Introducing the Yamim Noraim Theme for 5778

This week’s eclipse can help us set the theme for the High Holiday season ahead.

The Talmud (TB Succah 29a) attributes the incidence of a solar eclipse to a few possible causes, each of them failures of humankind. This poses a basic problem, as science teaches us that solar eclipses are completely predictable centuries in advance. How then can they be understood as reactions to contemporary failures?

Maharal of Prague (Be’er HaGolah 6:2) explained that the Talmud is not explaining a specific incidence of solar eclipse, but rather giving the underlying reason for the existence of that phenomenon within nature. This, he says, similar to the human failures listed by the Talmud, is an expression of the necessarily imperfect nature of all creatures. The sun, after all, is the most powerful force in the physical world, yet it itself is limited and eclipsed by the moon. Evidently nothing in this material world is perfect.

This recognition of our imperfection lies at the foundation of the work we are embarking upon with the announcement of the onset of the month of Elul. Our Sages (Midrash Tehillim 81) saw in the Shofar a call to improvement, to address our imperfections, שפרו מעשיכם, portraying the word ‘Shofar’ as related to its Aramaic meaning, i.e. to beautify and improve, to make more perfect.

Indeed, the season of Elul overlaps another season, the שבעה דנחמתא, the seven weeks of consolation following the intense grief of Tisha b’Av. The Talmud (TB Bava Basra 60b) tells of the many people who, after the Temple’s destruction, did not wish to partake of any meat and wine at all. After all, these foods were no longer being offered to G-d; why should we be able to enjoy them? The Sages, however, discouraged them from this practice.

Yes, they taught, during the Nine Days, when we are to be singularly focused on our losses, we avoid meat and wine. But otherwise, we should partake.

What we are to avoid – all the time – is material perfection. Our houses should not be perfectly finished, our tables not perfectly adorned, our brides and grooms not perfectly dressed. We must recognize that we live in an imperfect world, that we ourselves are imperfect. But we must not believe that all is lost, because as soon as we do that, we despair of ever fixing it.

Our consolation during this period is not accomplished by G-d telling us, “Don’t worry, in the end it will all be fine.” What He does tell us is not to despair, that ultimately our world is fixable.  We can make it fine.

We can glean additional critical perspective on our quest and struggle for perfection from the consolation G-d offered us after the destruction of the Mabul, the Flood. The entire sequence is deeply puzzling. Originally (Bereishis 6:5), G-d explains that He will destroy the world because he has observed the overwhelming evil of man in the world, and that “all of the direction of his heart’s thoughts are only evil all the time.” Yet after the flood he uses virtually the same description to explain why he will never destroy it again, as it says (Bereishis 8:21), “G-d said, I will never again destroy the world on account of man, for the direction of the heart of man is evil from his youth.”

How can the preponderance of man’s evil be the reason for both the destruction and the salvation of the world?

A closer reading demonstrates the enormous difference. You see, the real change was that Adam had started off perfect in a perfect world, and he had taken that perfect world and his own perfect self, and he had ruined them. G-d was deeply dismayed that at this point the drives of man had become “evil all the time” when they had once been so good. With Gan Eden as the starting point, man’s fall was devastating.

Noah, on the other hand, did not start off in Paradise. Far from it. Noah was born into a corrupted world. Instead of destroying a perfect world, Noah had salvaged and started to build “something from nothing”. For Noah and the world that developed from him, their saving grace was that the depravity of man was there “from his youth”, i.e. it was his initial condition. There was only one direction his world could go in and that was up.

As such, instead of viewing our imperfections as what we have destroyed, G-d now views our every accomplishment as growth.

What sometimes stands in the way of our efforts to improve ourselves is our inability to see the need for improvement, to recognize our imperfections. At other times what stands in our way is a feeling of hopelessness, of being overwhelmed by imperfection. Both are challenges that we need to overcome if we are to move forward in improving ourselves. The comfort granted Noah, and the comfort granted us since Tisha b’Av, tells us to see our imperfections, but to see them as our challenge and our opportunity to address and improve, to build our better selves and a better world.

שפרו מעשיכם. Let us begin to make things better.