This Hebrew month, Elul, is a special time of preparation for the hard work of self examination and repentance Jews engage in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Simcha Bunam, an 18th-19 C Hasidic leader in Poland taught that everyone should have two pockets, each inscribed with a different quotation. In one, for when he/she is feeling puffed up and full of pride, let there be the reminder, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the other pocket, when a person feels that his/her efforts are of no consequence, let her/him read: “For my sake the world was created.”
During this month of Elul we Jews dedicate our thoughts to examining our actions and thoughts during the past year with the goal of becoming kinder and more caring in the year ahead. If our self-scrutiny is honest we know that there are many times we have fallen short of both our own ideals and the Almighty’s hopes for us as creatures created in the Divine image. At such times it is easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as without merit, or little more than dust and ashes.
At such time it is good to remember that our tradition teaches us that this world is no accident and that our lives are not accidents either. They can have purpose and meaning!
We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world. The world was created for us human beings to use our talents to make the world a better place. Few of us will find the cure for cancer or bring about world peace, but that should not stop each of us from dong something. We each can teach a child to read, help an elderly person cross the street, cook and serve a meal at homeless shelter. The possibilities are endless.
But when we become puffed up in the pride of our accomplishments or even in our acts of kindness, it is good to remind ourselves that as Abraham realized when he addressed the Almighty (Genesis 18:27) we are ”but dust and ashes.”
One of life’s must difficult challenges is to find the balance between conceit and despair. Henry David Thoreau reminded us: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”
I think that it is no accident that, as Bahia ben Asher of Saragossa (13-14th c.) noted the zodiacal symbol for Tishri (next month, the month which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year) is a balance scale. As we count down the weeks toward Rosh Hashanah, our tradition enjoins us to think of our good and evil deeds as weighing equally on the scale of merit, and that our next act will tip the scale of judgment for good or for ill.
Think of the power the image can have. If each of us awakens feeling an urgent need to do a good deed, what an amazingly positive impact our collective actions will have on our families, our communities and our world.