Ludwig van Beethoven lived from 1770 to 1827. During those fifty-seven years, he composed a ton of music. When he was 28, in a fit of rage he fell and stood up to discover he’d gone deaf. For twenty-nine more years, he wrote his music without being able to hear well or, for the last thirteen years of his life, at all.
One year before he died, Beethoven composed his string Quartet in C-sharp Minor. Upon listening to a performance of this remarkable composition, another celebrated composer, Franz Schubert, remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” The piece is technically and physically demanding work, and must be played without pauses for more than forty minutes. This leaves the musicians with no time to retune their instruments. Done badly then, the piece can end up a mess.
In the film, A Late Quartet, Beethoven’s composition serves as a metaphor for life, and it isn’t a subtle one: “What are we supposed to do?” asks a quartet of musicians preparing to perform the piece. “Stop,” they are advised. “Or adjust to each other” as you’re playing the piece.
Tonight begins the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Elul. These are the twenty-nine days that lead up to Rosh Hashanah. During them, Jewish tradition challenges us to get ready for teshuvah, the process of turning – of recalibrating our lives for the better – in the year-to-come.
The days of Elul seem to me not unlike Beethoven’s string quartet. School has begun, we’re back to work after summer vacation, we never stopped working at all, or taking care of our kids, or any number of jobs and responsibilities that prevent us from ever slowing down enough to take the time and review how we’ve been doing.
But that’s what Elul’s supposed to be for! During these four weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, we’re to take stock of the kind of person we’ve been in the past year. We identify where we’ve fallen short. Have we been kind enough? Have we been generous enough? Have we been selfless enough? And even, have we taken enough care of ourselves?
All of these questions need answers before we enter the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because there’s important, serious and not very easy work to be done in there. We’ve all made some mistakes in the past twelve months. Maybe lots of them. By the time we enter that room, we really need to know what each of us is dealing with. In that way, we can spend time thinking of ways to be better, kinder, more compassionate and just human beings. We don’t want to simply acknowledge our shortcomings during the High Holy Days services; we need strategies for overcoming those shortcomings.
Yesterday morning, while reaching over a counter to open up a window, I pulled a muscle in my back. It really hurt. It got so bad as the day wore on that I had to lie still for most of the day. So I had a lot of time to think. Which is kind of interesting, owing to it being Elul and thinking is what I’m supposed to be doing.
Here are my two significant thoughts from yesterday. First, it took a temporary but debilitating condition to carve out time for me to do my Elul work. And second, that pulled muscle demanded of me my full attention. I couldn’t say I was too busy; the pain relieved me of that excuse. But the pulled muscles of our souls, the debilitating condition of our spirits, that’s much easier to ignore. I received a gift – a mixed bag, to be sure – of uninterrupted time to ponder the questions posed by Elul. But what am I gonna do tomorrow, when I’m not stuck in bed? What will any of us do with these twenty-nine days?
In Islam, the month of Ramadan serves much the same purpose as our month of Elul. But Muslims have many rituals – including the pre-dawn meal and prayers of suhoor, and the sunset prayers and meal of iftar, and of course the day-long fast – all to focus them on the spiritual meaning of the Muslim relationship with God.
You and I have the same month, same opportunities, and an occasional blast of the shofar to remind us the High Holy Days are coming.
This fragile world of ours needs good people to take care of it and to make it a safe home for all. Goodness isn’t an impossible task. But it does take work. More than anything, it takes resolve, telling ourselves over and over again, for a lifetime in fact, “I want to be a good person. I will be a good person.”
May these reminders never hurt like a pinched muscle. And even though the challenge never ends … just like Beethoven’s string quartet, may we be ever able to retune our instrument – our bodies, our words, our actions. And may we use this gift of the month of Elul to get ourselves ready so that, when we enter into Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah — the Ten Awesome Days of Turing — only a few weeks from now, we make the best use of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, helping one another to become the gracious, understanding, loving people that God wants us to be.
L’shana tovah … may it be a year of goodness for each of us, because we made it so for all of us.