“This is our life here and I consider it an honor to serve and protect the Jewish people.”
An army base in Hebron of 88 soldiers guards and protects approximately 600 Jewish residents living amongst nearly 40,000 Palestinians, and when I ask a 19 year old soldier how he feels serving in the 100 degree heat knowing that his Jewish friends in America are starting off to four years of fun in college — this is his response. This is a true soldier of Israel. Without deliberation, his answer expresses a typical Israeli “matter of fact” level of confidence and conviction that we should all embrace in this time of the Jewish calendar.
This is Elul — the month that takes us from summer to the High Holidays. It is known to be a time of extreme intimacy with God.
But there is also a secret to happiness hidden in the name of this holy month, as shared with me by my colleague Rabbi Eitan Mayer years ago.
“Elul” spelled backwards is “Lule”: lamed, vav, lamed, aleph. These are two words: “Lu” meaning “if only”, and “Lo” meaning “no”.
If only things weren’t the way they are.
Much of the year we seem to live this “Lule” type of existence.
“If only I had gotten a bigger break my life would be so much better.”
“If only I were smarter I’d be further along in my career.”
“If only I had gotten into that school I’d have landed a better job.”
“If only I had different parents, I wouldn’t have such a tough time with relationships.”
“If only I had more talent or better looks people would like me more.”
“If only I had made a better decision 10 years ago or just yesterday things would be so different.”
Lule. If only.
The month of Elul comes along to tell us that we have it all backwards. We actually have exactly what we need to accomplish our goals in life. We have the perfect circumstances, background, and even the perfect challenges necessary to grow and become the people we were meant to be.
I believe the soldier in Hebron and Israelis in general are able to accept and embrace their reality so boldly because when faced with constant external threats, when required to serve in the army for three years, one has no choice but to live life AS IT IS and not AS IT COULD BE.
This lesson is hinted at in Parshat Shoftim, which we read a couple weeks ago and tells us of the special exemptions from military service.
The first exemption is someone who is “rach levav” — weak of the heart. An individual who is extremely fearful of fighting is exempt from the army so that he doesn’t diminish the morale of his fellow soldiers.
What’s more interesting though are the three other types of people who the Torah says are exempt from combat:
1. Someone who has just built a home but hasn’t lived in it yet
2. Someone who has planted a vineyard but not yet eaten of its fruit
3. A man who becomes engaged to a woman but who who has not married her yet
What’s the connection here?
Perhaps these three individuals are exempt from army service because they’ve all just started something significant without the chance to see it through, and are therefore more likely to live in “Luleland”: in the land of “if only”.
“If only I had stayed and finished building my home…”
“If only I had the chance to eat of the fruit of my vineyard…”
“If only I had stayed with my fiancé and gotten married…”
The Torah doesn’t want “if only” soldiers.
The Torah wants soldiers who know why they’re there, who embrace their reality. The Torah wants a soldier who will look you in the eye and say: “this is our life and it’s an honor to serve and protect.”
This parsha is really a metaphor for all our lives suggesting the merits of living without the constant query of how we might be happier with a different portion.
Eizehu ashir? Who is a rich man?
Hasameach be-chelko: One who is satisfied with his lot.
So simple yet so difficult for us at times.
Trusty Elul comes to us every year and warns: don’t get stuck in “Luleland.” Don’t be held back by what could have been. You are in your perfectly orchestrated reality that God has given you — embrace it, find the goodness in it, and transform within it.
When you pray this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, don’t just pray to change your circumstances, pray for the strength to take your reality and live it better. Strive to find greater meaning and purpose in your blessings and hardships alike, as so many soldiers in Israel have found in their very difficult army service.
If we recognize the wonderful gifts each of us does have, and know that despite all of our shortcoming and the real challenges we face, we still have what it takes to accomplish our purpose in this world, we will be able to achieve true simcha — true happiness.
If only things were…just as they are.