I listened to a radio show the other day where doctors discussed how to cope with symptoms that defy diagnosis. A man called in to say that he has had chronic abdominal pain for many years, but no one has been able to figure out the cause. After a few months of tests with inconclusive results, it was suggested that he suffered from chronic pelvic pain syndrome, a disorder that is brought on by stress. The man admitted that he had a lot of stress and anxiety in his life. He decided to just cope with the pain.
“What are you doing to take better care of your life?” the doctor on the radio asked.
“I told you.” The man said. “I went to doctors, they couldn’t figure out exactly what the pain was from, so I decided not to pursue further treatment. I just live with the pain.”
“No, I’m not talking about the symptoms,” said the doctor. “I’m talking about your life - all of the things that are causing you to feel stress and anxiety. What are you doing to take better care of your life?”
That question is one that Judaism poses to us as the month of Elul begins today. We ask ourselves: What are you doing to take better care of your life? What are you doing to find meaning, to share your love, to learn and to grow? How are you making a difference in the world? Are you spending too much time treating symptoms instead of addressing core issues? These are challenging questions, ones that we often feel too busy or overwhelmed to answer. But now is the time to rise above our excuses, and consider who we are, and who we want to become.
When our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh oppressed them with more and more back-breaking work. In his book “Mesillat Yesharim,” the 18th century philosopher Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto says that “Pharaoh’s purpose was not only to prevent the Israelites from having any leisure to make plans or to plot a rebellion, but by subjecting them to unceasing toil, he deprived them also of the opportunity to reflect.” It is through self-reflection and study that we attain spiritual growth. In his commentary to Mesillat Yesharim, Rabbi Ira Stone points out that Luzzatto is focusing on one of the most common types of resistance to growth: busyness. As Rabbi Stone writes:
“Although we are well aware of the psycho-spiritual costs of lacking time for reflection, we seem unable to weaken our resistance to busyness… [Even] leisure has come to mean how one stays busy when the necessary labors of making a living do not fill one’s entire available time… Instead of developing ways to use that time to support the type of reflection that can initiate spiritual growth and change, we have invented a myriad of activities and diversions to which we can devote all of the time we have free from labor. Even the possibility of spending more time with friends and family, formerly precluded by work, is now precluded by other pastimes. And if we are temperamentally averse to such pastimes, and find ourselves with ‘too much time on our hands,’ we end up using it to work even harder. Or we may be required by our employers to work extended hours; in fact, the labor- and time-saving devices of our century have made it possible not just to work less, but to never stop working.”
It’s good to keep busy, but we also must recognize that sometimes keeping busy is a product of our own reluctance to reflect on our lives and our actions.
The ability to do heshbon hanefesh, to take stock in one’s soul, is dependent on having both the time and the quiet to do so. Our tradition understands this, so it designates an entire month, the month of Elul, to remind us of the importance of self-reflection.
Setting aside some time every day - to pray, to study and to reflect - allows us to do heshbon hanefesh, which prepares us to confront life’s big questions, which we grapple with on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Let’s not be our own Pharaoh, but rather give ourselves the gift of time and space to do the important spiritual work of introspection. Then we, too, can think about what we are doing to take better care of our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the life of our community.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.