It’s war. The troops are assembled in their armor, fresh and unsullied. The sun glints in their eyes as the general shouts to his men:
“Is there anyone who has built a new house,” he bellows, “but has not yet dedicated it? Let him go back home, lest he die in battle and another man dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but never harvested it? Let him go back home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her” (Deuteronomy 20:5-7).
The system is both humane and effective. Give people a stake in society, and they’ll have something to fight for.
We all have plans, whether grand like grad school or small like a snack. We’re always anticipating, thinking what’s next. Human beings look forward.
We are not on the brink of battle, but we’re at the brink of something else — the New Year. During the month of Elul, we stand like soldiers, eager and full of dread, our hearts pounding in our chests. The unknown approaches. What’s to become of me? What’s to become of those I love? Will we make it out alive?
The Sfat Emet, a great Chasidic master, suggested reading the Hebrews’ quest to conquer Canaan as a spiritual metaphor. The Canaanites, with their “abhorrent practices” (Deuteronomy 18:9) of consigning children to the fire (18:10), worshiping other gods, bowing to the sun or moon (17:3) — all acts described in this week’s parsha — represent the internal forces of sin, our yetzer hara. The yetzer hara is a force within us that impedes progress and promotes wrongdoing. It’s the dastardly voice that whispers that we’re not good enough, that no one will find out, that there’s time enough tomorrow. This impulse for falseness, for destruction, for short-cuts is represented by the Canaanites and their idol-worship. The Israelites, as God’s people, represent our own forces of goodness, our yetzer hatov. The yetzer hatov is a force within us that compels us to do well and good. It’s the cheerful voice that reminds us we’re capable, that there’s right and wrong and that there’s no time like the present.
For the Sfat Emet, the “occupation and conquering” of the Canaanite land by the Israelites was a symbolic representation of the battle within each one of us, between the force for integrity on the one hand and moral decay on the other. Both forces exist within all people. A part of our soul is Israelite, and a part is Canaanite.
The generals shout to their men: “Don’t delay! Life is calling you! Make it happen for yourself.” The High Holy Days shout the very same.
Let me be clear: We are not talking about a mere bucket list. It’s good to experience what life has to offer, but Judaism is deeper and wiser than that.
Home. Vineyard. Wife. These represent what’s important in life: security, joy and relationships. We hope for them, plan for them, fear their being taken away. We cannot go out into the world effectively if these are damaged.
Security. Joy. Relationships. If any of these are “off,” broken or ailing, now is the time to work on them.
This is the time for teshuvah — for changing those aspects of self that aren’t what they could be. For healing relationships that aren’t as healthy as they can be. Relationships are like Elul — gone before you know it.
We are in Elul. Each day of the month is a general, declaring that now’s the time to live.
Now’s the time. JN
Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe.