Elul: the stories we tell

Elul: the stories we tell

02 Sep 2016

Howard Cooper

The approaching High Holidays are ushered in with the onset of Elul - a month of preparation.

Our latest Rabbi-in-Residence shares his thoughts on the importance of personal stories and storytelling, and how they relate to personal change.

Summer is drawing to a close. September has arrived. A new moon will appear in the skies this weekend. The Jewish calendar - based on that ancient balancing act between the cycles of the moon and the rhythms of the solar year – announces its annual call to turn inwards.

The month of Elul is a month of preparation:

the New Year will come, Rosh Hashanah, whether we are ready for it or not, whether we welcome it or not, whether we approach it reluctantly or expectantly, fearfully or hopefully, it will arrive, it is bigger than us, it will happen whether we wish it or not, whether we ignore it or submit to it, whether we feel we can use it for our own personal growth and development and change, or whether we feel oppressed by its expectations and demands, it will arrive...

On the evening of October 2nd, Jews around the world will gather, in families, in friendship groups, in synagogues, and celebrate – some with awe and hopefulness, some with trepidation and a heavy heart, some with a mixture of both – the arrival of a New Year in our millennial journey as a people. It will be a time for introspection, a time for that annual calling ourselves to account, a time to see how far we are away from living out our better selves.

‘The Days of Awe’, our tradition calls them, Yamim Noraim, marking their seriousness as a time when we can work on our own personal journeys through life, a time to look at our successes and our failures, our capacities and limitations in our love life, our work life, our social life. Days to reflect on the ways in which the gap between our inner lives and our outer deeds may be significant beyond our own private concerns – for this gap reflects a basic tension in the whole fabric of our society. Failures in our private lives mirror failures in the public domain.

The month of Elul, which prepares us for this spiritual and psychological drama of the New Year and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), reminds us that the world around us cannot change if we do not change.

The political is rooted in the personal.
No wonder we may face the New Year with hesitation, with ambivalence, with doubt about its validity – it is really for us? Is it really relevant to me? Is it really anything other than archaic rituals and meaningless words?

How can we use the month of Elul?

As a rabbi and a psychotherapist I know that Judaism and psychoanalysis share a belief in the power and value of stories and storytelling. The stories we tell ourselves – about our personal history, or the history and mythology of the Jewish people – create a framework for our thinking and living.

Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves – and we may not always be conscious what these stories are, or where they come from – limit our vision:

  • ‘I never feel good enough’,
  • ‘I never feel wanted’,
  • ‘I never feel loved enough’,
  • ‘I always feel guilty’,
  • ‘I always say the wrong thing’,
  • ‘I always miss out’.

Sometimes they enhance or enlarge our vision:

  • ‘I have the potential inside me to do more, be more - more thoughtful, more compassionate, more generous...’,
  • ‘My Jewishness is a source of pleasure and creativity, I could develop it further, I could deepen my engagement with it...’

Elul is the time to begin to think about the stories which work for us – the personal ones, the collective Jewish ones – and the stories which inhibit us, or shame us, or make us less than we could be.

Sometimes what might inspire us in our journey of reflection are the stories of others, those who have struggled with adversity (as we all do, in varying degrees) and found some inner strength or insight or skill or hidden quality that has helped them meet the demands of life. Elul is a time to search out such stories for ourselves. Where will we find our inspiration?

Let’s start with one story, to get us going:

That’s the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered. It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world being gradually turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out. (Anne Frank, 1929-1945).

When someone becomes an icon, an object of fantasy, we may cease to engage with the always-complex reality of their lives. Returning to the words such figures say, or write, grounds us in their lived experience and thinking.

Anne Frank’s teenage hopefulness is imbued with the archetypal spirit of Jewish yearning: it recognises the reality of ‘confusion, misery and death’, yet refuses to be crushed by these realities; it is alert to the ominous possibilities ahead, and to the ‘suffering of millions’, yet is able to hold in mind the knowledge that this isn’t the final word on the human condition.

Let Elul be a time to reflect on and re-connect with our ideals. This spiritual and psychological work can be a golden thread running through the tapestry of our Jewish lives.

Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com

Photo by: Daria Nepriakhina

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