The Optimism Of Elul


With the shofar already blowing every morning, with the Days of Awe just days away, with the headlines more ominous than not, it is only natural for us to be feeling vulnerable, as individuals and as a community. Indeed, a major theme of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, let alone the slichot at Elul’s end, is nothing if not our vulnerability.

Nevertheless. If this liturgical season — and the United Nations’ season, and our country’s economic season — can be intimidating, the sense of eternity within Elul can be comforting. There’s a chasidic idea that in Elul, in the final weeks of the Jewish year, God is not in some distant place but rather “the King is in the field,” closer and more accessible than ever.

Recent events can seem isolating and intimidating — isolation and intimidation was the express purpose of the mobs that persistently waved swastikas outside Israel’s embassy in Cairo before that embassy was stormed, and the purpose of the Palestinian attempts to muscle their way to a UN-backed unilateral settlement that presents a dictating of terms for Israel to accept at the risk of international isolation.

However, the Days of Awe asks us to stretch our perspective and sense of time, not only through our personal Yizkors but all the way back to the creation of the world, leading to the conclusion that, based on where we’ve been, we ought to be more confident than not. Our enemies have already hit us with their best shots, in every century, particularly the last. On the eve of Rosh HaShanah, 1943, it couldn’t have been imagined except by the most wildly optimistic that a Jewish state would be founded in 1948, let alone that the Jewish world of 2011 would be as vibrant and strong as it is.

We were far more isolated and challenged by both London and Turkey (the Ottomans) prior to World War I, and far more abandoned by both the UN and Washington in May 1967. Yet, our enemies and our fears can be as quickly reversed as on Purim — exactly as Israel’s fate was sealed for a scare but for victory on the Rosh HaShanah that preceded the Six-Day War.

We’d all like to see Jewish history unfold in a more genial manner, but clearly that’s not the way it ever happens. And yet, with pride, confidence, perseverance and a proper sense of purpose, let alone a helpful inscription in Heaven, the Jewish story has a way of working itself out just fine.