by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz
The beginning and end of each year are times that stimulate all of us to think. Even those who are not in the habit of making a daily “accounting of this world” (Bava Batra 78b) tend to do so at these moments, these days that are so conducive to examining, summing up, and planning.
Beloved are the People of Israel. The Almighty gave us times and festivals at the beginning and end of each year, for contemplation; for receiving answers to our most urgent questions; and for confronting the challenges that we may face in the (hopefully better) days ahead.
And if this is true every year, how much more must we think, repent and make good decisions when the days of the year give us no rest, and when the routine of daily life blurs our most fundamental thoughts: What is life about? What do we live for? Where are we going?
The days of the month of Elul, and the following month – the seventh month, Tishrei, with its numerous festivals and special days – are bountiful both in their commandments and in their prayers. All this is so much to take in, that we may become insensitive to the days’ messages. Furthermore, the month of Elul and the festivals of Tishrei each demand very different intentionalities on our part.
The month of Elul does not have a specific focus, unlike Yom Kippur, which is a single day of total concentration. And the Days of Awe between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, which have a stern aspect to them, are not at all like the days of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, days of relaxation and joy.
In each case, we will not be able to understand or fathom the significance of the answers that we may receive, unless we first pose the appropriate questions. It is said that the wise person’s question contains the seed of the reply. Therefore, to prepare for the end of the year and the beginning of the next, we first need to contemplate the questions that ought to be asked. By honing our questions, we create the soil upon which the answers can sprout into substantial influence.
This kind of preparation for the festivals is an ancient custom. Our Rabbis say we should begin public study of an upcoming festival quite a long time before its arrival (Pesahim 6a). Beyond the need to teach and remind ourselves of the festival’s laws, there is also a psychological purpose to this study: to prepare ourselves both for the rituals that we will do and for our mindset: how we are going to enter into the festival. This is the work of plowing, which prepares the soil to take in the gifts of Heavenly bounty, and make them grow.
In all aspects of spiritual life there is, of course, room for a great amount of privacy and individuality. In the words of the wisest of all men (Proverbs 14:10): “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger has a part in its joys.” Private, inner experiences cannot be fully shared with others. Perhaps it is only the ministering angels who can “accept from each other.” 1
Still, “He fashions their heart alike” (Psalms 33:15) 2. Despite all the differences and partitions dividing one soul from another, Jewish souls are bound in some way. This closeness enables us to be givers and receivers even in those things that come from the innermost recesses of our hearts. We must therefore try to receive from each other virtues and emotions that will help each and every one of us find our own personal path to the Almighty Creator.
1. See Targum Yonathan to Isaiah 6:3.
2. Which could also be translated as “He creates their hearts together.”