Judaism – historically, culturally, aesthetically, theologically – Judaism religiously and secularly, is unreservedly on the side of life. Judaism is a respecter of and promoter of the sanctity of human life: the special, unique status of the human being. We who are capable of being ruthless, who can be hunters and killers and destroyers (literally or metaphorically), we can also be compassionate and tender and capable of great feats of courage and love and selflessness. And Judaism recognises, and has long recognised, that there is in each of us a struggle between these competing forces – that there are impulses towards goodness and towards evil in each human heart, in every soul.
In this struggle, Judaism encourages us to believe that we each have the capacity to work on ourselves so that our anger and destructiveness, our avarice and selfishness and brutality, does not win out over our more noble and righteous capabilities. This is what the word Teshuvah – ‘returning’ – implies. It is at this time of the year, when the shofar sounds, that we are reminded: there is a battle that goes on within us, there is an attack we are always under: an attack on our potential for goodness not from an external enemy but from an internal one.
Terrorism is not only an external threat. Judaism recognises that we each harbour an ‘inner terrorist’ who can attack us when we least expect it; an attack on us launched from our despair, our cynicism, our relentless self-centredness; and we do not know when or where the next attack will come from, because we are a mystery to ourselves. We have hidden depths of hatred (and self-hatred), of aggression and wilfulness, that can wreck our finest endeavours (or that of others), that can cause our hopes to crumble, our plans and dreams and all our fine words to turn to dust and ashes.
Our brightest hopes, our proud wishes and plans (for ourselves or others), are in reality so fragile, so vulnerable; the security we feel when we wake up in the morning that we will survive the day and sleep again in our beds that night – this sense of security is partly an illusion. Not only can external events over which we have no control sweep away our plans and wishes, can sweep away our very lives, but we are also in danger from forces deep within us that can attack us out of the blue: that we can be the victim of rages and brainstorms and uncontainable inner forces that come from parts of ourselves about which we may be quite unaware, and quite unprepared. Life is so precious – but so fragile.
Elul is a month given to us to reflect and prepare for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a month where we try to take account of our lives, so that we might make the most of this powerful time of renewal, regeneration, fresh starts and healing.
This year our daily Elul Thoughts are taken from ‘Terror, Trauma and Tragedy’, edited by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain and Rabbi David Mitchell. Each is a short extract of a larger piece designed to help us find meaning, comfort or perhaps more questions in the aftermath of horrific events, which have seemed all too frequent this year. The horror of such atrocities can leave us in confusion, depression and fear. As we move into a new year we hope these pieces might variously offer some solace, be a tool of self-reflection, and encourage us to continue working for a better world.