We Americans are an optimistic bunch, always looking ahead to what is just beyond the horizon. Whether it's the newest Apple product, or the latest installment in The Fast and the Furiousseries, we just can't help but fall for the possibilities contained in something shiny and, as yet, undiscovered. The first observer of this collective trait was Alexis de Tocqueville, in his monumental 19thCentury study, Democracy in America, yet the phenomena of American optimism, as well as our "love of the new," remains just as true today according to a recent study published in The Atlantic.1
And this Shabbat, at least at first glance, we'll all be granted that perfect opportunity to start completely anew. This Saturday is Rosh Chodesh Elul. A new moon will appear in the sky, and that silver sliver will herald the forty days that take us through a new Jewish year and into Yom Kippur. While it may seem that this is our chance to reinvent ourselves as the Jew or human being we always wanted to be, the project of Elul is not about simply wiping our slates clean, or forgetting our past mistakes. Rather, Elul is about returning to our histories – personal and communal – and confronting who we have really been, so that we can grow into the nobler person we were always meant to be.
This more challenging, but I think far richer, conception of renewal is alluded to in the opening words of our Torah reading, Prashat Re'eh. There we read:
26 See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse: 27 blessing, you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I enjoin upon you this day; 28and curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of the LORD your God… (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
In his comments on these words, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter – the late 19th and early 20th century leader of the Ger Hassidic community and author of the Sefat Emet – notes a strange shift in the way choices are described in verse 27 and then again in verse 28. While the option of doing the right thing is described as simple matter of fact in verse 27, verse 28 adds a single, two letter word, "if," to the path of failure. For Rabbi Altar, the absence of an "if" in the Torah's description of the righteous path means that, "Goodness exists within (the Jewish) people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. Israel as a whole certainly heard and accepted the Torah. Even if they have fallen away since then, each day they are given the choice anew."2 Goodness is in our bones, he tells us, it doesn't need any qualifier. Failure has never been our default way of living.
Rabbi Alter's reading of the opening words of Parashat Re'eh is particularly significant this year. For this year, Re'eh matches up with the opening moment of the season of repentance. This Shabbat, the Sefat Emet is coming to remind us that our annual project of self-reflection isn't one of collective amnesia, it's just the opposite. Elul is about remembering, who we really are and what we really wanted to accomplish. By understanding our story and coming to terms with our past, we can return to the just path we were always meant to be living. In this way, Elul becomes a radically counter-cultural project, one so different from the stereotypically American way of never looking back. Doing teshuvah for the Sefat Emet is far more challenging than choosing a new look to reinvent ourselves in. What Rabbi Alter wants us to do instead, is study. And he encourages us, too, in this more challenging mission, for Rabbi Alter believes it is a project we all can succeed in. There is no "if," he insists, in the Torah's description of success. The path of blessing is open to all who wish to walk its course.
As we begin the Season of Repentance this Shabbat, may each of us be blessed with the patience and energy to study. May we take the time in the days ahead to come to know ourselves, so that we can discover who we were truly meant to be. Each and every one of us has the potential to grow toward holiness. May we emerge from this endeavor wiser and stronger as this project concludes with a shofars blast at the end of Yom Kippur just forty days ahead.
2 The Language of Truth, Translated and Interpreted by Arthur Green, p. 302-303