Occasionally, just to be a brat, I demonstrate my great will-power by eating just one pistachio nut. Of course it is not a very satisfying decision. Most of the time, however, my will-power isn't so great, and I happily sit shelling and crunching until I reach the bottom of the dish.
Here's what I have noticed: when the bowl is full, I toss back the nuts that look difficult to open. Perhaps my conceit is that there are so many nuts in the bowl, I don't have to bother with the tough ones. But when I get near the bottom and my appetite is still strong, my poor aching thumb (or perhaps a nutcracker) has its hardest job ahead.
The month of Elul and the Days of Awe are very much the same way. In a show of spiritual bravado, I sometimes make a grand promise to God or myself that I will truly repent of my many transgressions. Of course, grand promises are as foolish as the person who makes them -- and not very satisfying. Most of the time, I focus on the bowlful of sins that I have committed. I deal with the easiest ones first, and when I confront the most difficult, I throw them back. Perhaps my conceit is that there are so many sins in the bowl, I don't have to deal with the tough ones. But when I get near the bottom and find I have not answered the call of my soul adequately, my poor aching heart has its hardest job ahead.
So it is a cute analogy and a clever turn of phrases, but let me crank it up a notch. The masters of our mystical tradition suggest that sparks of God are imprisoned in hard shells found throughout the material world. They were formed when God, who once pervaded all of existence, contracted to make room for creation. Our task is to crack those shells and release the sparks to be reunified with their source. In that way, God's presence will again pervade all of existence. Every mitzvah breaks a shell.
With a bowlful of mitzvot in front of us, it is easy to spend the year throwing back the difficult shells. But when Elul comes around, the bowl is nearly empty and the work of fixing the world is not nearly done. Our poor aching souls have the hardest job ahead: breaking the hard shell of ego that imprisons our own spark of God. With the sound of the shofar to rouse us and the company of a community of yearning, we focus on bringing God back into every corner of our lives.
May we be blessed with full teshuvah, so that our sins be nothing more than a mere bag of shells.
At the risk of sounding facile, I genuinely beg your pardon if I have disappointed you this year. Any hurt I caused was unintentional, and my own inadequacies and ineloquence are to blame.
Ann, Jennie, Julia and Max join me in wishing you a year of inspiration, health, prosperity and peace.