Elul Reflections: The First Week of School

It was the first week of school in Israel, and as I left my son’s preschool classroom, I could hear him calling after me tearfully through the window, “Don’t leave me, don’t go, Ima. Stay. Stay with me! Don’t go!” There were many other three-year-olds crying that morning – in his preschool, and in preschools nationwide, but as I exited the gate of the schoolyard with a heavy heart, it was his voice that continued to echo in my ears. I had walked less than a block down the busy Jerusalem street when suddenly I heard the long blast of the Shofar, the ram’s horn blown every morning throughout the Hebrew month of Elul and on the High Holidays that follow. The street light changed and the traffic slowed, and in the ensuing moment of stillness, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing – was it the echo of the Shofar, or the echo of my son’s cries?

The rabbis of the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) draw an explicit analogy between the sound of the Shofar and the sound of crying, based on a verse from the Torah: “It shall be a day of sounding [Terua] for you” (Numbers 29:1). They explain the sound of the Terua by reference to another verse in the book of Judges, in which the mother of Sisera, the enemy general, looks out her window anxiously anticipating her son’s return from battle: “Through the window the mother of Sisera peered out and wailed: ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late, the clatter of his wheels?’” The Shofar, we are taught, is supposed to sound like the cries of Sisera’s mother pining for her son. I imagine my son still peering through the window and hoping I’ll come back, and it is as if every Shofar in the city is being sounded at once, in comfort and commiseration.

My son knows that I will come back to pick him up in the afternoon. I told him that over and over on our walk to school this morning, and countless times over the last week. I know he is internalizing my words because yesterday, I heard him playing on the floor with his wooden train set and repeating to himself, “I always come back. I always come back” – his own version of Freud’s Fort Da game, in which the child spools and unspools the threat to enact his mother’s absence and return. But perhaps he believes me only insofar as Isaac believed Abraham when he heard his father say to the lads who had accompanied them to Mount Moriah, “You stay here with the donkey, and I and the boy will go up and worship and then come back to you” (Genesis 22:5). Even Abraham couldn’t possibly have known with certainty that both he and Isaac would come back. In the liturgy of the penitential prayers for the high holidays, we refer repeatedly to Pachad Yitzchak – the fear of Isaac as he lay trembling on the altar, his father poised with the knife just before Abraham hears a voice that causes him to retract and come back. Is this the terror my son feels – the terror that perhaps I won’t come back after all?

According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a), the shofar must come from the horn of a ram so as to remind God of the binding of Isaac. Just as Abraham was about to slaughter his son, a voice called out and told him to withdraw his arm, and then, at that very moment, a ram appeared in the thicket. The rabbis imagine God instructing the people, “Sound the Shofar made from a ram’s horn before me, so that I will remember the binding of Isaac, and I will ascribe it to you as if you had bound yourself before me.” In the morning, when I lead my son to preschool knowing that he will scream in protest when we get there, I try to distract him so he agrees to keep walking. “Look, I see a garbage truck up ahead, let’s go catch up with it,” I tell him, or, “Let’s race to the next bus stop.” But he is too smart for my tricks.

“Are we going to Gan?” he asks suspiciously, and I am reminded of Isaac’s question to Abraham on the walk to Mount Moriah: “Father, here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). My son, too, knows that something is amiss. As I replay those moments of duplicity later in the day, I tell myself that like Abraham, I am driven by the faith that I am doing the right thing after all, my son’s protestations notwithstanding. And yet my heart, like his, is so heavy. God does not need to ascribe it to us as if we had bound ourselves. It feels like we’ve actually done it.

That same penitential prayer in which we refer to the “fear of Isaac” also refers to “the stronghold of the mothers.” Each of these phrases is followed by a refrain – Aneinu, answer us. “Fear of Isaac, answer us. Stronghold of the mothers, answer us.” I realize that both my tearful son and his heavy-hearted mother are voicing the same prayer. Answer us. Please, God. Answer us. In this season of repentance and return, please God, come back.

Throughout the month of Elul, it is traditional to conclude our prayers with Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” The psalmist places trust in God when all alone in the world: “Though my father and mother have left me, the Lord will gather me up.” In the afternoon, when I come to pick up my son, he is no longer peering forlornly through the window, listening for the clatter of the stroller wheels. Instead he is playing on the carpet with plastic farm animals, and in his hand is a Fisher Price ram. When I kneel beside him, he is neither excited nor surprised to see me, because deep down, he knew it all along: I always come back.

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