A Torah Jew has basically two options available for dealing with momentous events. He can attempt to read the cosmic significance of the events in light of the Torah and the words of our Sages. Or he can opt for a more modest approach that uses current events as hints and metaphors for larger issues.
Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman was capable of the first approach, but there are few in our day to claim his mantle, and certainly no one plying his trade as a weekly columnist. Only a scholar of Rabbi Wasserman’s stature, thoroughly grounded in the entire Torah, could hope to pierce through the labyrinth of current events to understand the deeper workings of Divine Providence. Anyone who tries to do so without that grounding risks ending up as a false prophet.
In the realm of metaphor, however, the dangers of mistake are far less: Even if the metaphor does not work completely, the message can be true.
The first shofar blast of the month of Elul have been sounded – the Shofar blasts that awaken us from our slumber. They confront us with a question: How did what was supposed to be the year, filled with growth in every area, become just another year lost in the quotidian struggle to get through the day?
This year, however, the question, "Where did we go wrong?" is not confined to those who hear the Shofar. Everyone is asking the question; a national commission of inquiry is demanded to supply the answers.
The failures, both military and political, of the war have triggered a degree of soul-searching in Israeli society not seen since 1973. Ari Shavit, in Ha’aretz, has been withering on our "low level of national leadership." But he did not stop there. His indictment extends to all of Israeli society, or at least to the elites of capital, media, and academia who "blinded Israel and deprived it of its spirit. . . . They deceived themselves and those around them that Tel Aviv is in fact Manhattan. Money is in fact everything. And thus they bequeathed to young Israelis a legacy of values that makes it very difficult for them to attack even when the attack is fully justified."
I've suggested that the habit of always asking "What’s in it for me?" robbed our leaders of their very ability to think clearly and focus on national objectives. On a personal level, they should be asking themselves: For what ideals – if any – did I originally seek power? What were my goals beyond self-aggrandizement?
But those questions are not limited to our political leaders. They are the ones each of us must focus on in Elul: What is the purpose of my life? For what role was I uniquely created?
A mere declaration of goals is insufficient? Prime Minister Olmert enunciated a set of clear goals in the immediate aftermath of Hizbullah’s cross border attack on July 12: (1) bring the kidnapped soldiers home; (2) remove Hizbullah’s missiles to prevent them from holding the population of the North captive; and (3) destroy Hizbullah’s operational capacities. The first two goals were not achieved at all – the kidnapped soldiers are still being held in an unknown hiding place and Hizbullah rained down more than 250 missiles on the last day of fighting – and the third only to a very limited degree.
The reason for that failure is simple. During the six years that Hizbullah was busy amassing its arsenal of more than 12,000 missiles, the IDF never developed an operational plan for dealing with that threat in the event of a Hizbullah attack. Without a plan of action, the prime minister’s declaration of goals proved useless.
In the same way, Elul requires not just the formulation of goals, but serious thought about how to attain them. Absent a detailed plan of the steps from where we are now to where we want to go, we will end up suffering the same humiliation as the prime minister.
Prime Minister Olmert’s tough talk and bold promises only made the failure to attain any of his originally stated goals that much more glaring. When he declared "unprecedented achievements" even as the katyushas continued to fall by the hundreds, he made himself into a laughingstock.
We too would be well-advised when formulating an action plan for the coming year to follow the Sages advice: Say little and do much. Setting unattainable goals for ourselves reflects our lack of seriousness, and only makes it more likely that we will abandon the quest for improvement at the starting gate. Setting unrealistic goals guarantees failure, and failure engenders a cynicism inimical to all future efforts at improvement.
The public is calling for the heads of the prime minister, defense minister, and chief of staff. Their culpability may be very great, but they cannot be blamed for the fact that Hizbullah was allowed to amass 12,000 missiles since 2000. The existence of those missiles was more or less well-known.
No Israeli government could have acted proactively against the missiles or Hizbullah’s infrastructure without facing a popular revolt and widespread refusal to serve. The same Israeli public, led by the Four Mothers, that demanded complete withdrawal from Lebanon, would have resisted any reentry. Just five days before the outbreak of war, Ha’aretz’s Aluf Benn, one of the country’s most respected columnists, announced that Hizbullah’s missiles posed no threat because Nasrallah had shown himself to be a realistic political leader.
That attitude that everything is hunky-dory until suddenly it isn’t plagues us in our private lives as well. We ignore the internal gyroscope alerting us that our spiritual state is not what it should be. As long as our neighbors’ still view us as upholders of the communal norms, as long as the emptiness inside has not yet expressed itself in deviant actions, we remain complacent.
Elul is the antidote to the lures of complacency; its bids us to recognize that our spiritual shortcomings constitute a real and present danger, like a hairline crack on the wheel axle of a truck.
Better that we should conduct our own private commission of inquiry this Elul than that we should have one forced upon us.