Elul: The Secret to Change

by Sara Debbie Gutfreund

When you don’t know where to begin, start here.
I’m standing at the edge of the boat with a heavy air tank on my back. The ocean glitters in the late afternoon sun like a mirror of fire. I thought I was ready, but now I’m not so sure. I learned how to breathe, how to communicate with my hands, how to stay calm as I descend to the ocean floor, but now all I can think about is how heavy the tank is and how helpless I will be underneath its weight.

The instructor yells to me, his voice muffled by the wind. “Ok, now fall backwards into the water.” I hesitate. How far down will I sink? The unfamiliar depths are invisible as I stare for one more moment at the choppy surface that is crashing into the boat and spraying my feet with ice cold water. But I don’t want to hold up the group. I don’t want to be the only one who can’t just turn around and let go. So I do it.

I fall backward off the edge of the boat, and I drop further and further toward the bottom of the ocean. I remember how to breathe. I watch the other divers drop and swim around me like graceful shadows. I see clusters of coral reefs with thousands of multi-colored fish racing through them. I watch a huge sea turtle slowly wading through the water. And above me, I see the other-worldly glow of light that dances upon the surface of the ocean. It seems so far away now, that world above us. Here, at the bottom of the ocean, it’s so quiet I can hear the beating of my own heart. I can’t believe that just yesterday, I didn’t even know life went this deep. I can’t believe that I almost refused to let go, to fall backward, to trust that I would remember how to breathe.
When the Hebrew month of Elul arrives, I feel like I did at that moment, standing on the edge of the scuba diving boat. Because God is coming closer to us every day of this month. He is beckoning us to look below the surface and fall backwards into His arms. I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me. He wants us to let go and trust Him. To use the power of His love for us to grow and change. But where do we begin?

I used to think that change began with strengthening willpower. But willpower can sometimes ebb and flow depending on how tired, how hungry, how lonely we feel. So maybe change begins with changing one small habit? I’ve done that, and it’s true that in one month, most of us can successfully change one small habit. But Elul can be so much more than that. God is giving us a chance to see a whole new world this month. A magical, warm, beautiful place that has all year been just below the surface of our everyday lives. He wants us to feel how much He loves us. He wants us to notice the miracle of every breath we take. He wants us to notice the beauty of the afternoon light when it dances upon the surface. He wants us to hear the beating of our own hearts.
So how do we get below the surface? Rav Noah Weinberg ztz”l used to ask a simple yet fascinating question: If you put an envelope full of a million dollars in a homeless person’s cart, but he doesn’t realize that it’s there: Is he rich or poor? If you have thousands of gifts in your life that you are too distracted or depressed to see, do you really have those gifts at all? Technically, the homeless person with the million dollar envelope is rich. And you do still have thousands of gifts in your life even if you don’t notice them. But if you don’t look inside the envelope, you can’t use what you have. And this may be where we can begin. It is perhaps the greatest secret to change: gratitude.

Because when we are grateful, we feel connected. This is the month of building connections. To God. To each other. To life. And when we are grateful, we know what we have. And we notice all the gifts in our lives, we can use them to grow. So this is the month to say thank You. For the first breath that you take when you awaken each day. For your legs. Your arms. Your eyes. Your ears. Your life. For the light of the rising sun and for the hundreds of acts of kindness that He performs for us without us even knowing about them. The car accident that didn’t happen because you were five minutes late. The life threatening disease that turned out to be benign. The lego piece that your toddler didn’t choke on. The horrific decree that was distilled instead into a series of minor inconveniences and traffic jams. Thank You for all the goodness and the compassion that You weave into my life.
Thank You for the oceans and the mountains. The trees and the grass and the color of the twilight- drenched summer sky. Thank You for the friends, the family, and the kind stranger who picked up the dropped keys. Thank You for hope and potential and new beginnings. Thank You for this month of closeness and light. For teaching us how to fall backwards into Your Arms, to let go of our fears, to breathe in the darkness.

I can’t believe that yesterday I didn’t even know this world existed. I didn’t even see what was inside the envelope. I didn’t even know how much You love me. Now I know. And that changes everything.

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