There’s a lot to learn during summer vacation
“Imma,” asked Noam, our youngest at 5, “Can I get a new backpack for school and a Spiderman pencil case like Yair? And on the first day I want a chocolate sandwich on a big roll, with chocolate milk and, um, an apple. Or grapes. And can Abba bring me home? Or can I go to Eli’s house afterwards?”
I was leaning down in front of Noam teaching him how to tie his shoes. This will be his first year in kindergarten, a big step for the youngest in the house, and even though school is still several weeks away, there is a lot to do, like learning how to tie your shoes. I put on music, educational music, catchy rhymes in catchy tunes that are perfect for a little boy getting ready for kindergarten. The last song described the aleph-bet, this one the holidays.
“Imma, how soon is Tishrei,” asked Noam, with hardly time to catch his breathY “That is when we have Rosh Hashana!” He started humming, and doesn’t seem to need an answer, but my mind answers the question anyway. It’s now Elul, the last month in the year. Tishrei is the next month, the first month of the new year, the month of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as well as Sukkos, and Shmini Atzeret; the month most focused on repentance and teshuva.
But Elul, is an important month, too, with a special place in the Jewish calendar as it leads up to Tishrei. But that’s not the only reason. In the time of Moses, G-d showed special mercy for His people during Elul, and according to tradition, ever since the Israelites first left Egypt and entered into a special covenant with Hashem, Elul has remained a time when G-d is particularly open to us, showing his full compassion and mercy.
Noam was singing with the music, and as I turned around, I bumped right into Yair.
“Imma, come play with me,” Yair, implored. He had just gotten a new board game for bringing home an excellent report card, and he was eager to play with anyone even remotely willing. The trouble was: no one else seemed excited to play, and somehow I became Yair’s most convenient partner. It’s not that I don’t like games, I do. But it was a Thursday, a busy Thursday in a busy week, in a busy month that was flowing fast towards September and the beginning of a new school year.
“Come on, Imma”, sweet Yair asked as he held the game, bouncing gently up and down on the balls of his feet, moving impatiently. “Please can we play, just for a little while?”
Every year, as the summer winds down, I start to think about this special time in the calendar. I think about Hashem, of course, and of teshuva. But I also think about the honey cakes that need to be baked, the special challahs prepared, the apples sliced, and pomegranates purchased. As if holiday meal planning isn’t enough to grab my attention, I wonder who needs new shirts, and pants, and shoes for the holidays. Oh, and new school supplies, too, as I know the markers have dried out and many of the erasers, rulers, and pencils gone missing.
“I-mma!,” Yair calls, plaintively. His cheeks are pink and he looks at me with such love and hope and expectation, and I am filled with a burst of love for him, remembering just then to call the dentist for checkups. “It’s going to get even busier as we rush towards Tishrei,” I think to myself.
You see, Elul falls towards the end of our hot Israeli summers, when the kids’ activities have ended, and they are starting to get weary, not yet excited for school to begin again. Everyone is a little on edge, a little bored, a little impatient. “Hot and cranky,” my neighbor Miriam calls it, as if everyone, both kids and parents, seem to be waiting for something. Parents, I know, are often counting the days ‘til the kids go back to school and yeshiva and gan. Of course they enjoyed having the little ones at home, but it has meant a lot of juggling to keep them busy, the freezer stocked with ice pops, the house cool, and now the promise of September looks pretty inviting.
“Come on, Imma,” petitions Yair, as he very gently, almost imperceptivity, stamps his foot.
While the older boys are studying in yeshiva and serving in the army, the younger three are at home, done with their camps and special summer activities. It has been a great summer, but the boys are getting a wee bit whiney and kvetchy, needing a bit more help from me to keep active and happy. Normally, being with the kids is one of my most favorite things, and you can find me on the floor doing puzzles, sitting next to Yair or Noam and even Avi reading, turning on the sprinkler in the garden for a bit of water play, making funny shapes in the pancakes that we have mixed and stirred together.
I hang up the phone, and there stands Yair, silently holding the game in both his hands, looking up at me, but the color has gone from his cheeks, the hope gone from his eyes. Some people say Elul is like a dress rehearsal for Tishrei, with its focus on repentance and for making teshuva, apologizing sincerely to Hashem and to those you have hurt.
I get down on one knee, eye-to-eye with Yair. “Hey, sweetie, I’m sorry. I got so distracted, I forgot for a few minutes that we were going to play your new game. I am so proud of you for doing well in school! Your marks were great, and I know you worked hard to get them. I love you very much, and I’m sorry I got busy with other things and made you wait so long to play! Please forgive me!” I reached over and hugged him tightly, and I felt his anger slide away. And as it did, I felt my own tension slip to the floor, replaced with love and patience and special compassion.