As you may have guessed from the title…it’s Elul! That most serious of Jewish months that marks the season of introspection and accountability. The sermons heard at this time of the year in synagogue (or on podcasts) are most often about inspirational, motivational ways to think about our lives, assess where/who we want to be, and think about how we have fallen short of that goal in the past. We have all heard the talks leading up to the New Year and then Yom Kippur…
This is the time when we prepare to be written into the Book of Life and Death. The Book of Life – Ok I get it, but why do we also need the Book of Death? One interpretation may be that we actually need the idea of death: the paradox of death is, as existential psychiatrist Irvin Yalom said, that although ”the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us”. When we focus on death, we may have a better chance to see the big picture and this can help us to re-prioritize our values and goals and focus on what is truly important in life. Elul is a time of saying “NO” to the things that are unimportant and wrong; and “YES” to what is important and right…
But what is that spark that actually triggers us to re-prioritize our values, goals, and ultimately actions? Real and lasting change can often lead back to one major moment, usually something scary or dramatic (like a serious illness or the death of someone close – G!d Forbid) which sparks us to deeply evaluate our lives and turn our attention to what really is important.
Victor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, said that in order to create change, we need to deeply envision ourselves as if “we are no longer able to change a situation – just think of an incurable disease – […], we are challenged to change ourselves.”
This turn towards taking on the full impact and responsibility for our future is expanded in this week’s parshah which contains the well-known Mitzvah “you shall surely not see the donkey of your brother…falling on the road and…you shall surely raise it with him”. The fundamental message of the mitzvah is obvious: you need to help your fellow man, when he is in trouble. However, our Sages pick up something seemingly minor in the text that changes the message of this well-known Mitzvah. Rashi comments on the seemingly superfluous “with him” at the end of the verse. Rashi says that this means: TOGETHER with the owner. What is the implication here? This implies that if, after you started helping the owner, the owner would sit himself down and say to you “oh since there is a commandment upon you to help me, so you do it [and I just rest]”, then you (the helper) are exempt from helping him.
A simple takeaway of Rashi’s explanation of the mitzvah is that “G!d helps those who help themselves” or as Napoleon (or disputably Voltaire) said, “G!d is on the side with the best artillery”.
Often, when we want to change or heal, we expect other people or “the universe” (or some other abstraction) to do the job for us. For example, when we go to a doctor, all we want is a solution, a pill, some kind of ready-made product, but we are not ready to change lifestyle, eating habits, etc, which would actually keep us from the ailment’s return. Similarly, when it comes to emotional or spiritual matters, often we are just expecting someone else to tell us the magic word and give us a quick remedy.
And so, there is nothing I have inspiring or motivational to say – you can ask for help, you can pray, but, in the end, the way we deal with the workings of our future is in our own hands.
As the lightbulb joke goes: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the bulb has got to really WANT to change.