By Daniel Bortz
On the night of August 22, the special Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the high holidays, begins.
In the late 18th century there lived a notable Hassid named Shmuel Munkis. Whenever the high holidays would near on the calendar, Shmuel would prepare to travel to his beloved teacher for the inspiration needed to properly approach these special days. However, this year there was a little problem: Shmuel had no money.
Any poor villager who wanted to travel a great distance, knew he had but one option: Travel by foot, even in the freezing Russian winter. Undeterred, Shmuel set off for the town of his Rabbi. As he trudged along the side of the road under torrents of snow, a wagon pulled up beside him. The driver called out to Shmuel and asked him his destination. Seeing as they were heading in the same path, he told Shmuel to hop on. Lucky as he was to find a ride, he was still forced to sit in the back of the wagon under the open sky, surrounded by the driver’s barrels of liquor. Freezing, he turned to the driver and asked if it would be okay if he took a small drink from one of the barrels. As he sipped from his cup, Shmuel finally began to feel warmth entering his body.
After reaching his destination, Shmuel ran straight into the synagogue and called his friends over to sit with him.
He explained: “I learned something on my way here. I realized that a person can be surrounded by potential warmth. But if he doesn’t internalize that warmth, he will remain cold.”
The most essential things in life are often the most accessible. Take the air we breathe for example. It’s everywhere and it’s free. Yet the more accessible something is, the more we take it for granted. We often take for granted those who are most important to us, such as our family and our spouse. Because they’re always around, we tend to forget how important they are. We see this in our spiritual lives as well. According to Jewish law, next to Yom Kippur, it’s surprising to discover that Shabbat is considered the holiest day of the year. Because we have it every week, however, it’s easy to miss out on its unique spiritual power.
Air may be plentiful, but to enjoy the benefits of the oxygen around us, one must actually breathe it in. Without this simple action, life doesn’t begin. In our lives we are given special moments of potential inspiration and wisdom, waiting to be internalized. The months of Elul and Tishrei are times when unique spiritual opportunities are at our fingertips. God is always close by, but the usual obstacles that challenge our feelings of connection are temporarily lifted at this time. The additional prayers and other traditions of these two months provide additional opportunities to connect with the Divine.
As in the story of Shmuel Munkis and the barrels of liquor, to fully appreciate the moment, we have to drink it in. We can be surrounded by wonderful practices and prayers, witness a moving scene at the Western Wall in Jerusalem or hear inspiring words of wisdom. But if we don’t identify with it, connecting strongly with the message of that moment, then we can’t internalize its warmth.
Spiritual connectivity needs constant internalization to affect our conscious reality. Emunah, or faith, stems from the word amon, meaning craftsman. Like a craftsman who continually labors day and night, it takes continual awareness and work to internalize spiritual ideas. Now’s the time to “hone our craft,” but we shouldn’t stop after the holidays. Moments of inspiration are fleeting and infatuation doesn’t last. Relationships are nurtured through consistent effort and care. Then we will start to feel how our soul and its connection above is as accessible as the air we breathe and as sweet and invigorating as a warm drink on a cold winter’s night.