I said to a man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown”,
and he replied, “Go out into the darkness,
and put your hand in the hand of G-d,
that shall be to you better than light, and safer than the known way.
– Minnie Louise Haskins (quoted in the King’s message of 1939)
Responsibility and Relaxation
Bex Stern Rosenblatt
We spend the month of Elul on self-reflection. We hold ourselves accountable for what we have done and find ways to make amends to others. It is a time of accepting responsibility for all of our actions, our thoughts, and our faults. We take stock of ourselves, painting as accurate a picture as possible so that we may change, may acknowledge who we have been, and become who we would like to be.
It is not easy to live with this level of responsibility and self-awareness. It is not always pleasant to embrace the notion that the decisions you have made have led you to the life you now lead. It is a necessary step, however, in changing who you are.
This week’s haftarah provides a moment of relief from the self-accounting in which we are engaged. Coming as the sixth of seven haftarot of consolation after Tisha B’av, this haftarah describes a moment in which we have already become the people we want to be. Returned to our land after the exile, wealthy, healthy, and served by those who once oppressed us, we are living our best life. But the most striking thing about reading this haftarah is that we do not have to do anything to achieve this vision. Yes, we suffered during exile. But now, the responsibility belongs to God. We can sit back, relax, and watch as, in Robert Alter’s translation, we “see and gleam, and your heart shall throb and swell, for the sea’s bounty shall be yours, the wealth of nations shall come to you.”
It is not only that the work will be done by others, that those for whom we once worked will become our workers, but also that we will no longer be slaves even to nature: “No more shall the sun be your light by day, nor the moon’s radiance shine for you, but the LORD shall be your everlasting light and your God become your splendor.” Freed from the vicissitude of day and night, we will have only the light of God. We will no longer have the responsibility to choose not to worship false gods of nature because we will see only God. The distance that was established during creation, when God created many things before creating humans, will be erased as the sun and moon disappear and God, Godself, becomes our light.
There are easy ways to reconcile the notion of accepting responsibility during Elul with the reading of total dependence on God found in this week’s haftarah. We could understand it as describing the same thing, as describing achieving agency through understanding God’s will. But this week, I choose to read it as a prescription for rest. Even in this month of Elul, in this month of responsibility, we still read the haftarot of consolation. We still take moments out of our attempt at personal responsibility to let God bear the weight of the world on God’s shoulders.