Thursday, August 13, 2015

Elul and Preparing for Change

Saturday begins the Hebrew month of Elul and therefore the start of the High Holiday season. Below you will find my article, recently published by Reform Judaism, reflecting on this moment: How the Torah Sets the Stage for Real-Life Struggle.

Real Torah is about preparation.

Take Moses' life as an example. First of all, Moses does not even begin his true calling until, at the age of 80, he leads the people from Egypt. We know incomparably little about his first 80 years. In fact, the majority of the Torah details his, and the people's, life from the Exodus forward. What little we do know about those years is more the stuff of legend than Torah. We do read there that Moses did not even want the job.

The 40 years of wandering and struggle are a prelude to Moses' dream of leading the people into the Promised Land - and yet he is denied this dream. Moses, who fails to achieve his lifelong ambition and singular goal, is allowed only to stand on the other side of the Jordan and glimpse the dream from afar. He is not allowed to touch the land of Israel, a privilege instead granted to his successor, Joshua.

The Torah suggests a reason for God's harsh judgment. Moses gets angry one too many times, losing his temper with the people. He smashes a rock when they complain, yet again, about the lack of water. Because of this action, his career concludes on the precipice of a dream, and his life ends with its goal unfulfilled and its ambition unrealized. He dies at the age of 120 years.

It is Joshua who leads the people into the land. We discover this not in the Torah, but instead in the Book of Joshua. The Torah concludes on the other side of the dream - in essence, on the wrong side of the river. It never fulfills its stated goal. After Moses' death, we roll it back to creation and we begin the preparation all over again.

The Torah is not about the fulfillment of dreams. It is instead about preparation - and it must therefore remain incomplete.

If we are to discover ourselves in its words and in between its lines, the Torah must never be perfectly fulfilled. This is real living. Perfection is an unrealizable ambition. Even the life of Moses, the prophet of prophets, falls short, which is why the tradition calls him not "Moses the prophet," but instead "Moses, our teacher." We learn from his life.

Perhaps the Torah's very incompleteness is a hint, then, of its perfection. It offers a perfect teaching: We wander. We struggle. And we prepare.

During the forthcoming days of the month of Elul, Jews the world over will turn inward. We will count 40 days from the first of Elul until Yom Kippur. They mirror the days Moses spent on the mountaintop communing with God. They are reminiscent of the 40 years when Moses lived Torah. Those years are, in fact, the majority of our scroll's verses.

These 40 days are intended for us to prepare for the High Holidays. We are meant to use these days to focus on repentance, change our ways, and most especially seek out those people we have wronged. We can only reach out to God if we first repair our human relationships. Yom Kippur is useless without the Torah of these 40 days of preparation, without first reaching out to others.

And yet, like the dream that Moses only sees from afar, we learn that teshuvah shleymah, complete repentance, is a distant, if not impossible, goal. According to Maimonides, such certain judgments about the mending of our ways can only be made if we find ourselves in the exact same situation, facing the exact same temptation but this time making a different decision. Even repentance is incomplete.

Still we continue to prepare. And this is where Torah is discovered.

We hold a dream in our hearts. We can improve. We can change. Friendships can be repaired. Relationships can be healed. We count our days in preparation for that dream. We wander through the Torah toward that dream.

Before we know it, our High Holiday prayers will conclude, and the gates will close.

We take comfort in the scroll that has no end. The dream seems distant. The preparations must begin again in earnest.

Our Torah is learned. The Torah is relearned.

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