As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the assertion that, in Elul, the Jewish month soon upon us, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.
The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Days of Judgment. And, in fact, in observant Jewish communities, yeshivot and seminaries, the weeks before Rosh Hashanah are infused with nervousness, born of believing Jews’ sharpened awareness that they, their fellow Jews and the entire world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.
Some view guilt as an annoying smudge on their souls, something to wipe clean with a bit of all-purpose self-esteem. Like Jewish worrying and Jewish frugality, though, Jewish guilt gets a bad rap.
All those “negative” traits attributed to Jews, in fact, are misreadings of sublime Jewish ideals. Worrying is the opposite of mindless dancing through life, a refusal to be oblivious to how much must go right for us to even wake up in the morning and find our breath. Worry entails a recognition, in the words of the Modim prayer, of “the miracles that are with us daily.” We Jews are instructed to acknowledge the Creator’s kindnesses when we awaken, in each of our prayers, even when we exit the bathroom (when the blessing of “Asher Yatzar” is recited), to remind ourselves to not take even the most mundane functions of our bodies for granted. We worry because we recognize how terribly fragile life is.
And valuing every dollar isn’t (or at least needn’t be) stinginess; it can bespeak sensitivity to the truth that every material thing has worth, and can be harnessed for good. Our forefather Jacob, the Torah relates, made a dangerous trip back over a river he had crossed, in order to retrieve “tiny jars” that had been left behind. Teaching us, says the Talmud, that “the righteous value their property even more than their persons.”
A dollar, in other words, can buy a soft drink or almost half a New York subway fare. But it can also buy a drink for a thirsty friend, or almost half the fare to visit someone in the hospital. It has potential eternal worth, as good deeds are everlasting, and shouldn’t be wasted.
And guilt? That’s an easy one. It’s the engine of growth.
To be sure, being consumed by guilt leaves a person paralyzed. But a modicum, or even a bit more, of facing our faults is a most salubrious thing. It’s essential to the process of true self-improvement. That is the meaning of teshuva, often rendered “repentance,” a somewhat off-putting word. “When they said ‘repent’,” broods the bard, “I wonder what they meant.”
“Self-improvement,” though, might better resonate with the modern mind. And it well describes teshuva, literally, a “return” – to a better, purer, self. And, ultimately, to the Creator. “The soul that you placed in me,” continues the traditional waking-up formula, “is pure…” It is easily stained, however, and we do well to try to restore it to its natural luster.
And doing so, Maimonides informs us, first entails regret for actions, or inactions, we realize were wrong. There’s no way to take that initial step without confronting our misdeeds, and feeling… guilty for them.
Whether our lapses are in the realm of “between God and man” or “between man and man,” Elul is an especially propitious time to take stock of them. The feelings we cultivate over its weeks will crescendo over the course of the “High Holy Days,” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Those “Ten Days of Repentance” are difficult ones for those who take Judaism seriously. Difficult but valuable.
The Hebrew letters of “Elul” (aleph, lamed, vav, lamed) have famously been portrayed as an acrostic for the words of the verse phrase “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs, 6:3). That’s a pithy tradition. The guilt we feel this time of year is not an end but a means; it’s intended to lead not to despair but to a stronger, more real, relationship with our Creator and His other creations.
At the end of the daily morning services, the shofar will be blown each day of Elul (except for the day before Rosh Hashanah, to make a distinction between the custom and the Torah-commandment to hear the shofar on the holiday itself). I don’t know whether the sound will cause the fish in the rivers to tremble, but it should bring a frisson, born of fear and guilt, to all sensitive Jews.