Carpets of red. Vistas of orange and white. Scatterings of bright pink and fields of purple. It was a perfectly apt experience for the day the world was created. This past Thursday, the 25th of Elul, I thought about a different way to see g-d as I saw a literal view of ‘The King is in the Field:’ I went to visit the Namaqualand daisies, one of the South African west coast’s treasures. Out of the harsh desert and brown dirt, flowers bound forth in multitudes of colour in the springtime August and September.
It happens to me every time I hike. I’m not talking about some spiritual transcendence, some weird high feeling, but just a sense of appreciation towards g-d. Nature is g-d’s palpable presence in this world. There is a splendour and sheer magnificence that take us out our daily scurrying through life. It’s a time to be lost – paradoxically – in a fixed goal. Footstep by footstep, we get a chance to walk onwards towards something.
But what is this something? And where do we find whatever it is? I have recently been fortunate to hear some shiurim on the book of Ecclesiastes and we talked of the despair of the human voice represented in Solomon’s reflection on life. The most famous conclusion is ultimately that nothing is meaningful. Life is nothing more than existence headed towards the doom of death. Deciding to die by suicide seems so logical, what else is there to do? Perhaps unfortunately, however, g-d created our instinct for self-preservation, and so we remain bound to live. And therefore, we have to do something and that something turns out to be: “make that meaningless meaningful.” It is appropriate that we read it on Succot after we have passed through the highs of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is then that we begin to feel bereft and aimless once again.
We need to have that backup plan to prevent the depressing slope down into Cheshvan, possibly one of the most miserably months of the calendar, and perhaps, that is the point of Elul. Maybe Elul is more than all the catchphrases thrown at us – “a time for repentance”, “the moment to connect to our divine parent”, “a time for deep-felt reconnection and recommitment to spirituality”. I don’t know about you, but it never means much. It’s a bit… fake. Just like belief in g-d is not and cannot logically be a commandment – you either believe or you don’t – I don’t believe we can be made to feel all these inspiring quotes that are thrown at us during Elul. I’ve always felt (and I confess to still feeling) quite an amount of contempt for this time of the year. It’s hypocritical, isn’t it? We’ll beat our hearts on Yom Kippur, we’ll make all these so-called New Year resolutions, but at the end of the day, we’ll be all the same afterwards. We don’t really want to change, and even if we do, will we make that effort? I doubt it of most as well as of myself.
But at the same time, life hurts. It really does. So perhaps we need to find something to lighten that pain. We need to find a way to connect to g-d even if we know we won’t be doing our best in this upcoming year. For me, nature does that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be nature for you, but try choose something that you can appreciate. Seeing g-d’s manifestation in this world in some way or another can do that. Something that you don’t do every day, but you do often enough – perhaps once a week – that will draw you back to your connection with g-d.
I heard a profound idea over Shabbat (I confess to not knowing the original source). In Amos 3:8, it says: “The lion hath roared, Who will not fear? The Lord GOD hath spoken, Who can but prophesy?” And the idea goes as follows: the Hebrew letters of “lion” each correspond to Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabbah.” But how can the upcoming year have “roared” if it hasn’t happened? It is therefore not the upcoming year, but the year we are leaving behind that has roared. If we look back at the year we have had, we will fear. Knowing what has happened in the last 12 months is terrifying, how can we then prophesy what will happen next? We can’t. Yet perhaps we can make a backup plan that will enable us to see, somehow, g-d in our lives. If we find some way to connect, perhaps the pain of life and its apparent meaningless will become a little less. Perhaps, in the less than 36 hours of Elul, that is what we can try do.