Elul 5 – Commit
I should be committed! For thinking I have enough time to get any of this done…which I don’t. We’re moving tomorrow. However, this is one thing I do. I do it every year. It has become a habit, now in its 6th year. I think it’s a good and necessary part of my life. So, I make time for it – not a lot of time (I’m 3 days behind) but some. I find really tiny slivers of time and write one more line – put in one more concept and ideology.
Otherwise it doesn’t happen. You let something important to you go once, twice and all of a sudden it’s no longer a habit and you’re saying, “I used to do that back when…” It’s hard to maintain good habits – even if they seem routine, it takes work. And to do it when all is chaotic and crazy – that’s more than just work, that’s commitment.
I’ve always been committed to other people. If someone asks me to do something, I try to do it. If we have a regularly planned activity or outing, I try to participate. Doing my part in the flow of everyday is an important part of who I am. It’s been harder to commit to God – keeping up with prayer, with religious observance, with seeing and treating everyone as a reflection of the Divine – and I’ve had more trouble prioritizing that. Hardest of all has been committing to myself.
If there’s one place I need to do serious tshuva for, it’s the way I’ve treated myself. Basically, I either saw my body as a useful tool that did what I wanted, or an annoying piece of malfunctioning equipment that didn’t. I would never treat another person that way! (I know people who do.) So, I must not treat myself that way. Because the consequences have been dreadful. One’s body does not like poor treatment. It gets weaker and less functional. The heavy breathing, the lack of nicely fitting clothes, the difficulty moving, the difficulty sleeping – these all point to a body that needs help.
They make it less likely that I can meet my commitments to God and to others also. I can’t do as much with others if I’m always tired or unable to keep up. I can’t think about God if I’m busy thinking of a comfort or indulgence that will satisfy an incidental craving. Even a tool, to be useful, needs to be maintained. And my body is more than just a random meat sack which I can treat any way I want. In many ways, it’s who I am, it’s where I live. To continue the theme of the month, it’s the temple that houses my soul.
Caring for the physical is a very Jewish character trait. Judaism is extremely physical (I found) as a faith, and the idea is very much to have the body be a holy temple. Eating, sleeping, dressing – everything is supposed to be a holy task. That’s why most of them have prayers for before and after. Now, it’s my turn to do that – not just through adding prayer, but through mindful care for my body.
So, it’s time to commit. To find the time, to make it a priority, to do it for the sake of myself, for the sake of God, for the sake of other people. I commit to eating healthily this year, to fun physical activities, to changing my sleep cycles, to helping my body look good, feel good, and be a holy temple for my soul.
Elul 1 – Decide
(Proverbs 24:25-24:26) But to them that decide justly, life shall be delight, and a good blessing shall come upon them. God kisses the lips that give a right answer.
What’s the first step to getting a new dress? A new car? A new life? No, not research. No, not pricing or budgeting. The first step is a decision. My old dress isn’t working. I need a new one. The changes themselves can be as small as going for a 5 minute walk or as big as moving to another country – the point is that once a decision has been made – everything is different.
The car stops being the family car and starts being “that old car, the one we’re about to get rid of.” People start looking at cars on the street to see if one of them will work. The budget is examined and the cost of a new car is factored in. Little by little, the decision is played out until it becomes actual.
So, God approves of decisions that are just, that are right – especially when it comes to our lives. The right decisions even feel different – they make one feel empowered and stronger instead of uncertain or confused. And Elul is an opportunity to decide.
What will I choose today? What kind of person do I want to be? That’s a question that looks like it has no answer – but clearly it does, since if I state the right answer, I’ll get a kiss – God’s touch, strength, joy – all that. (I love that image – God’s kiss on the lips. I know it’s metaphorical, but it’s so beautiful.) For me, Elul is again a chance to try to bring myself closer to what God wants me to be. My correct choice has to be to follow God’s will as much as possible.
I have been making little decisions for myself this month – decisions that look forward, decisions that involve my health – and they’ve been making me happier and they’ve been making me healthier and I think they’re the right ones. Because while the decisions have been a challenge to make – acting on them has been pretty easy. And for someone who’s always struggled with willpower and commitment, that feels a lot like God’s kiss.
Now, it’s Elul, and I am scared. I’m scared that I won’t remember the decision I made, the path I’m on. I’ve forgotten so many times before. Heck, if I had a pencil for every time I’ve restarted, I’d be able to supply every one of the many forgetful students I teach, and that’s a lot of pencils. I don’t want to be just making this decision again next Elul. I want to have moved further – I want to be making new decisions based on the foundations of this year’s. Maybe – I want to be able to build a temple.
Not a third temple in Israel, but a temple of my life, a beautiful sacred life that has strong decisions supported by strong actions. And Tisha B’Av is the time I remember that temples fall, and they need to be cleaned up – but then comes Elul and life temples – they need to be rebuilt. Now, that’s a process that takes time, one that requires cooperation and trust and new ways of looking in the world. Imagine what it would take to build a temple in Israel, without annoying the neighbours? Building a life temple has way less challenges, and they’re on a much smaller scale – but they are there! So, rebuilding is scary, especially knowing that some time during this year, before Tisha B’Av, some of what I build will be knocked down. This decision is a scary one.
All I can do today however, is make my decision, hope it’s the right one, and if it comes – appreciate God’s kiss.
Tisha B’Av is coming up. It’s a day to be sad, to ask ‘what happened’, to think about tragedies. The Temples were destroyed on that day. Many Reform Jews don’t mark Tisha B’Av. They say that while the loss of the Temples was hard, it was necessary to build the Jewish society we have today; one in which Judaism does not include animal sacrifice, strict religious hierarchies, or reliance on place. Others do commemorate it, for it is tragic, and many other tragedies (such as the expulsion from Spain) have been tied to this day as well. We do. We fast and we read ‘Aikha’ (the best translation for that remains WTF, excuse the language, though most people know it as Lamentations.) We sit on the floor and we are miserable. We will, this year too.
That means I have to find a way of connecting to those Jews – the ones that had a Temple, a beautiful, clear-cut way to reach God, with a Holy of Holies, and gold vessels, and many rooms and all sorts of details. I have been studying the building of the Mishkan (not the Temple, but a precursor which gives us ideas) this year, so I still hear God’s instructions about curtain rings in my head. Then, someone destroyed it and it was gone. I find myself thinking about the fall of the Temple and matching it to the castles – the temples – in the air that I have built and that have fallen this year.
Those of us with faith, our castles in the air are temples. If God wills, we add. Relationship temples – “and then we’ll be together forever”, family temples – “holding my baby in my arms”, career temples – “and I’ll be the head of the institute”, security temples – “a nice house, and no mortgage” – we build them and then we decorate them. There are gilded vessels (“that’s me, up there, on the podium”) and many rooms with details, including those blessed curtain rings (“after I get married, we’ll need a house with 4 rooms, so we can have one for each of our 3 future children – no 5, my partner will need a studio…”). There is also a Holy of Holies where we can meet God, after proper preparation, not frequently but maybe once in a while. For me, the Holy of Holies in my life is the Divine peering out of another’s eyes. Sometimes, I can look at someone, be it partner or child, friend or student, and see God and know that our connection really does sanctify and bless the world. That spark is what makes everything worthwhile. It is what turns my castles into temples. I love that moment of connection.
And sometimes, the temple falls. Maybe it is destroyed by an enemy or by a careless army which didn’t even notice me, maybe I tore it down through my own sins and errors, maybe an act of God destroyed it. I try to deny it. “It can be patched,” I proclaim. I am the queen of fixes, of repairs. I can retake that test, we can work out that fight, I can reapply for that position – whatever it is, a bit of mortar here and there, some paint; if the Maccabees did it, why can’t I? Then Tisha B’Av comes, and I have to acknowledge that my beautiful temple is a pile of rubble with one forlorn wall standing. I have to see that it is unsalvageable, that there is no Holy of Holies here anymore for God seems to have left, that wild beasts wander through the plowed fields where once beautiful towers stood. That is the sadness of Tisha B’Av.
The work starts there. I need to do that acknowledgement, admit the grief, celebrate the memories without living in them, and find some way to go on. Maybe, like the Jews, I can reconceive my faith and learn to live in the community where I find myself. Maybe I can find God in other ways. Perhaps in time, I can again find the holiness in someone’s eyes, in a connection I make. For now, there is the heartbreak. It hurts. Over and over, year after year, we acknowledge the pain of broken temples – lost dreams, ended relationships (whether by death or distance,) missed opportunities, failed attempts.
That is a day that needs to be marked. On Tisha B’Av, I do my acceptance work, so that I can start the painful process of consolation and rebuilding that I will need to do through Elul to prepare for a New Year. I cry – a lot – and I let go. It’s all that is left to do.