There are those who view an authentic Jewish life as confining and repressive – pessimistic even. So many restrictions. Countless obligations. So much “observance” rather than “celebration.” Yom Kippur fasts. Tzom Gedaliah. Tisha B’Av. The Seventeenth of Tammuz. So much sadness. So much pain. And then there is the emphasis on the in-depth study of mussar – ethics – emblematic of the Jewish need to continually rise to higher moral and spiritual levels.
“Just accept yourself for who you are,” suggests the Jewish cynic. Rather than a full thirty days of reflection and prayer in preparation for the Yamim Noraim isn’t it enough to come on the first of Tishrei, or even the tenth, to pray, wish, reflect and amend? Why sound the terrifying sirens of the shofar from the second day of Elul?
Why recite Psalm 27 – L’Dovid Hashem Ori – and awake in the predawn darkness to recite Selichot? Mind you, in the Sephardic communities, Selichot is recited for the full month of Elul. Ashkenazim begin “only” a week before Rosh Hashanah. Nevertheless, the entire month of Elul is to be a period of spiritual preparation and rejuvenation, anticipating the Days of Awe. Blowing the shofar rouses Jews to the approaching awesome, serious and introspective days.
“All so gloomy, depressing and pessimistic,” the cynic sighs with a shrug. “It makes us all seem like lost sinners, hopeless and forlorn, who by some supernatural grace of God will be saved from His wrath.”
But does it? What I have presented is Judaism through the eyes of the cynic, the one for whom the glass is only half empty. That same glass, viewed through the eyes of the faithful, is wonderfully half full.
Considering the other half of the glass, we quickly discover the state of mind God actually intends for us – from the start of Elul through the very close of the Days of Awe and holiness, on Shemini Atzeres. Open up your prayer books and discover the most optimistic of all psalms, selected specifically for this awesome period – Psalm 27. The Midrash teaches that the words L’Dovid Hashem Ori – “The Lord is my life” – refers to Rosh Hashanah; v’yishi – “and aid” – reflects on Yom Kippur; while ki yitzpeneni b’suko – “He will hide me within His tabernacle” – places us within Sukkot.
Glance through the psalm and discover all the words that conjure up hope, optimism, happiness, and strength. Begin with the first verse and go through the chapter: light, aid, stronghold, not fear, confident, desire, dwell in the house of the Lord, pleasantness, shelter, safe, high, sing, chant, gracious, seek you My presence, help, care, teach, guide, land of the living, hope, strong, brave.
In fourteen short verses, twenty-four terms and phrases that sing out loud and clear to an optimistic soul and worldview.
God’s name appears thirteen times in the psalm, we are taught, for during the month of Elul the thirteen gates of rachamim– of mercy and hope – are open to us.
The commentaries teach us the psalm is divided into two distinct parts. Verses 1-6 express the clearly stated hope of David to “dwell in the house of the Lord” and to behold His pleasantness. Verses 7-14 are a call for help on behalf of all Jews. It is a clarion call that brings to mind the sign put up by Breslover chassidim on the gate to their Second World War ghetto: Yidden, zeit zich nisht m’yaesh – “Jews, don’t give up!”
It is natural to want to give up when the other half of the glass is so clearly empty. Just as then, the emptiness of that half of the glass can feel overwhelming. There is growing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment worldwide; rampant assimilation and intermarriage in the midst of an ever-expanding secular city; blatant disregard for honesty and integrity, for plain good old ehrlichkeit in the midst of increased Torah learning.
There is so much evidence to justify the cynic’s perspective. And yet and yet, by whose say do we succumb to pessimism and gloom?
Listen to these words, uttered twice a day for fifty days, repeated a hundred times: “Hope in the Lord, be strong, and let your heart be brave: yes, hope in the Lord.”