Preparing in Elul

For the week of August 30th, 2014

Parashat “Shofetim”
(Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)

This week, as Moses continues to prepare the people for their life without him, he instructs the Israelites about the institutions of justice they should create once they are settled in the land.  Among those institutions, Moses discusses the potential choice to have a human king (rather than only God) who will rule over them.  In Deuteronomy 17:18, Moses gives the following instruction concerning such a king:  “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.”

Commenting on this verse, Ketav Sofer quotes Rashi who wrote:  “If he [the king] does so, he will be worthy of having his reign endure.”  Ketav Sofer asks:  Is the implication that whenever the king is sitting on his throne, the Torah must be [continuously] written?  Rather, Ketav Sofer says, the meaning is found in the phrase “it shall be” (in the future)–if he acts all the years of his reign– “as when he was seated upon his royal throne”–like the day he [first] ascended to rule, like the day of his coronation, [a day] on which he is good and does good, is gracious and compassionate to all, behaves with love and forgiveness towards all the sinners, and with that same feeling continues to rule, [then] “he will be worthy of having his reign endure.”

This is, of course, a wonderful derash [interpretative teaching] about the challenges of leadership.  We believe that most of our leaders at least start their work with the best of intentions and with high ideals.  Many leaders begin with an inspiring vision of what they hope to accomplish and, in the early days of their work, they pursue that idealistic vision with enthusiasm.  But as the challenges of actual leadership begin to accumulate, the sometimes overwhelming pile of distractions, frustrations and serious obstacles causes many leaders to lose heart and lose their way.

Ketav Sofer (with help from Rashi) reminds us of the urgency of leaders holding on to that initial, inspiring vision, that beautiful, starting intention.  Ketav Sofer emphasizes how critical it is that, to the best of the leader’s ability, he returns to that vision and continues to live in accordance with it even in the face of inevitable obstacles and disappointments.  To do so, the Torah suggests, we need tools and strategies that will help us to remember, that constantly will call us back to our best intentions whenever we forget and lose our way.  Hence, the commandment to have a copy of God’s teaching written and placed by the king at all times–a Torah that is to serve both as a vital guide for ruling with justice and compassion and as a symbolic, visual reminder of the holy intentions with which the king first began his rule.

We are in the first days of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Elul is, traditionally, a month of preparation for the very difficult, spiritual and moral work of the Days of Awe that follows in the month of Tishri.  We are supposed to begin the process of cheshbon hanefesh (doing a kind of spiritual and moral accounting) and, based on what we uncover, to begin making amends for the ways in which we’ve fallen short during the past year.  We seek out people we’ve harmed to ask forgiveness.  We make plans for how we will try to live differently and better in the upcoming new year.  We begin the process of setting our intentions for the new year, a process that will culminate on Yom Kippur.

And many of us will be like those leaders.  We will start with great enthusiasm and determination.  We will even take some initial steps in the right direction and begin living differently.  But then, reality will set in and we will get distracted and discouraged or simply forget our wonderful intentions.  Parashat Shofetim reminds us to think not only about our holy intentions but about the strategies, tools and practices that might help us sustain those intentions.  What specific things will we do to remind ourselves of our Elul/Tishri intentions in the months that follow?  What tools or practices will call us back to our Elul/Tishri intentions when we’re celebrating Chanukah in Kislev or Pesach in Nisan?

When I posed the question during services, one person suggested the use of ritual practice to remind ourselves of the values by which we want to live.  She mentioned prayer, Torah study, celebrating Shabbat as regular practices that could help to remind us of who we intended to be this year.  And there may be other “rituals” (officially religious practices or not) that can help to accomplish the same goal for some of us.  Another person spoke about the importance of having a community, of having partners with whom to share this work.  And so, we might seek out a kind of teshuvah chevruta, a partner(s) for the work of returning, over and over again, to our intention to be our best selves.  In such relationships, we could encourage each other in moments of difficulty, cheer each others’ successes and yes, gently, lovingly remind one another of what we said our intentions were.  Yet another person spoke about the importance of seeing the inevitable obstacles as opportunities to clarify and renew our intention rather than as impossible walls we will never get past.  Everyone spoke to the importance of using Elul not only to think about what specific changes we hope to make but also to think about how we actually can remember, return to and act on those intentions more frequently.

For my part, I was struck by the basic lesson of the Torah portion and by some wonderful, transformational learning that I’ve been doing through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  The king described in Shofetim is supposed to have the Torah written down and close at hand as he sits upon his throne. So, consider writing down your intention  and putting those words where you can’t help seeing them.  Perhaps, this simple but powerful practice can help us to recall and return to living out our best intentions when we forget or lose or way.  In just a phrase or a sentence (e.g., “May I be more patient and forgiving”), write down your intention for being a better human being in the new year.  And then put that piece of paper where you can’t help but see it on a regular basis.  Perhaps, like the king, keeping our own, holy words near at hand will help us to be more worthy of being sustained for another year of life and blessing.  May this be God’s will.