are leaves all over my backyard.) The ill ease I feel when I contemplate the murderous rage of the rioters in Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey this last week is tempered by my faith in justice, in human decency, and in God’s watchful guardianship of Israel. The ill ease I feel in the pit of my stomach as I contemplate the glee with which the United Nations will act this week in its ongoing effort to delegitimize Israel in the forum of nations makes me queasy, yet I also feel filled with hope as I contemplate our current woes against the larger pageant of Jewish history. In every generation, people rise up who would be only pleased to finish us off for good, yet the blessed Holy One somehow manages for the Jewish people somehow always to endure, always to survive, always to bear witness to God’s presence in history. Pesach is a long ways off, but perhaps that is the line for us to hold in our hearts as the world prepares to help us prepare for Rosh Hashanah by reminding us just how fragile this sukkah is in which we live and hope to thrive in the course the year soon to be upon us.