A couple of years ago, on Rosh Chodesh Ellul, during one of the darkest and most challenging periods in my life, I visited the Alma Cave with my children. The Alma Cave, located near Tzfat, is the deepest cave in Israel. While preparing for the trip I saw that flashlights are required, but I thought that our mobile phone lights would suffice. Apparently, that was not the case.
The path is very narrow, steep and slippery and you need both hands to navigate. Luckily, a family emerging from the cave saw our problem and graciously offered us their head-lights. After walking for 20 minutes into the cave, my youngest daughter complained that it was too scary for her and she couldn’t continue, but the other children refused to quit and exit. Since it’s an out-and-back trail, I suggested that I would stay with her until the others returned, and I gave them the head-lights.
I sat down with my daughter in complete darkness, unable to move either forward or backward, since the reflective trail signs were not visible without a light source. I proposed that we try sitting quietly in the dark and reflecting on our lives. These 45 minutes in complete darkness, were among the most powerful moments of my life. The first verse of the special psalm we say during Ellul – “Le’David Hashem Ori ve’Ishi” – “The Lord is my light and my salvation” – ran through my head over and over again.
Sometimes, we find ourselves at a point of total darkness in our lives. We don’t always know what brought us there or how to get out of it. The path is not visible, and wherever we turn we hit walls. What we truly need at such times is a special light that can illuminate the road signs and lead us slowly but surely toward the light at the end of the tunnel, to our personal salvation.
Perhaps this is the essence of the month of Ellul. Before beginning the actual mitzvot and rituals of repentance and atonement during the Days of Awe, we have a whole month of preparations in which to “let go and let G-d”. During this month we should be open to receiving and absorbing the Divine light that can illuminate the road signs along our life journey. That has been my personal experience; the most meaningful journey of my life started in that tunnel and became an open-ended journey of personal growth and unqualified faith, in which I have been fortunate to see many clear road signs.
The Hebrew word for crisis is mashber. The root of that word is shever, brokenness, but the origin of that word is the exact opposite, it means a birthing stool: “Ki vau banim ad mashber – for the children have come as far as the birthing stool and have no strength to give birth” (Melachim II 19:3). Every crisis that we experience has the potential to be the birthplace for a new stage in our lives, and to serve as a driving force for epic personal growth. Writing my recently published book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge”, the most significant and meaningful project in my life, was a direct outcome of one of the biggest crises I had to face – a beam of light that emerged from the frightening darkness.
Usually, people who find themselves facing major challenges and times of acute pain do anything possible to escape and numb these dark feelings. We keep ourselves busy with work, imagine ourselves as victims, blame others and inflict pain on them, and sometimes resort to self-destructive behaviors.
The Jewish way of dealing with darkness is exactly the opposite. When facing darkness and pain, it is time to return to ourselves, to the essence of our soul, to the core of our inner being. This is the beginning of the process of Teshuva which we start during Ellul, as Rav Kook articulates: “The first act of Teshuva, which illuminates the darkness immediately, is for one to return to himself, to the root of his soul.” (Orot HaTeshuva 15:10)
For many of us this year, these excruciating experiences are familiar, particularly with the traumas caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the terrible uncertainties that we are living with, the upcoming month of Ellul gives us an opportunity to practice that sort of Teshuva – by returning to ourselves and opening our minds to the Divine light. This can illuminate the road signs and help us to turn the global crisis into the birthplace of a profound new dimension in the way we live our lives, with more strength, resilience and faith. As King David exclaims in the opening line of the Elul psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; who shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; who should I be frightened of?” (Psalms 27:1)