The Inevitable Call of Elul

With your indulgence, I begin with an apology. I had fully intended to write an article last week, but the overlap of my return from Japan and the deadline for completing and submitting the article, superimposed onto epic jet lag, simply overwhelmed me. So to those of you who look for my articles and wondered why the article “teaser” appeared in the print edition but the article itself never made it online, I publicly and most sincerely do apologize.

Speaking of overlapping events, as I write this, it is less than a week since my wife and I returned to America from our two-week visit to Japan. The thirteen-hour time difference (they are thirteen hours ahead; it becomes fourteen hours when we move our clocks back an hour in the fall, as the clock is not changed in Japan) has just about worked its way out of our systems, and we are almost back in the right time zone. It takes a few days. I never imagined a travel experience that would make my not-infrequent flights to and from Israel feel short, but this one certainly did!

Being in Japan was, at least from a Jewish perspective, like being on another planet. I wrote, from Okinawa, of my pride in the wonderful Jewish chaplaincy work that my son-in-law is doing with a Marine battalion in Okinawa. And, when my daughter accompanied my wife and me to Tokyo, we had the chance to visit with her friend- a former student of mine – who serves as the rabbi of the Jewish community there. He is a wonderful man, talented, charming and devoted, and he does God’s work trying to help a disparate group of Israelis, expatriate Americans, and Japanese locals cohere into something resembling a community.

But when all is said and done, the Jewish community of Japan is tiny, and wholly marginal to the Shinto and Buddhist religious traditions that still constitute what might be called “religion” in modern Japanese life. Truth to tell, there are many in Japan who would claim that, though public homage is paid to both Shintoism and Buddhism, the Japanese public as a whole is essentially irreligious (sound vaguely familiar?). Much lip service is paid to religious traditions, but little of that of any substance actually impacts the day-to-day lives of Japan’s citizens. What we saw in Tokyo, and even in Kyoto, would certainly bear that out. These cities were as Western as any that you might see in America or Europe. Aside from the occasional kimono worn essentially for ceremonial reasons, and shrines and temples that are primarily tourist attractions, the cities are secular, and they look and feel that way.

All of which combined to make re-entry into New York more than a little jarring- not necessarily in a negative way, but jarring nonetheless. One tends not to grasp exactly how Jewish the feel of New York City is until one leaves it and returns.

In that sense, it seemed entirely fitting that, almost immediately after our return to New York, the Hebrew month of Elul began.

There is no doubt that the advent of Elul is intended to jar us, to shake us up and rouse us from our summer reverie. That is, metaphorically, why we blow the shofar at the conclusion of Elul’s weekday morning services. Most of us are, spiritually speaking, in a less focused and intense mode of operation during the summer. If we’re lucky enough to be physically away from what is familiar, as my wife and I were on vacation in Japan, then it is possible to feel very far away indeed, as we did.

It is extraordinarily rare for me to feel quite as removed from my rabbinate as I did on this trip. That certainly made it a successful vacation, in the sense that I was able to “escape my work world” for a while. But in the rabbinate, your work world is your real world, which is what makes the job so complicated and the lines so difficult to navigate . Coming back to Elul- as I knew I inevitably would- was, in its essence, like coming back to my Jewish reality.

In its gradual but gently insistent way, Elul forces all of us to do just that… to come back to our Jewish reality and deal with it. It begins subtly, with the conceptual realization that the clock is ticking and the High Holidays are approaching. But once that clock begins ticking off the days until Rosh Hashanah, it doesn’t stop for anything or anyone. The passage of time in Elul feels particularly relentless, and in a spiritual sense, it is. There is no avoiding the reality of the calendar, nor is there any avoiding the fundamental spiritual agenda of the season. As we re-engage with our spiritual selves, we are reminded where there is work to be done, and improvement to be made. It is the time of cheshbon hanefesh; of taking a spiritual accounting of ourselves and our lives. One can’t do that from a spiritual distance. Vacation affords an opportunity to escape from that challenge, but with the inevitable return, Elul will always be there, waiting…

Just about thirty years ago, the great Israeli singer-songwriter Chava Alberstein recorded a lovely and evocative song called Shir Tishrei– a song of Tishrei, the month that follows Elul and features all the fall festival days. It closed with the words Bo habaita bimheira, in haruach ha’kri’rah; Come home quickly, with the chill wind. It spoke to the end of summer, and the sense that, with the imminent change of seasons, we need to be together with the ones who matter the most to us. The words- and the sentiment- are timeless. The wind still blows warm outside, but Elul is marching on… and the chill wind will surely come.

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