This is the end of Elul, the last full week before Rosh HaShanah, and the time to ask what Rav Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) calls the “final and ultimate” human question: “Lamah li chayim?” — “What is the meaning of my life?” What is the point of it all? What should drive us? No amount of empirical evidence can answer these questions; we generally avoid them.
The week of introspection starts with Ki Tavo (“when you enter the land”), which chasidic tradition treats metaphorically: not “the land of Israel” but “the inner landscape of our souls,” which we ought to enter, this final week of Elul. Only there will we find the secret of life’s meaning.
Tradition calls this internal audit of the soul teshuvah, “repentance,” a common enough term, but a problematic one, apparently, because so many of us mouth it mechanically without taking it seriously. The same is true of related terms like “sin” and “divine judgment.” Our ancestors quaked at the prospect of facing God on judgment day. We do not. We need help in understanding the High Holiday complex of ideas as something to take with all due seriousness.
I get that help from Rav Nachman, who insisted on the question, “What is the meaning of my life?” to start with. No one could be more “traditional” (he was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov); yet no one rivals him for insight into the human condition.
Why are we alive? Simply this, he says: to act righteously. All our High Holiday prayers are intended to help us observe the Torah in all its fullness. Different Jews may argue about what counts as “fullness,” but whatever we think the Torah demands, we can all agree, with Rav Nachman, that the point of Torah is righteousness. Righteousness, moreover, is what we naturally want to do, he insists, for in us all, “There exists a precious point of goodness that wants only to do God’s will.” We really want to do the right thing.
Toward that end, Rav Nachman advises psalms, especially those that request protection from our enemies, but not because of the specific enemies whom the psalms specify. These, he warns, are just projections of the real enemies within, the forces of negativity inside ourselves. We are our own worst enemy.
The inner demons that get in our way are our unacknowledged fears: loss of love, failure, loneliness, sickness, aging, and so on; as Rav Nachman more famously says: “The world is a narrow bridge: the main thing is not to be afraid.”
We conquer fears by “hitbodedut,” a kind of serious solitude, in which we pour out the deepest yearnings of our heart to God; not in formal prayer, he warns, and not even in Hebrew, but in the vernacular, the language we naturally speak, and the only hope of finding words to match our inner state.
Rav Nachman distinguishes ordinary healers of his day from trained students of human anatomy. Only anatomical experts can know the etiology and cure of a disease. Similarly, without going deeply into our internal landscape, we will never understand the soul-sickness within us.
All of this should ring true: sin as the things we do wrong because of deep-seated fears that lead us astray; prayer as the vocalization of those anxieties; human nature that naturally strives for the good; Rosh HaShanah as a time to reaffirm the reason to be alive.
This Shabbat, we “enter the land” of our soul, hoping to greet the coming new year as studied experts on the things we do to our own selves that impede our natural pursuit of righteousness. The High Holiday liturgy is rich in words, to prompt a deeper understanding of our inner selves. Psalms especially can direct us on our inward journey. And if we miss a few prayers while taking private time for hitbodedut and the outcry of our own hearts, so much the better.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.