This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.
We hear it variations on the theme all the time – “dare to be different”, “think outside the box”, “take risks”. It’s become a cultural mantra.
It’s also become so vague as to be nearly meaningless.
What does it mean to “dare”, or to be “daring”. Is it like that scene from “Christmas Story”: “I dare you”, “I double dare you”, “I DOUBLE DOG DARE YOU!”.
Years ago I was in an acting class, and we were encouraged to take risks. The trick, our teachers told us, was understanding the difference between a risk and a sure thing.
“Please understand,” one instructor confided, “Jumping off the Empire State Building is not a risk. It’s a sure thing. You’re gonna die.”
There’s no such thing as an un-calculated risk, but there are definitely times when the level of daring-do that we feel is out of proportion to the reality.
I remember the first time a particular person joined our minyan in the morning. He was exploring a new-found interested in his Judaism. While he had put on tallit and tefillin as part of a class, and in tentative attempts to pray at home, he had never done so in an actual minyan.
He was sweating bullets.
I found this incredible for a very particular reason, and told him so:
“I don’t understand. You are actually a brain surgeon. Every day, you go to work and crack people’s skull open and you poke at their grey matter. One sneeze and they’d be a vegetable. But this makes you nervous?”
He smiled sheepishly and muttered something about feeling like this (tefillin) was more risky than anything he had done in the operating theater.
To his credit, he showed up – and kept showing up – and eventually felt more at ease. But even today you can see in his face the gravity that he feels when putting on those leather boxes. It’s not a simple matter to him.
As we head toward the end of Elul and prepare to face God and be called into account for our actions, I think it’s important to understand the level of risk we are facing.
I can’t say for certain that there’s nothing at stake – that (as I mentioned a few days ago) as long as we show up all will be forgiven.
Even so, I believe that part of the point of Elul is to teach us that we dare not take the coming Days of Awe lightly.