Our great king and poet, David, gave voice to his deepest desire when he wrote, “One thing I ask of the Lord…to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life…” To live in the House of the Lord! Who could contemplate anything grander or more worthwhile? And yet, after the very same verse he adds, u’lvaker be’heichalo – and to “visit His Temple.”
Like every great poet, in these words David has captured an essential contradiction. He speaks of wanting to be what he cannot be, both a resident and a visitor! Rabbi Soloveitchik seeks to make sense of David’s contradictory desire by teaching, that permanent residence often results in losing perspective, taking things for granted, no longer appreciating the beauty and wonder of that which surrounds me… A visitor on the other hands, takes notice of all; everything is new to him; everything is fresh… He is awed by what he sees.
David wants both comfort and awe. In other words, he wants emunah. Faith. Belief. For the true believer, comfort is permanent and yet always renewed and refreshed.
How does one realize such a faith, a faith that sees in each new day a new opportunity and new hope? How does one find the grace of emunah, particularly during this intense season of searching?
To the Jewish cynic, the authentic Jewish life – filled with so many “rules and obligations, and strange rituals” – is the antithesis of a modern notion of spirituality and faith. It is “legalistic.” It is “cramped.” It is without beauty. He sees in the tapestry of Jewish life too many somber remembrances; too many fasts; too many moral teachings.
Too many demands.
He asks, “Why can’t I just be accepted for what I am?” He wonders why he can’t simply observe the New Year on the first of Tishrei or, better yet, on the tenth. Certainly, he thinks, that is more than enough time to pray, reflect and make amends.
Why, he wonders, must Jews begin their preparation thirty days before the teshuva journey begins?”
Why, he asks, must Jews be so serious?
His view of Jewish life and practice mirrors the pessimist who sees the proverbial glass as half-empty. The question is, is the pessimist’s perspective more correct than an optimist’s, who looks at the very same glass and rejoices that it is half full? Is it more correct than the Jew who embraces David’s desire to be both resident and visitor?
Optimism shows us the power of the period from Rosh Chodesh through the conclusion of Shemini Atzeret. When we open our siddurim, we discover the most optimistic of all Psalms, selected specifically for this awesome period – Psalm 27. The Midrash teaches that the words L’Dovid HaShem Ori, the Lord is my light, refer to Rosh Hashanah while v’yishi, and light, reflects on Yom Kippur. Ki yitzpeneni b’suko, He will shelter me in His pavilion, speaks of Sukkot.
The psalm speaks fully to hope and optimism – and to David’s vision. Verses 1-6 express the hope, to “dwell in the house of the Lord” and to “behold His pleasantness.” Verses 7-14 are a call for help on behalf of all Jews. It is a call reminiscent of the sign put up by Breslav Chassidim on the gate to their ghetto during the Second World War: Yiden, Zeit Zich Nisht M’Yaesh – Jews, Don’t Give Up!”
Optimism is woven in the very fabric of Jewish life and practice, for the foundation of all Jewish belief, expression and experience is God. Of all the pleas we bring before God during the Yamim Noraim, the Malbim notes that it is the desire to be one with God – the Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? – that enables us to overcome our spiritual obstacles. To know oneness with God is to know that, “even though an army were arrayed against me, my heart would not fear; though war shall arise against me, still would I be confident.”
The task of Elul is to renew, reaffirm and reattach oneself to God, to genuine emunah. Absent such renewed faith, almost all of what we do and say during Elul and the Yamim Noraim is reduced to just words; at best vague prescriptions to “live better” and empty recitations of having “fallen short” the year before.
But words are not the goal of our renewal! The goal is to reconnect to God, to seek and feel His presence constantly and consistently, to both live with and visit Him no matter where we are – caught in traffic, in a hospital bed, at work …
It can be hard work, this optimism. Even thoughtful and well-meaning Jews sometimes find themselves “going through the motions” of the season – flipping the pages of the Machzor, beating on their hearts during the Vidui, giving more charity, awakening early for Selichot – and then patting ourselves on our backs feeling pleased with our efforts and accomplishments. But what have we done really? Endured the season? Or truly brought God closer?
Have we merely spoken words, or have we felt and sensed His presence? Is our trust greater than before the season began? Or do we find ourselves even further from Him?
If, on the day after Yom Kippur, we feel no different than we did before the season then of what use was all our effort?
The purpose of Elul is to get us somewhere! To get us closer, closer to God, closer to residing and visiting. That is the reason for reciting the L’Dovid HaShem Ori again and again – bring me closer! Let me see the glass as half-full! It is all we should want to accomplish during the Days of Awe.
The “humanist” Jew, the Jew who wants only to show up on Kol Nidre evening, dressed in his best suit, and fulfill his “obligation” of the season, should know that it is only by forming a greater reattachment with and emunah in the Ribono shel Olam, that we experience greater attachment and relationship with ourselves and others!
Only when we truly believe He is in charge and that all emanates from Him do we quickly realize that jealousy, anger, and frustration are meaningless. As our love for Hashem grows, so does our love for others, and for ourselves.
David is a wise – and clever – poet. He begins, “One thing I ask…” but asks so many more things than that. He asks for shelter. He asks for comfort. He asks to be able to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord; to worship in His Temple.
Yes, he asks for many things and yet, he does ask for only one thing, for in these requests he is really seeking only one thing – rapport, a relationship with God. He is seeking emunah.
In God, there is hope. In God, there is comfort. In God, there is meaning.
The cynic may not see it, and the pessimist may be blind to it, but for the Jew, the glass is always half-full for it is God who has poured it. The authentic Jewish life is always an optimistic life.
Hope. Be strong. Be brave.