Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Elul (Months)

For more teachings on the parsha and on Elul-related themes from previous years, see the archives below, for August and September 2006, on the relevant Torah portions.

The Month of Elul

Elul is a unique month—the final month of the year, “the month of mercy and forgiveness,” a month of expectancy and preparation for Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe; a month during which, as several Hasidic darshanim put it, “the King is right here, in the field.” Among Ashkenazim, it is marked by blowing the shofar every morning, and by reciting each morning and evening Psalm 27, a special psalm expressing the longing “to dwell in the house of the Lord.” Sephardim begin reciting Selihot before dawn every morning from Rosh Hodesh on, while Ashkenazim do so only from the last week or so before Rosh Hashanah.

The month’s astrological symbol is Virgo (Hebrew: Betulah), the virgin. In Western culture, much influenced by Christian myth, the immediate association of virginity is as the highest form of purity (even in this age of sexual latitude), but in Judaism there is no celebration of virginity as a value in itself. She is a tabula rasa, an unwritten slate: one who symbolizes anticipation, readiness, “not yet…,” a certain guarding and holding of herself for the future. As such, a virgin also signifies receptivity, a certain openness (to both the good and the bad), of potential for moving onto a new stage.

This concept of pristine, almost naïve purity, seems to me to dovetail with the theme of teshuvah. Teshuvah is about new beginnings, of the individual remaking him- or herself. Unlike the month of Sivan, whose symbol of Gemini, the twins, suggests relationship, even intimate encounter, the “I-Thou” (as between God and man at Sinai), here we focus upon a single individual—a single, lone human being encountering life, first of all, within his/her own inner self, and attempting to return to a certain primal simplicity, freshness, purity: to remove the stain, the dross, the burden of various kinds of negativity that have accumulated over a year, or over a lifetime—and to begin anew.

In this sense, the virgin is perhaps more suggestive of what some thinkers (Paul Ricouer seems to have originated the term) have referred to as “second naïvete” or “second innocence.” A person who, having gone through many life experiences, and having experienced disillusionment, a sense of moral contamination and corruption, perhaps a certain jadedness and cynicism, suddenly somehow comes full circle to seeking a kind of purity, innocence, freshness in life—albeit on a different level than the innocence of a child, youth or maiden.

This loss and recapturing of innocence may be felt on at least two senses: First, a loss of innocence about ourselves. Sin reveals to us the negative, selfish, thoughtless things of which we are capable. Every one is born with certain illusions about himself, everyone likes to sees him/herself as good. Often we go through life with an enormous amount of self-justification, even for the most heinous sins and crimes. Thus, authentic teshuvah requires, first of all, honesty with our selves, recognizing and acknowledging our sin; being able to say: I did such-and-such a thing, this act belongs to me. (Imagine, for example, the image of Eleazar ben Durdai placing his head between his knees, weeping for the years of debauchery and of life wasted in the pursuit of no more than coarse carnal pleasure.)

True, on another level teshuvah also means transcending the evil acts one has done, ”moving on,” changing the self, reaching the point of feeling that “I am a different person; I am not the same person who did these acts” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.4; cf. the lyrical description of the transformation possible through teshuvah in Chap. 7, which I will post on the blog presently). But before reaching that state, one must first acknowledge one’s sin, and one’s perennial capacity for wrongdoing. The “second innocence” of such a person is thus of one who has undergone the full life trajectory: from initial innocence, to performing cruel, immoral, or lustful acts—or simply acting and living without mature cognizance of what one is doing; to a kind of inner revulsion at one’s self, and seeking with all one’s being to recreate him/herself in the image of a better, purer, higher self. This is perhaps the insight expressed by Hazal in their saying, “One who does teshuvah out of love, willful transgressions are transformed into mitzvot.” That is, there is a certain finer self that is somehow revealed specifically through the process of sin and the “recovery” therefrom.

Second: there may have been a loss of innocence in one’s very faith. One “raised in the faith” may start out with a simple, even naïve acceptance of basic Torah dicta, and even one who has embraced Judaism at a later point in life may start by accepting “whole-hog” the doctrines taught by one’s teachers. But the modern world presents many alternative approaches or “explanations” of the Torah, which sooner or later will cause the intelligent person to begin thinking and questioning—whether these are in the realm of psychology (sublimation of parental figures); history and textual analysis (questioning the Divine authorship of the Bible; historicistic explanations of the development of halakhah), economic theory (religion as an instrument of social control, the “opiate of the masses); evolutionary biology or neurophysics (mechanistic interpretations of the human brain itself, with its thoughts, emotions, and spiritual experiences), etc., etc. Or one may question a naïve belief in sekhar va-onesh, in Divine retribution, once one begins to see “bad thing happen to good people.” Be it through personal encounters with suffering, tragedy, or premature death of dear ones, or through learning about catastrophic events such as Auschwitz, one begins to doubt Gods goodness.

Second naïvete (Ernst Simon talks about this somewhat) means moving past these questions to a more subtle, mature, kind of faith. Such a “second faith” does not deny the difficulties posed by modern thought or try to sop them off by facile, slick apologetics, but somehow moves to a place where it hears Torah addressing an utterly different dimension of truth.

The Tur (Orah Hayyim §581) begins its presentation of the laws of Elul (and of Rosh Hashanah) by quoting the midrash in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, describing how, when Moses ascended the mountain a second time to receive the second set of tablets, a shofar was sounded in the camp as a sign that Moses had in fact ascended, and to instill the people with a sense of awe and teshuvah.

This association of Elul with the second tablets, again, coincides with the theme of teshuvah and “second innocence.” The relationship of the people with God, and with the Torah, was different after the incident of the Golden Calf. It was no longer one of simple, innocent faith—but neither was it one of rebelliousness and protest. The people longed for things to be as they had been, but knew that they were different. Henceforth the relationship would be more troubled, complex; however intense the renewed love, passion, faith and trust, beneath the surface there would be always be the seeds of faithlessness, of the potential to realize the betrayal (much like a married couple trying to rebuild their marriage after betrayals on one or both sides, with the knowledge of what happened suppressed, unmentioned, but somehow present just below the surface).

God’s relation to this, too, was different. He understood the people’s weakness, that they could not be counted on to stand unwavering in their loyalty to Him—and He realized that He would have to exercise a greater measure of compassion, of forgiveness, of turning a blind eye to their shortcomings. This was the secret of the Thirteen qualities of mercy, revealed to Moses in the crevice of the rock on that first Yom Kippur—and which have served since time immemorial as the leitmotif of the Selihot, from Elul on through the Holy Day. (See my detailed discussion of this in HY I: Ki Tisa and on the blog at Ki Tisa (Torah))

In Hasidism, the second tablets also symbolize the Oral Torah: somehow, in wake of the rift caused by the Golden Calf, and the painful reparation of the breech, man began to take a more active role in shaping, transmitting, and interpreting the Torah. Elul thus symbolizes two kinds of creativity: the creativity entailed in Oral Torah, and the re-creation of self involved in the act of teshuvah.

A brief word about the Torah readings for Elul. These consist basically of the latter half of Devarim: the recapitulation and summary of the law, with certain new laws pertaining particularly to the news type of life to be lived in the Land; and admonitions, ceremonies of ratifying the covenant, and Moses’ Song of Warning. All these clearly relate to the theme of renewal, of rebirth, of preparation, of return. And just as obviously, counterpointing these to the stories of Adam and Eve at the beginning of Genesis, we find ourselves in a far more complex, mature, and ambivalent moral world—again, suitable to “second naivete.”

Two Models of Leader: Belated Afterthoughts on Shoftim and Elul

In our piece at the beginning of the month, we observed that Elul corresponds to the time of giving of the Second Tablets, also seen as the Oral Torah. It is interesting in that light that the key passage for the entire notion of Oral Torah, and of the interpretation of the Torah generally being assigned to a specific authorized body—the “priests and Levites and judge who shall be in those days,” i.e. the Sanhedrin who sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone on the Temple Mount—appears in the first portion read during the month of Elul: Shoftim. (Deut 17:8-13).

Also interesting, and a point I noticed for the first time this year, is that the Torah describes in nearly adjacent passages two parallel human channels for receiving Divine guidance during the post-Sinai era, when there is no longer direct, visible revelation: the one, the Sages, the “pillar of the Oral Torah,” as mentioned above (see my blog for elaborations from past years); the other, the prophets who will be sent by God from time to time (18:15-22). Interestingly, the passage dealing with prophecy appears immediately after a group of verses about a third, clearly forbidden source of esoteric knowledge: magicians, necromancers, soothsayers and diviners of various sorts. The need for the prophet is presented here as directly arising from the fact that, on the great day of the assembly at Sinai, the people specifically asked Moses to speak with them, and not to hear further God’s direct voice or to see the great fire, because it was too frightening (v. 16). Thus, the prophet is seen as a kind of intermediary, a channel or vehicle for God’s word.

Slightly further on, in vv. 20-22, the Torah addresses a problem that always arises in relying upon human authority: how does one know for certainty that what they are saying is really from God? Various signs and tests are then put forward to determine whether a given person is in fact speaking in God’s name or is a false prophet (see also 13:2-6). And, one might add: at a later age, the accuracy or correctness of Rabbinic rulings may also be problematic, a subject for no little discussion as well (viz. the stove of Akhnai and like disputes).

Moses himself wore both hats: he was the greatest prophet—the “man of God,” who constantly communicated with God, and even “ascended on high”—and the first and greatest “Rebbe”—teacher, sage, scholar, etc. Ahad Haam once wrote an essay entitled Hakham ve-Navi (“Sage and Prophet”) contrasting the two forms of leadership: the charismatic prophet, who may at times speak in a paranormal, ecstatic, visionary state, where “the Shekinah speaks through his mouth”; and the sober, learned sage, who makes no pretence of having a “hot line” with the Almighty, but simply has the breadth of knowledge and intellectual power, coupled with human insight, understanding, and wisdom, as well as piety and ethical probity, to teach the closest thing to the word of the living God in a post-prophetic, post-revelatory age. It is the latter, Ahad Haam says, who has been the dominant model for Jews over the past two millennia or so.

But there is always a tension between them. Nowadays, there seems to be a certain revival of “prophetic” types: Kabbalists, mystics, charismatics of all sorts, who claim to be able to see “beyond the curtain.” One hears stories of great figures, such as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who allegedly display uncanny knowledge of things, past and future, that no ordinary mortal could possibly know… On such matters, I for one find myself preferring the skepticism of my Lithuanian and rationalistic forebears.


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