A Time for Crying

Elul is a time of crying. Not the crying of Tisha B’av, but
the crying of an awakening, a being born, the crying of an infant that breathes
for the first time. That’s why we blow the shofar: to wake us up. We go
through the whole year half asleep. We get used to a routine. Our mitzvos are
routine, our life is routine. Our work is routine. Everything is routine. Once a
year, before the Day of Judgment, we sound the shofar and wake up.

The Torah teaches us that a woman who is captured in a time
of battle and brought home goes through a conversion process. Part of that
process is that she is allowed to sit and cry for her father and her mother
thirty days. All of a sudden all the routines of her life are broken. She may
have been married. She used to send her kids off to school every morning. She
used to visited her parents every weekend. She attended the services at her
local pagan temple regularly. All of a sudden her world breaks down. She cries.
The Zohar identifies these thirty days with the month of Elul.

During these thirty days before the Day of Judgment, our
world, in a way, should also break down because we can’t go on with life as
usual knowing that that great day is coming. The Day of Judgment is nearly upon
us. We start to question. Suddenly we’re more self-conscious. We start to
imagine what G-d, from His exalted perspective, will see when He judges us on
that day. And we begin to remember things we forgot in the course of the year:
Aspirations to virtue and kedushah muted by the rush of routine and a wash of
endless distraction. All that creates an inner turbulence. Who is not agitated
by the prospect of judgment? Who can remain serene in his unreflective habits
when he knows that Yom Hadin is around the corner? In Elul those
distractions are dispelled. The easy flow of unquestioned routine is disrupted
by the inner turbulence that marks an awakening of spirit.

Of course, it’s uncomfortable. A peak experience is never
comfortable. It arises out of unease and culminates in joy—even ecstasy. Is
ecstasy comfortable? But unease and discomfort are not, in themselves, a reason
to cry. We (adults) cry in lamentation for a loss, and as we cry, we become even
more sharply aware of what could have been ours. That’s what moves us to tears
in Elul. Suddenly we realize what we could be. Suddenly we become aware
of the kedushah that could have been ours. We cry because we realize it,
and as we cry, we realize it more deeply. But, of course, that agitated
realization is just what we need to get it. Those tears are the beginning of
teshuva.

The truth is, that even during the year, there’s a part of
us that wants only what’s right. In every one of us there is a pintele Yid that
is never diverted from the path of purity and kedushah. But that pintele Yid is
withheld from outside and from within —from within by the yetzer hara, which
weakens our will, from the outside by the gentile culture that pervades our
society and entices us with gentile values and a gentile way of life. Between
them, they overpower the pintele Yid. They bury him so deeply beneath the
noise and distractions of their enticements that we no longer hear his voice. He
sinks so far that we forget about everything he stands for. He’s lost. He’s
sunk to the bottom of the barrel. How can we raise him? By shaking the barrel
up. By shaking ourselves up as we break the routines of our lives. That creates
a turbulence—and it can bring us to tears—but it does the job. It brings the
pintele Yid back to the surface. It reminds us of what we’ve always
known, but forgotten in the course of the year. It brings us back to G-d.

“I am to my beloved (G-d) and my beloved is to me.” That,
we are told, is the meaning of Elul, each word of the verse (in the Hebrew)
corresponding to one letter in the name of the month. So Elul is a time of
turning to G-d, a time of agitating the stagnant waters of unexamined thoughts
and feelings that bury the pintele Yid. “I am to my beloved…” is
the sudden sense of certainty we have about our ultimate destiny when the pintele
Yid
emerges and recalls us to a deeper, more truthful sense of self. “…my
beloved is to me” is the Divine companionship we discover as we abandon the
safety of our routines and break through the narrow boundaries of our lives. We
discover G-d in a new way: we discover that He’s really there for us.