Elul for All
With the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, the Shofar blasts sound at the conclusion of the morning prayers. As described by Maimonides, these blasts arouse us from the slumber and force us to think about matters too often forgotten in the quotidian struggle to get through the day.
The Shofar bids us to ask ourselves searching questions starting with “What went wrong?” How did the past year, which began with so many high expectations, so many hopes for growth and change, end up as just another year.
This year these questions are not confined just to shul-goers. Israel is going through a period of national soul-searching not seen since the Yom Kippur War. The question “Where did we go wrong?” is on all lips. Demands for a national commission of inquiry to probe the failures of our political and military leaders are heard everywhere.
But the question does not stop there. It is directed at the entire society. Did we become besotted with the fantasy of Israel as a “fun place to live?” Did we delude ourselves into thinking that we could escape the fate of Jews in all times and all places, and become a normal nation like all others.
Ari Shavit in Ha’aretz has heaped withering scorn on our leaders. But his indictment is societal as well, particularly of the elites of capital, media, and academia who “blinded Israel and deprived it of spirit. . . They deceived themselves and all those around them that Tel Aviv is in fact Manhattan. Money is in fact everything . . . . They bequeathed to young Israelis a legacy of values that makes it very difficult for them to fight even when the fight is fully justified.”
As the judgment of Rosh Hashana approaches, self-reflection is the order of the day. What is the purpose of my life? For what unique role was I put on this earth? These are traditional questions of Elul.
These questions apply with no less force to our political leaders, whose thought processes and ability to focus only on the needs of the nation were dulled by the lifelong habit of considering each situation in terms of their own vaunting ambition. Let them now ask: For what ideals – if any – did I originally seek power? What were my goals in public life beyond self-aggrandizement?
The setting of goals and definition of ideals is not enough. The ba’alei mussar always emphasize the importance of a concrete, step-by-step plan for realizing those goals, of getting from the person we have become to the one we wish to be.
We have just witnessed the futility of goals without a plan. At the outset of the war in Lebanon, the prime minister enunciated clear goals: the return of the kidnapped soldiers, the removal of the Hizbullah missile threat, and destruction of Hizbullah’s operational capacities. Yet Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser are still missing, and Hizbullah still retained the capacity to rain 200 missiles on Israel on the last day of fighting.
Only one thing was missing: a plan for achieving our goals. Over the six years that Hizbullah was amassing an arsenal of more than 12,000 missiles and building an infrastructure of tunnels and bunkers on our borders, the IDF never developed an operational plan in the event of a Hizbullah attack. (And even when one was formulated well into the war, it was not implemented.)
Attainable, realistic goals are preferable to ones that we have no hope of realizing. Dramatic new year resolutions betray a lack of seriousness, and ensure that we will in all likelihood abandon the quest for self-improvement before Yom Kippur. Each such failure only breeds cynicism, which is inimical to all future efforts at self-improvement.
Prime Minister Olmert could have spared himself a great deal of humiliation had he only followed our Sages advice: “Say little and do much.” The Churchillian tough talk and bold promises only highlighted subsequent failures and made more risible claims of “unprecedented achievements.”
All of us have a tendency to ignore the gnawing of our own internal gyroscope warning that all is not right with our spiritual state. So long as our actions continue to conform to societal norms (or are at least perceived as doing so) and our photograph does not stare back at us from page one under some blaring headline, we pretend that all is well.
Elul is the antidote to the lures of false complacency; it bids us acknowledge that our spiritual shortcomings constitute a real and present danger, like a hairline fracture on the axle of a 16-wheel truck.
The attitude that everything is hunky-dory until suddenly it isn’t (otherwise known as September 10 syndrome) was on ample display in Lebanon. Aluf Benn assured his readers in Ha’aretz five days before Hizbullah kidnapped two soldiers that Hizbullah’s 12,000 missiles constituted no threat because Hassan Nasrallah had shown himself to be a realistic man.
No Israeli government could have struck preemptively at those missiles or Hizbullah’s infrastructure over the last six years without facing a popular revolt and widespread refusal to serve. The same public, led by the Four Mothers, that demanded a complete withdrawal from Lebanon would have resisted any reentry absent a direct attack by Hizbullah.
This year, it would seem, Elul is not just for the religious; we can all use our own private commission of inquiry.