Quietly but inexorably, the month of Elul is creeping up on us. When we celebrate its beginning this coming week, there is no avoiding the fact that we are but one Jewish calendar month away from Rosh Hashanah, and the High Holiday season. Summer is drawing to a close, as it must, and fall is approaching.
More than at any time in recent memory, the unique nature and focus of Elul stands in stark contradistinction to the prevailing preoccupations of the organized Jewish world. Elul is largely about each of us, as individuals, looking inward to evaluate our lives, and how, in advance of the New Year, we might resolve to return to a more sacred rhythm and balance in the choices we make. Its relentless focus on heshbon hanefesh, a soulful reckoning, requires nothing less than an honest look inward, surely difficult in its own right, but more a matter of will than any great production.
But because of the impending showdown in Congress over the P5+1’s nuclear agreement with Iran, the focus of the Jewish community, both here in America and in Israel, is centered on the various groupings that are united either in support or opposition of the deal. All around us, from every conceivable media outlet to the most casual conversation, our communal fixation on Iran has essentially taken over whatever available space we have on our personal operating systems. It is questionable whether we can “run” our concerns over Iran at the same time as those of our own spiritual health, so crucial to what Jews are supposed to do during Elul.
Without trying too very hard, one could make a case justifying each of those two agendas pushing the other aside.
The spiritual work of Elul is absolutely indispensable to shaping our destinies for the year to come. From the perspective of Jewish tradition, it is virtually impossible to have an effective and meaningful High Holiday experience without doing the necessary preparatory work. Elul is designated sacred time in the Jewish calendar year. But on the other hand, what can be more important than Israel’s existential security, which Iran’s nuclear aspirations threaten? For those of us who love and support Israel, there is no escaping the import of the Iran issue.
The larger answer, of course, has to be that neither can force the other off our radar screens. They are both rightly demanding of our attention, representing a classic iteration of what our tradition would refer to as hayyei sha’ah and hayyei olam; the concerns of the hour, and the concerns that will endure long beyond our immediate considerations.
Setting aside for the moment the concerns of both Elul and of Iran, all of us, independent of any faith tradition we might subscribe to or what circumstances might define the realities of our lives, deal with hayyei sha’ah and hayyei olam considerations each and every day. We are called upon to balance multiple responsibilities that pull us in different directions simultaneously, and as often as not, we find the tensions they generate grating in the extreme. We worry about both our children and our parents, and how to balance their totally legitimate claims on our time with work responsibilities and personal needs. Vacation expenses are reckoned against tuition needs. Presidential campaigns play out against the more pedestrian dramas of school supplies and weekend plans. Life is all about dealing with the immediate concerns of day-to-day living at the same time that we consider more global, future-oriented issues. We are not free to neglect one in order to deal with the other. We simply have to work harder to make room for them all on our plate.
There is no exemption from the spiritual work of Elul because the Iran issue is front and center right now, nor is there an exemption from the Iran issue simply because it’s Elul. And of course, as regards the imperative of heshbon hanefesh, the soulful reckoning that ushers us into the High Holiday season, communities, too, are obliged to engage in the practice. The Jewish community, as a community, needs to be mindful of how it conducts itself in the public arena. Passionate opinions about Iran– not to mention other legitimate concerns– are voiced loudly and aggressively, far too often implying that one who does not agree with a given opinion is a traitor to the Jewish community, or to Israel. There is so much guilt assigned by implication, and for those whose connection to the community is already tenuous, it is often reason enough to simply tune out. That is a great loss to us at a time when we cannot afford to be losing people’s attention.
These are destined to be High Holidays unlike any that we have celebrated in many years, as the ultimate climax of the whole Iran drama will be playing out just as we are gathering together to stand in judgment before God. We couldn’t write a more dramatic script. But we would do the High Holidays an injustice to allow Iran to short-circuit our own personal spiritual agenda. There should be room for all of these concerns, and more.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.