During a hot summer when I was in university, I was walking by a public pool full of kids splashing and jumping and squealing with delight. Glancing up, I noticed a sign on the back fence of the pool area that read, NO FISHING. I continued on my way but suddenly stopped. “No fishing?!” I retraced my steps, walked closer to the pool, and realized the sign, in fact, read, NO PUSHING. It was then I admitted to myself that I needed glasses.
It was probably over several years prior to that moment that I began to sit closer to the screen in the movie theatre, squint to read signs in the distance, and accustomed myself to waiting longer until I could recognize the face of someone walking toward me, occasionally with embarrassment as I gave a vague smile to the blurry person waving at me until I could see who it was.
I didn’t want the inconvenience of glasses. I didn’t like the look of glasses. And I was reluctant to give up the edge of uniqueness I felt being the only person in my family who didn’t (yet) wear glasses. It was time to think differently about all of it and to get corrective lenses.
On the day I turned forty-five, my eyes had another lesson to teach me. It seemed like overnight the labels on packages and bottles became illegible, ordinary reading was fuzzy, and no amount of arm extension away from my torso and squinting at the words could forestall the inevitable introduction of reading glasses. This has been an entirely new realm of admission and acceptance – admitting I am aging, my body is changing, and confronting in a rather mundane way that I am mortal and fragile, and, without glasses, I just can’t see clearly. It was time to see myself differently in relation to the arc of life and to get corrective lenses.
The Hebrew month of Elul began on Saturday night, August 15th. This means that Rosh Hashana is one month away. This means we have thirty days to prepare ourselves to be ready to step into a new year attuned, open, and poised to reevaluate, to repair, and to begin again. More specifically, over the next thirty days, we are encouraged to pay attention to what we have not been seeing clearly or not seeing at all. We are invited to examine how we see ourselves, our lives, and the world in which we live in blurred and distorted ways. Over the next thirty days, we are asked to pay attention to the things we’ve been doing that try to compensate for, avoid, or cover up the truths we’ve been reluctant to look at. Elul is the time to get new glasses and take a good look around, inward and outward.
Yes, this is an obvious metaphor for self-reflection and the importance of developing new clarity but the more I think about it, the more I notice how subtle and specific the process of clarified seeing is. Most of the time, most of us well-intentioned, caring, and good people do not deliberately and consciously do bad things. We mostly have a clear sense of actions that are immoral and destructive. Generally speaking, whether out of clear conviction or habit or fear of getting caught, we don’t often act in blatantly immoral ways. Much of our hurtful and damaging behaviour comes from not being willing or able to see with clarity, precision, and compassion and then to act in harmony with what we see.
We filter our current experiences and choices through lenses shaped by our past experiences – our previous experiences of hurt, embarrassment, fear, and defeat. Consciously or unconsciously, we made decisions to do whatever we needed to in order to never be hurt like that again; to defend against ever being shamed like that again; to feel good about ourselves and feel safe rather than daring or trying in that particular way again, limiting what we think we are capable of. Consciously or unconsciously, several bad experiences were enough evidence not to trust, or to feel an aversion to certain kinds of people or groups. All these experiences form a rigid lens around the eye and an encased covering over the heart.
Because we are so used to our own way of seeing things, we tend to believe it all as immutable truth. It will always be this way. We are simply the kind of person who is this way – quick-tempered or needing to be in control or overly accommodating to avoid conflict or defensive, etc. And others are simply the kinds of people who are like that – shallow or judgmental or self-righteous or mean-spirited, etc. And so our actions move outward from those frozen beliefs. We defend ourselves, protect our egos, and we are hurtful, unthinking and reactive in the process.
When we are able to look at the lenses through which we see, to try to understand what shapes our perception, we come to have clarity about what needs healing within us so we can see with new clarity all that is around us.
As Rabbi Alan Lew writes in his book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, “when we look out at the world through a torn mind, our experience of the world is torn” (p.80).
Elul is the time to examine the lenses we have and get new soul-glasses.
How do we do that? Rabbi Chaim David Azulai taught that during Elul one should spend an hour a day examining one’s actions with a view to mending them. An hour a day of self-reflection and evaluation. It might be challenging to set aside an hour every day (though a terrific goal to aim for), but can you set aside some time each day this month to write, walk, meditate, pray, have a teshuva partner to reflect out loud with, and examine the lenses through which you see the different areas of your life and the people in them? It is also a practice during Elul to blow the shofar every morning. Every morning that resonant, stirring cry blasts to help us open our eyes wide and wake up.
I remember when I first put on my new glasses. I almost cried. I was so accustomed to the way I saw things that I forgot what clarity was like. Suddenly objects had clear edges. Lights were bright and focused. People’s faces were beautiful. I could see a much wider image of reality, foreground, middle and background all at once rather than losing one slice of the picture for another.
This work takes time and no one else can give us the prescription. The practices of Elul give form and regularity to the kind of growth that is never easy to do but is such a source of renewed energy and possibility.
I look forward to truly seeing you in the New Year.