The sound of the shofar reverberated in our synagogue this week as the month of Elul began. It signaled the approach of the Days of Awe and its attendant holidays only a few short weeks from now. In previous generations, devoid as they were from today’s omnipresent technological wonders and obsessive necessity for instant communication with everybody and anybody, Elul took on a somber and serious note. It was an opportunity for introspection and thoughtful concern about life, mortality, mission and purpose.
The folk saying in Eastern European Jewry was that with the advent of Elul even the fish in the rivers began to tremble. Well, I don’t know about the nervous state of fish in the current world’s rivers but I don’t notice too much trembling in the human society that surrounds us. Part of the problem that modernity and technology have created for us is that we have become desensitized and even disconnected from our own inner selves.
We are so busily occupied in texting and speaking to others that we have no time, desire or perhaps even ability to hear our own souls speaking to us and clamoring for meaningful attention. We may hear the sound of the shofar reverberating in our ears but the still small voice of our inner being is drowned out by the cacophony of sound and busyness that have become our daily fare.
Prisoners of our own technological progress, we are increasingly isolated and lonely and Elul really does not register deeply upon us – it is just another one of the months of the calendar year.
On my recent trip to Italy and Sicily, I did not have access for a week, to my email and the internet generally, for various reasons. I usually receive about twenty emails a day, some of which I do deem to be important, so, as you can imagine, I underwent a painful withdrawal syndrome for the first two days of my technological isolation.
But as the days passed I found myself more relaxed and somewhat more in touch with my inner self. One of the highlights of our summer tour was a visit to Sicily’s Mount Aetna. As the hardier members of my family and the rest of the gtoup actually began an ascent towards the crater top of the mountain itself, I sat on a bench part way up Mount Aetna and contemplated the boiling steam eruptions emanating from the crater of this still active volcano.
All around me people were prattling along on their mobile telephones. I thought to myself that it is impossible to appreciate Mount Aetna if one is speaking on a cell phone. The two are not only incongruous - they are antithetical. Sitting on that bench, watching the belching steam coming out of Mount Aetna, I quietly began to review the personal year that is now passing and its accomplishments and disappointments.
After a while I began to hear myself and I truly contemplated the arrival of Elul- and of the approaching new year. I thought that it was no wonder that many of the great men of Israel returned to the original places of Torah study of their youth to spend the month of Elul there in preparation for the approaching time of judgment and compassion. They did so in order to regain their inner voice.
I realize that it is quite impossible to bring Mount Aetna to my study in my apartment. But, nevertheless, I am striving to regain that moment of introspection that I experienced sitting on that bench in Sicily.
Of course now I am deluged with telephone calls, emails to respond to, articles to write, lectures to prepare, haircuts, chores and all of the other details of life that fill my days, so the atmosphere of that reverie on the bench at Mount Aetna is almost impossible to replicate. But, after all, it is Elul and the sound of the shofar does stir emotions and contemplation within all of us.
Somehow, Elul does feel differently than any of the other months of the year. It is as though our inner self waits the entire year for Elul to arrive and when it finally does, our souls demand our attention and concern. I doubt that the Elul of Eastern European Jewry – trembling fish and all – is able to be replicated in our current society. But, we are bidden to create our own Elul, our own place of refuge and contemplation.
This is, in fact, the challenge of the month of Elul today and in our world - to experience an Elul that allows us to speak to ourselves and to hear our inner beings. There can be no better preparation for the Days of Awe than creating such an Elul for ourselves.