Next week the crescent moon of the Hebrew month of Elul will first appear in the sky. When that moon wanes it will be Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Elul is therefore the month of preparation, of self-questioning, dreams and commitments to action.
There are two great motivators towards inner change, two great causes of Teshuvah, or return: longing, and shame.
To the mystics, longing is intrinsic to our deepest nature. It flows from the well of binah, the instinctive understanding, the intuition of oneness, which binds together all being in a profound and hidden connection. It is felt in the joy so many experience in the presence of nature, in the kinship of animals, in the awareness of beauty and mystery as the sun sets over the ocean, as the water glows orange, then red, then deep liquid black. For a brief but timeless interval, our thoughts are silenced, simplified into wonder.
In such moments of awareness, we appreciate that it is not our ultimate desire to be masters or controllers of creation, or oppressors of other people, or of other creatures, or of the earth itself. Rather, life is our common and great, but brief, privilege; an unearned and incomprehensible gift which we share with all existent being. We are life’s guests and life’s servants, and our companions are all living things. At such junctures we realise most deeply that we do not want to hurt them or cause injury, but only to be faithful to the greater life to which we all belong. We are here to be healers.
Yet, almost always without willing it, we do cause pain, individually and collectively. Countless people cry out to us in their suffering; the hungry, refugees, people in physical and mental torment. Many more have lost the opportunity, or the strength, or even the will, to cry out: enslaved children, the hopeless destitute. Many have no audible voice in the first place, the animals we hurt and kill, the earth itself and the wounds of nature.
Sometimes the voices we do not heed are very close at hand, among our friends, in our own family, our partner, our children. We may be hurtful without even noticing it, like the driver who, unaware of having caused a terrible accident, travelled twelve miles before the police caught up with him and told him, ‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’
Shame is not an emotion we often want to experience, but it has the power to be a great teacher, especially when feel it not as a result of the rebuke of others but instinctively, from within ourselves. It scours us with its questions: Why have I been thoughtless? Hurtful? Heedless?
Then a profound desire to be different grows inside us; it needs no outer prompting. We want to become the kind of person we know we truly are and can be. We want to live a life of generosity, purity, kindness and concern.
Such longing and such shame are the essence of true Teshuvah, repentance and return.
Every day in Elul (except on Shabbat) the shofar is blown. Maimonides explains its purpose: ‘Wake up’, it cries out; ‘Wake up, you sleepers’.
Elul is the month of preparation, the month of awakening.
P.S. I have just come back from listening to faith and civic leaders, and Juliette Stevenson and Vanessa Redgrave speaking outside the Home Office on our responsibility towards refugee children, especially those who have the legal right to be reunited with family in the UK but are stuck amidst the dangers of Calais. It was heart-rending, and deeply important. A delegation of faith leaders handed in a letter urging the Home Office to show moral leadership. The rally, organised by London citizens, emphasised the Jewish experience of the Kindertransport and the 1930’s. My mother, who came here aged 16 as a refugee from Nazi Germany, said to me this week: ‘I’m constantly aware that, were it not for the generosity of others who stood guarantor for us, neither I nor my family would be alive’.
We are not at liberty to be indifferent.
Some useful links: Jewish Community Campaign to fund bringing 150 child refugees to the UK; Help Refugees; Safe Passage