As we set out
Every year, I set out. And every year, I find myself beset by the same enemies. I encounter my impatience and ego. I re-discover my desire for control, and encounter again my behaviors, like stress eating, that seem to always be my traveling companions. I work through Elul to change, but now find myself at the next year, still setting out on the same journey.
Change requires something different. I am armed: I have intelligence, and understanding, and at least a modicum of faith. For me, faith is connected with an inner compass that knows I have strayed, am out of balance, lacking in wholeness. That inner sense reminds me sometimes loudly and sometimes in a still small voice that I'm on the wrong track (again). It alerts me when I find my path, however briefly, and reminds me that there is a path at all.
The Torah says twice: when you go out to war. On one level, the Torah offers an ethic of war that is a gift to modernity by offering an ethic even amid the necessity of violence. Yet on another level, Torah offers an inner process to lasting change, realizing that the work continues year after year. When you go out to war. Every year, every day, there is the struggle towards wholeness, towards connecting with that inner voice that reminds us who we want to be.
Next, the Torah offers instructions should you take a female captive. Here, Torah introduces the first effort at humanizing the captive and creating checks and delays to violence and abuse. It is an intriguing view into the ancient mind. This female captive is shaved, her nails cut, she wears something new. It takes away her exotic nature and removes the erotic of the captured object. Now the capturer must wait a month and then decide: is she kept or returned home? By our standards, sexist beyond words. But in that place and time, the first effort at rights adhering even to female captives.
That inner struggle that we have also may include taking a captive. We may take hold of our self-destructive behavior, our hurtful acts, our misdirected emotion, and we see it for what it really is. I'm eating only out of stress. I'm getting impatient because I feel powerless. Now we are ready to decide. My stress eating? That has to be sent away. My anxiety about the future? Stripped of its destructive allure, there is something holy in that anxiety. I need to accept it, integrate it, make it a part of my own now revealed wholeness.
We need this whole month leading to Yom Kippur because the process takes time and self-honesty. Further, the language of the Torah repeats to remind us that this is an iterative process. Each year, I encounter my self again and while I may have grown, there is still more to do, still a journey of the self that calls out to me.
This Elul, may we be granted the strength and the wisdom to set out on this much-needed inner process, so that we arrive at Yom Kippur ready to release our own inner captives and so be healed and transformed.
What are you doing to get ready?