“If!” — Walking Backwards into Elul

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Today is September 1, and this weekend begins the Jewish month of Elul, doorway to the High Holy Days of awe, meaning, introspection and transformation.

Yes, it’s that time. Tradition adds to daily liturgy Psalm 27 to focus us – body, heart, mind and soul – on our spiritual journey anew. And hidden in Psalm 27 is a word with tremendous power to focus us on so much that this time is about.

That powerful word is “if” – if only, if only we had, if only we hadn’t.

Elul is when we look deeply and longingly at the ifs of our lives. If only we were more loving, more patient, more hopeful. If only we forgave rather than clutch our hurt or righteous indignation. If only we reached out and reached in. If only we had seen our own complicity. If only we didn’t look away from another in need. If only we hadn’t begrudged. If only we hadn’t lied. If only.

Psalm 27 evokes all that and more. Psalm 27 also holds out hope that the ifs in us and all around us contain dormant seeds of holiness waiting for us to tend them. Seen that way, in potential even our ifs can be almost too good to be believed. As Psalm 27:13 puts it,

“… If I hadn’t believed to look on the goodness of God in the land of the living!”

This “If I hadn’t” – if I myself hadn’t seen its goodness, I wouldn’t believe it! – in Hebrew is Lule (לוּלֵא), or literally Elul (אֵלוּל) backwards. This is big: Psalm 27 asks us to enter Elul walking backwards through the ifs – the longing and missed marks – of our messy lives. Psalm 27 asks us to see our ifs not as irretrievably missed opportunities of the past but precisely the opposite, as new possibilities for the future. Psalm 27 calls us to see those possibilities as so potentially good that, if we ourselves hadn’t seen them, they’d seem almost too good to be believed.

The painful ifs that most grab us now are our spiritual curriculum for the weeks ahead. We need to feel our ifs deeply – if only we had! if only we hadn’t! – so that we can galvanize and harness their power for change. But in Elul’s wisdom, we make this turn with a particular purpose: to convert those seeming negatives into potential positives so good that, if we ourselves didn’t glimpse them, they’d seem almost too good to be believed.

Let that be the goodness we call God in the land of the living. Let that be our backwards journey through Elul, from all our hurtful ifs into a life renewed for true goodness in the year ahead.

Originally published at Rabbis Without Borders. 

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