We return to the real Elul lessons of Kids of Courage. I’ve watched the organization grow from a handful of kids sitting around my Shabbos table, brought to Los Angeles by my son. I never quite understood the name. Courage? What kind of courage do you need to sign up for a dream week of visiting amusement parks?
Despite what I saw in front of me, I too had missed it all. Until Sarah spoke on the second evening. She explained what it took to summon up the energy to even attempt a plane flight. How so many kids had pushed themselves toward other activities that the rest of us take for granted, and how they had failed, and failed again, and yet again. How after failing too many times, you don’t want to risk the disappointment – and the pain – of failing again. How it took, in fact, superhuman courage to try again, plus circumstances that would make it reasonable to try.
Listening to her, it struck me that she was describing Elul. We’ve tried, and tried again, to correct our faults, to make it back to the Ribbono Shel Olam big time. After too many failures, we stop trying in earnest, not wanting to risk the disappointment of more failure.
Like the Kids of Courage, there is a neshamah inside that yearns to express itself, wants to be free of the limitations of our physicality. In our case, God Himself provides the model circumstances to make the trip back – the month of Elul. The real mussar to be taken from these kids is precisely their courage to make the attempt. They are nothing but an inspiration.
Quite a few chassidishe kids were part of the group (along with completely secular youngsters). One of them told his story: When he first became aware of the organization, his parents nixed his participation. As he put it, “After all, the group included nekaivos (females)!” His parents took pride in a chinuch for their children that stressed the kedushah of keeping the genders separate. (Because of the volunteer nature of the organization and the scope of the trips, it is simply impossible to run separate trips for boys and girls. The organizers keep the genders separated as much as possible, e.g. traveling on gender-specific buses. All the counselors are frum, representing all parts of the Orthodox world, including chassidish and YU/Stern.)
His participation was stalled, until my son intervened. He visited the parents, and made his pitch. “I understand your concerns, and your unwillingness to expose your son to anything less than taharas hakodesh. I can’t offer that. The program needs to run the way it does. But please consider what is ahead for your son. Think of his medical prognosis – how limited are the years allotted to him according to what medical science would predict. We are not talking about hard-and-fast prohibitions here, but about a lack of higher refinements of practice that are lechatchilah – the right way to go if you have a choice. In the case of your son, is there any greater lechatchilah than to bring him the most simcha and joy in the time HaKadosh Baruch Hu has assigned to him?”
This was the other wallop of a lesson for Elul. We are all on limited, borrowed time. Is there any greater priority for us than to bring simcha to as many of our fellow travelers as possible, and in so doing, to bring simcha to our Father in Heaven?
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Irmas Adjunct chair in Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He blogs at Cross-Currents.com.