We have arrived—the month of Elul is upon us—and we are single-mindedly devoted to the project of teshuva, repentance. As we count down the days until the New Year, we try to imagine the great divine scale that holds all of our deeds, and we wonder if our best efforts and intentions will translate when God examines our record.
But at the same time when we are acutely aware of God’s judgment, we also invoke God’s mercy. We remind God of the moment of creation, when God made the choice to bring human partners into the world, despite our shortcomings. This midrash (interpretive rabbinic teaching) helps us articulate these feelings:
On the sixth day of creation (which coincided with Rosh Hashanah), the following took place:
In the first hour, the idea of creating humanity entered God’s mind
In the second hour, God took counsel with the ministering angels
In the third hour, God assembled dust of the earth
In the fourth hour, God kneaded it
In the fifth hour, God shaped it
In the sixth hour, God formed Adam’s body
In the seventh hour, God breathed a soul into him
In the eighth hour, God brought Adam into the Garden of Eden
In the ninth hour, Adam was commanded not to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge
In the tenth hour, Adam transgressed this commandment
In the eleventh hour, Adam was judged
And in the twelfth hour, he was pardoned.
“This,” said God, “will be a sign to your children. In the future, they will stand before me in judgment, and just as you have
received a free pardon, so too will they benefit from my mercy.” (Leviticus Rabbah 29:1)
In the same moment when our liturgy beckons us to pass before God “kevakarat ro’eh edro,” like a flock of sheep, so that God can decide whether or not we deserve to be inscribed in the Book of Life, we also remember our origins. We remember that the very first model of our species transgressed almost immediately after being created. And we try to remind God that it is this fallibility, this propensity to fail, that makes us a necessary presence in the world. We are not angels. We are not perfect. We come into being with both good and evil inclinations within us, and we push God to help us build a system that both challenges us and inspires us each and every day.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook! These weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah must be used for cheshbon hane fesh, a serious and deep accounting of our souls. We must take the time to look inward, to ask ourselves how we’ve fallen short of our responsibilities to our families, our friends, our jobs, our communities. We must take a moment to think about all the promises we made last Yom Kippur, and to evaluate whether we’ve lived up to them. And only after we approach our loved ones to make things right, can we stand before the Sovereign of the Universe, hearts open and repentant, ready to engage in the holy work of teshuva and tikkun olam for another year.
May God give us the strength to do this work wholeheartedly and intentionally so that we may all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy, sweet 5779.
See you in shul!