Deuteronomy Return Again (Parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
This past Shabbat we celebrated Rosh Hodesh, the new moon of the month of Elul; sang songs of praise in the psalms of Hallel; and dedicated ourselves to a month of teshuva, of return and repentance, leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. For 30 days, Jews around the world call ourselves to attention with a shofar blast every morning. According to Maimonides, this blast carries an embedded message: “Awaken you sleepers from your sleep, and slumberers arise from your slumbering. Search your actions, and return in teshuva; remember where you come from…”
Awaken! Search your actions and remember where you come from….When did my habits calcify? When did I look away rather than engage? When did I ignore responsibility to my family, to my community? Where did I practice an acrobatic feat of apologetics and excuses in order to let myself off the hook? Where have I been complicit in marginalizing others’ voices? And what is that narrative I have on repeat, the one that restrains me from intimacy with my partner, my parent, my friend?
Like the night before Passover, when many Jews, armed with feather and candle, search their homes for traces of hametz (the puffed-up or sour food items forbidden during the holiday), in the month of Elul, we turn the candle inward, and illuminate the places where we have neglectfully slumbered, where we remained callous or indifferent, where we were inadvertently hurtful and willfully ignorant. We hold up to the light each fractured piece of ourselves, and with a stance of responsibility, and hope for an alternative route, we begin the alchemy of teshuva.
The power of Elul is in the faith that we are creatures of transformation. We don’t need to remain stuck. Even if you have broken your vow a thousand times, you carry within you the capacity to change, to grow, to reprogram neural pathways. The days and weeks of Elul provide the scaffolding for metamorphosis and the conviction that it is possible.
Like many growth spurts, teshuva can be profoundly uncomfortable. As Rabbi David Ingber taught last week in the name of Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine: The process of teshuvah is painful, arduous, even violent. In order to sever habits, we battle internal forces that strive to keep them in place. The closer we get to authentic teshuva, to waking up and making change, the fiercer the force pushing us to hit the snooze button, and remain asleep. If we succeed in severing ourselves from these toxic behaviors and ingrained thought patterns, we often incur suffering and pain, as we would with the loss of a limb.
When Moses lays out rules of engagement for battle in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shoftim (which is always read on the first or second Shabbat of Elul), I now hear a guide not only for emerging victorious on the field, but for lasting teshuva.
“And it will be when you draw near to battle, the priest will approach, and speak to the people. He will say to them: Hear, O Israel…Do not let your heart be weak, do not fear, do not go into frenzy, and do not recoil before them.” (Deuteronomy 20:2-3)
Within the context of war, Moses’ words call for bravery, fight over flight, and commitment to the battalion. When read through the lens of teshuvah, we glean tools for transforming our souls toward greater individual and collective responsibility.
Hear, O Israel
The first and foundational step of teshuva is to listen. Deeply. To your partner, to your friends, to enemies; to your heart; to the Divine hineini/”I am here” of this week’s haftarah; to the blast of the shofar, calling you to wake up!
Some people choose to open their ears and lift their pen. One colleague sends a new writing prompt for each day of Elul, to support a whole community in reflective listening. Find ways to listen to yourself as you awaken.
Do not let your heart be weak
After opening your heart, and hearing what changes need to be made, the temptation is great to run away, to allow your heart to go limp, to be unreceptive and indifferent to what has, perhaps, knocked you off balance. Moses’ words demand that your heart stay present, vulnerable, and engaged.
Do not fear
Elul is a refuge from fear. The ancient rabbis equate the month of Elul with a city of refuge, to which one who has committed the most heinous crime can run for safety. The month is a refuge in time. In the safety of this month, ask yourself: Where have I gone astray, in this past year, through empty promises, betraying trust, and arrogance? In what ways have we gone astray, through complacency, greed, and resorting to violence? Elul is our sanctuary in time in which to take responsibility, without fear.
Do not go into frenzy
Do not lose sight of the work by dissolving into chaos! When we begin to take responsibility for our actions, it is easy to get caught in a web of anxiety, shame, and self-flagellation. This leads to paralysis rather than transformation, to remaining stuck in patterns rather than breaking them. Moses’ words caution us to to stay focused on the work of change, and not to get sucked into the frenzied byproducts of shame and anxiety.
Do not recoil
Many translators read this last instruction as “do not break rank”―in other words, stay in formation. In the course of teshuva, do not lose sight of who you are, your internal formation―do not try to remake yourself into someone else. And perhaps more potently, this translation points to the communal nature of teshuva. We can’t do it alone. We have to find ways to support each other in this work.
In less than one month, Jews around the world will come together for the marathon of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The rabbis understood that the work of teshuvah cannot begin when you take your seat. We need a tarmac, the running start that is the month of Elul, to roll up our sleeves and get to work. I pray that in this month of Elul, we mine the potential for spiritual metamorphosis by internalizing the words of Moses―listening deeply to the lessons of this past year, opening our hearts to change, taking refuge in the time given, and―individually and collectively―engaging in the deep work of transformation.