But at first, it felt like they did.
Av is always a hard month for me and a time when I really struggle to overcome the inner lion roaring to get out.
(Please see How to Deal with the Mazal of Crabby Tammuz and Savage Av for more about Av's "inner lion.")
But mostly, this Av saw me making some progress without the usual lows. I was thrilled because I thought that if Av was going so well, spiritually speaking, then Elul would be amazing.
Only Rosh Chodesh Elul arrived, and I went numb. It wasn’t depression exactly, but just "blah." I even did a few things in the spiritual realm that called for tremendous time, effort, and a certain amount of self-sacrifice. One of them I’d never done before.
I felt good for two minutes after I’d completed these efforts, then things went right back to blah.
I tried all sorts of things, including writing down 20 things for which I was grateful and Pitum Haketoret among other spiritual efforts, acupressure, the proper vitamins...and still no release.
Then I started thinking things that I knew were false and anti-Torah, like maybe this is Heavenly rejection, maybe Hashem doesn’t like me anymore, chas v’shalom.
And yes, I knew this couldn’t possibly be true, yet I fretted about it anyway.
(I realized later that because I've failed this particular challenge before, Hashem was probably throwing it my way again in a last-ditch attempt for me to tackle it before Rosh Hashanah.)
Heartbreakingly, it also seemed that toddlers injured in Av were succumbing to their injuries in Elul.
I felt a lot of din maybe?
Then I started seeing a lot of spiders, including a very big one. In Perek Shira, the spider (smamit) says, “HalleluHu b'tziltzalei shema. HalleluHu b'tziltzilei teruah - Praise Him with resounding cymbals. Praise Him with trumpet blasts” (Tehillim 150:5).
- According to the Metzudah Tehillim, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch explains this verse as "a call to whole groups for attentive participation."
- Metzudat David says tziltzalim (cymbals) produce a sound that travels far.
- Malbim says that teruah (trumpeting) represents fear of punishment (yirat onesh), but this fear will be mixed with joy.
(I believe that some interpret smamit as a small lizard and I saw a couple of geckos along with the spiders. Either way, I got the message: With humility and joy, Praise Hashem LOUD AND CLEAR!)
So all these "singing" spiders and geckos encouraged me to start calling out thanks and praise to Hashem (as per the Sages commentaries on that verse) with myself, with my family members, and on this blog.
(Now you know why you got a big dose of pro-monotheism posts!)
Finally, I decided to say a prayer before randomly opening Volume 1 of Words of Faith by Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender.
It was all about not speaking falsely (even positively) or with any exaggeration of the deceased. I haven’t been speaking about dead people at all recently as far as I could tell, so I did the procedure again with the Volume 2.
It was all about the key to getting past “dry” hitbodedut:
Talk to Hashem like He's your Good, True Friend.
I realized that when I was trying to talk to Hashem, I was being too self-conscious about it. I was being too formulaic and not "real" enough.
I ended up not having any alone-time that day, so I resolved to give it a try the next day.
I also tried to remember that Rav Berland spoke about this, that sometimes you’re not given a good feeling about your spiritual stuff for two reasons:
- Having too much blessing too fast really makes people incredibly stuck on themselves. I’ve seen it happen and it’s a very real concern.
- Sometimes, Hashem just wants us to serve Him from a place of constriction. It’s a way of serving Hashem l’Shem Shamayim. You don’t have all the enthusiasm and flavor and spiritual uplift. You’re only doing it because Hashem said so.
It feels all wrong, but really, constriction is Hashem’s way of earning you and the rest of Am Yisrael a lot of extra merit. In other words, it’s actually a really good thing, even though it feels bad.
So that made me feel a little better.
But I was still out of sorts until I finally had the private time to speak to Hashem. I still got distracted, but I tried to follow the "Good, True Friend" advice by closing my eyes and settling my mind into the idea that right now, I'm talking to Someone who really cares about me, is totally Trustworthy, and Kind, Gentle, and Warm. And eventually it went pretty well and I felt better.
Now Elul is going better. I’m in basically good spirits even as those year-end “This is your last chance to get it right!” nisayonot are rolling in.
So I hope I’ll keep feeling the spiritual flavor of Elul. But if I don’t, I plan to do my best to keep pushing myself along spiritually and trying to feel good about serving Hashem from a place of constriction.
How to Serve Hashem from a Place of Constriction by Rav Berland