The Elul I Never Expected…
by Rabbi Jen Gubitz
In 5771, I missed Elul.
The final Elul of my rabbinical school career, and I missed it. I didn’t even know the significance of the Hebrew month of Elul until my first year at Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem Campus. But in just a few short years, Elul’s absence in the arc of my year was palpable. It was as though I’d purchased an 11-month Hebrew calendar that skipped right from Av to Tishrei.
That year, when I went to lead Rosh HaShanah services for unaffiliated 20- and 30-somethings in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I was undeniably off my A-game. Tefillah, normally one of my strengths, was an oddly detached experience: I missed cues, fumbled Hebrew, and felt empty and exhausted. “It’s OK,” my dear friend and co-leader Rabbi Marc Katz said to me, “I could tell you weren’t totally present because I know you, but I don’t think anyone else noticed.” His pep talk continued, “I’m sure you’ll have your head in the game for Yom Kippur.” The sports metaphors were Marc’s, but an accurate description: Since late August, I had been sidelined, on the disabled list, and now felt like a junior varsity rabbi – a mere spectator with terrible seats to the central experience of the High Holidays.
When what I thought were mosquito bites turned out to be shingles, and a few days off of school to rest and recover became six-plus weeks needed to heal, I turned to Netflix and acupuncture. I watched four seasons of Friday Night Lights (about Texas football – not Shabbat) and slept in 12-hour shifts.
And then I went back to school – too soon – and when post-viral fatigue set in, it wasn’t clear I’d be ready to “compete” in time for Rosh HaShanah. Worried the fatigue would be a lasting symptom, that I would never return to my normal self, I again did not move from my couch for the week prior to the main event and suited up but an hour before services began. They were “good enough,” Marc felt, and while for me – a non-practicing perfectionist who errs on the side of practicing –I was satisfied to have simply gotten through the game.
On the second day of Rosh HaShanah, I awoke. The shingles on my face had more or less healed, and the exhaustion I had known the day before had, in fact, lifted. I still took the next 10 days easy, but on Yom Kippur, in front of 600 people, we hit the proverbial ball out of the park – just as Marc had predicted. During the Amidah standing prayer, facing toward the arc, I caught myself wondering: “If the rabbis are leading the main service across the street, who’s leading this one?” It was a healthy dose of reality.
Enter spiritual director Rabbi Yael.
“Take a deep breath,” she urged. “Find a calming, centering place of being… and tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I missed Elul,” I blurted out. I had been so sick throughout the month of Elul that I had missed every opportunity to teach and learn about Elul – and to really turn myself inside out for a good introspective cleaning.
I told her the trajectory of events that had led up to it: I had spent the summer working as a chaplain intern at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The experience was both amazing and treacherous: A long subway commute in NYC’s sweltering heat combined with the emotionally intense training program stretched me to realms beyond any previous experience. I loved the opportunity to engage with patients, families and staff, and I pushed myself – too hard, it later seemed.
“It’s no wonder you got sick,” Rabbi Yael noted. “But I’m not sure you missed Elul, Jen. I think you just had the Elul you weren’t expecting and never could’ve imagined.”
“But I didn’t get a chance to teach an adult education program about it!” I told her, rattling off a list of other Elul-esque things I’d missed.
“They’ll learn about Elul next year. It’s OK. Really.”
The Elul I wasn’t expecting and never could have imagined likely started the moment I stepped foot into Sloane Kettering. That “turn yourself inside out for a good introspective cleaning” occurred in the intensive learning sessions and intense patient encounters. But sometimes our bodies can teach us and force us to behave in ways that our minds cannot and will not. It seems my body needed both to expel some of what it had learned and to prevent me from doing any further exploration. A cold would’ve been sufficient, I had thought early on, but then, I tried to go back to school before I was well enough, so, no – a cold, it seems, would not have stopped me or adequately forced me to slow down and rest my body.
I was lucky to recover. I still have a few scars and a lot of gratitude to those who cared for me – and I know my illness pales in comparison to much of the suffering our loved ones and congregants experience, or that my Sloane Kettering patients faced daily.
My calendar did not skip Elul in 5771. It was certainly the Elul I never expected and never imagined… but it was an Elul I now cherish.
I’ve got to say, though: It sure was nice to see Elul 5772.
Rabbi Jen Gubitz serves Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA.