R A B B I M E I R K A H A N E
ON JEWS AND JUDAISM2 Elul 5737 - September 2, 1977
The Jewish calendar is full of notations, red letter days that are meant to be both particular reminders as well as part of a uniform one: time is passing; the sands of life have run out just a bit more; the beard is a little grayer and the limbs just a touch heavier. Time. The Jewish calendar is a watchman of time, ram’s horn that blows not once a year but every time that a new time cycle begins.
Every week is marked by a Sabbath that notes not only the end of the week passed but the beginning of a new one. It is both a reminder of seven full days passed out of our life – so soon! – as well as the opportunity to make the next period fuller, more meaningful, a reason for being.
Every month is marked by a Rosh Chodesh, the consecration of the new beginning of yet another lunar cycle. The wheel of heaven has revolved yet another thirty days – so soon! – and we are that much older. The L-rd now gives us another month to prove that we are also that much wiser. It is not only another month, it is a new month. Above all, it is called Rosh Chodesh, the “head” of the month. Is there perhaps here a hint to see how much wisdom has filled our heads during the mistakes and sins of the past one…?
And every year has its Rosh Hashana, that peculiarly Jewish day in which there are no parties and drinking and abandonment of restraint; in which there is no hilarious laughter and noise that is a frantic and frenetic attempt to convince all (and oneself) that he is happy; there is no frantic clutching at pleasure before it escapes and – worse - before I pass on; too soon, too soon. There is Rosh Hashana, the time past. Another year gone by – already? So soon! – and it is a time to see what the gray hairs and the added wrinkles and the slower reflexes have taught us. Rosh Hashana is one step closer to the gateway out of this world and into the next one. It is a time to rehearse the speech that we will make – all of us – some day, before the Supremes of Courts, as we attempt to explain the meaning of our lives below.
Life is too short for fools. It is too long for those who know it was not given for happiness (if that comes, how wonderful, but how often does it appear, only in insignificant measures and at rare times, as drops of rain that fall on a parched desert leaving no impact, changing nothing so that the traveler never knows it fell). Life was given for holiness and sanctity, so that we might rise above ourselves; so that we might consecrate and hallow that animalism within us that threatens at every moment to escape and express itself in selfishness, ego and greed – sins that are themselves only the corridors to the crimes of cruelty and hurting others. Life is not a happy thing – it is a beautiful thing, and when one becomes the artist and artisan of that beauty that is called holiness, when one practices the supreme holiness that comes of loving and giving of oneself.
“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li…” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine…” the words of the greatest of love poems, Song of Songs; great because it is that purest of love, between the Almighty and the House of Israel. Consider them, for do they not contain the essence and the secret of true love? “I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine.” When I am my beloved’s, when I give to her and give of myself and live to do for her and make her happy – then I am guaranteed that she is mine for she will, in turn, be doing the same for me. The lovers who think of giving to each other must receive from each other. This is love, this desire to give, this desire to sacrifice and do for the other.
Not for nothing was the Song of Songs called by the incomparable Rabbi Akiva, “the Holy of Holies” of all the books of the Bible. For the kind of love expressed in it IS holiness. Holiness is to escape from the selfishness and greed of the animal; it is to smash the passions and desires of the ego; it is to master the will that makes man seek only his own gratification. And is not love just that, in practice? Is not love exactly that, if it is true love?
And not for no reason did the rabbis see in the Hebrew letters of the month of Elul the first letters of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine.” Elul is the month of Tshuva, return and introspection. It is the month of scraping away the ego that has settled and crusted on our hearts and souls. If Passover calls for searching out he leaven in the home, Elul decrees removing it – the yeasty and bloated ego – from the soul. It is a time to note the calendar, the graying and aging, and to realize: Not for nonsense was I born and not with nonsense must they bury me.
Be good. Love. Love selflessly; cease speaking evil, cease thinking evil; cease searching out evil in your fellow human beings. Cease seeking to grow at the expense of others. For one who climbs on top of the man he has just chopped down is not taller. He is the same dwarf standing on his victim’s height. Be wary lest you hurt the one you love. Think before you act towards the other person. Be good as a person, as an individual, and your part of the world will become holy. Then, if others emulate you, the world will suddenly and automatically turn beautiful and hallowed. It is Elul. Think of your beloved – all the people of the earth – and think of your particular beloved. Give of yourself and you will receive that which no amount of grasping and scheming can ever bring you: self-respect. Love the other and you will learn to like yourself. Be holy, for the One who made you is Holy and for this He placed you on this earth. It is another Elul, yet another one. How many more are left?
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