There is a story told about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809), a great hassidic master who was nicknamed the “defense attorney,” because he argued with God on behalf of the Jewish people. On one Rosh Hodesh (the first of the month) of Elul he was gazing out a window when a shoe repairman approached him and asked, “Is there anything you have to repair?” Immediately, the pious rabbi sat himself upon the floor and began to cry heavily. He said: “Woe is me and my soul! I feel the day of judgment approaching and still I have not repaired myself!”
Elul is upon us. The season of teshuvah has arrived, and the Hebrew calendar is here to remind us that we all have a limited time left before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
And we must ask: What else in my life requires repair?
Even for the righteous, the work never ends. Even the pious Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is reminded, that despite all the accomplishments and progress in recovery, the process of teshuvah is never ending and never fully complete. And for we who have been immersed in teshuvah year round, there are other questions to ask: How do we maintain our enthusiasm for recovery when it becomes routine or mundane? How do we not get duped by our Yetzer HaRa (Evil Inclination) that constantly tempts us to be our lower selves?
In this week’s parsha, Shoftim, the Torah commands us to establish a legal system:
You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all your gates that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice (Deuteronomy 16:18)
Our judges are intended to be people who can decipher between good and evil, between right and wrong, between victim and perpetrator; who pursue justice blindly without bias and take no bribes.
And while the text is referring to judges of a legal system, I believe it can also allude to the people in our lives who judge us fairly. They are our friends and loved ones who tell us the honest truth when we are unraveling. Who pick us up when we have fallen. Or just like the shoemaker, can ask us the question we need to hear to remind us of the work that still remains.
This time of teshuvah, which intensifies in Elul, is a gift. It is intended to be a wake-up call when we hear the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) – which mimics the sounds of crying and wailing – to remind us of the fragile nature of our lives and to nudge us to take the next right action.
For Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the question from a passing shoemaker was enough of a reminder to continue down the path of recovery.
When I’m stressed, I have a tendency to cocoon and don’t want to be bothered with the world. I want to sit on my couch and shut everyone out and binge-watch Netflix. And then there are times when I find myself feeling like I’ve arrived. That I can justify my actions by telling myself I’m good, I don’t need to push myself any more. This is as deep as I can dig. And I need reminders of my own brokenness to shake me out of my complacency. I need the shofar, I need community, I need the shoemaker to give me permission to wail and cry about my own imperfection. I need my wife reminding me that I still haven’t done the dishes!
Then, once I’ve hit the ground, the real work begins.
Elul is a reminder that yes, we are created as imperfect beings. The question on the day of judgement will be: How did we channel that imperfection? Were we able to muster all of our strength in the pursuit of our higher self? Or did we remain weeping on the floor, riddled with excuses for our inaction?
As the shoemaker reminds us, the path to self-repair never ends.
My gut response is to say: for the month of Elul until Yom Kippur, I will refrain from watching Netflix. However, what I’ve learned is that a knee-jerk reactionary goal is unsustainable. Instead, what I need to address is the root of what causes me stress, which is the fact that I delay dealing with the small things until they become big things.
So my commitment for this teshuvah season is this: if something takes less than two minutes to accomplish, I’m going to commit to completing it immediately instead of putting it off for a later time.
This Elul, what else requires repair? And to what are you committing yourself?
Rabbi Joseph Shamash