Lurching Toward Elul: Tracking The Jewish Psyche

In the jargon of mental health professionals, when you say that someone’s “affect is labile,” it means that he/she tends to flip back and forth between different moods. It’s another way of saying that a person is behaving unpredictably, alternating between happy and sad, hope and despair, in ways that are hard to predict and liable to change at any moment.

Were we able to put the Jewish calendar “on the couch,” it would not require any kind of a stretch to say that its “affect is hyper-labile.” I have written in the past about the emotional roller coaster that is the Jewish spring. We go from the threat of annihilation on Purim to the exhilaration of Passover redemption to the quasi-mourning of the Omer, to the real mourning of remembering Israel’s fallen soldiers and the horrors of the Shoah, to the celebration of Israel’s independence and then Lag Ba’omer, and Shavuot. It’s much more than dizzying. Moving back and forth so quickly, and so often, between joy and sadness can make life seem unstable and unsure, as if nothing can be depended on to last for an extended period of time.

And while we’re analyzing the Jewish calendar, a good look at the summer and early fall months would reveal pretty much the same phenomenon at work. The quasi-mourning of the “three weeks,” culminating in the heavy mourning and remembrance of Tisha B’Av, yield rather quickly to the Sadie Hawkins-like atmosphere of the Fifteenth of Av, followed again- just a few weeks from now- by the advent of Elul, the month immediately preceding the High Holidays traditionally given over for personal and communal reflection and introspection. And then, of course, the High Holidays themselves are upon us.

To some degree, of course, it is Jewish history itself that has made the calendar as schizophrenic as it can appear to be. The biblically mandated holidays, particularly the major pilgrimage festivals, have their own internal thematic scheme, if you will, rooted in both agricultural and political realities. But beginning with the rabbinic add-ons of Chanukkah and Purim and straight through the others that I mentioned earlier, the rather bumpy emotional ride of the calendar owes to our own, difficult experience in the arena of history.

So much has happened to us, with us, because of us, and in spite of us that it would have to be considered virtually inevitable that the calendar that we live by would reflect it somehow. When you think about the secular holidays that we observe here in America, some are rooted in the season, like the harvest festival of Thanksgiving, but most are later add-ons that either celebrate or commemorate significant events or personalities (i.e., Presidents Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, et. al.) So, too, with the Jewish calendar. And then there are the Religious holidays that walk the narrow line of being secular in some uniquely commercial American sense.

But the month of Elul, soon to be upon us, is somehow different. It is the quiet space and time that is allotted to us to prepare to stand in judgment before God- an experience unlike any other in the Jewish calendar year. Other than hearing the shofar as part of the morning service- something most Jews, even observant ones, don’t get to do- or visiting the graves of departed close relatives, the month of Elul is about each of us confronting ourselves. It is, essentially, a private experience, solitary and penetrating, far from the noise and distraction of community.

The psyche of the Jewish calendar is about as “labile” as it could be. The month of Elul, refreshingly, is not. Actually, it is anything but. Judgment is coming. It is a good time for quiet contemplation.

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik is rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.