Elul begins this Sunday.
At the end of every summer, we’re asked to look inward and also look forward, as we enter the month. That makes it not quite Janus-like; in January, according to the Romans, people were naturally inclined to look both ahead at the new year and behind at the old one.
We are instead to look not behind us (although of course we can, and probably most of us do, because you can’t consider where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.) Instead, we are asked to look inside ourselves; to reflect on who we truly are, and how the way we’ve lived is or is not an accurate rendition of what we know ourselves to be.
Complicated and emotional if we do it for real, right?
And then it all culminates in Rosh Hashanah and then even more in the oddly joyous solemnity of Yom Kippur, and finally releases in the music and (if you’re lucky) wild dancing of Simchat Torah.
That’s the plan for every year.
But this year feels different.
Of course, every year really is different. If it weren’t, we’d be living out some kind of benighted Groundhog Day life. But this year, the outside forces are pushing harder on us than they have for decades. Life has gotten weirder and weirder. It’s getting hard to remember what the pandemic was like, those odd timeless lonely months before the vaccine, when we had no idea when it would end and could imagine that it might not. Elul came and went twice, and so did Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but they didn’t march confidently by on a normal timeline, with one day following the other. Instead, they sort of melted together in the odd mist of bizarre that hung over us.
And now there’s the political ugliness that we’re all in, with its tribalism and the accompanying rise of antisemitism, which it is tempting and fairly easy to ignore, and which we should not let take over our thoughts or our lives, but also we should not disregard. The world, as we know, is a pendulum, and we now are on the nasty side of the swing.
But at this time of year, we’re also surrounded by natural beauty, and we can’t forget that either. Everything is so ripe now! The colors are so bright. The sounds are so loud. The feeling that it’s all going, that time is passing, that the season is ending, that what we don’t grab onto now will be gone forever, that the beach might continue to smell of the sea but how does it matter if we’re not there — all that is real too.
So we should hold onto it, revel in its beauty, look inside ourselves and around us and see what can do, what small step, what tiny action, what apparently minor act of kindness or thoughtfulness or decency we can take as we move forward into Elul, and autumn, and then another new year.