Caught in the Mirror of Jewish Texts Before the High Holy Days

Yom Kippur came early for me this year. It was one of the last weekends of the summer at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where my wife serves as educational director. An extraordinarily skilled Bible teacher, Aron Freidenreich, was giving a class for the rabbis, staff and spouses who were up for the weekend. He was presenting a story from the Book of Kings, in which the Prophet Elijah gets carried away with his zealousness for the Lord, kills a bunch of idolators, and gets fired from his job by God.

I've taught and studied a lot of Jewish texts over the course of my almost twenty year career as a professor and Hillel Director, but that text, and the way that it was presented, shook me to the core.

Elijah is a beloved figure in Judaism, whom we imagine is present at moments of great celebration. We sing about him when we bid farewell to the Sabbath and usher in the work week. We leave a brimming cup of wine for him toward the end of our Passover seder and open the door with great ceremony to allow him to enter. And we reserve a chair for him at every brit milah (circumcision ceremony). Furthermore, there are dozens of stories of Elijah as a miracle worker, assisting rabbis to solve difficult legal conundrums, rescuing Jews in distress, and presaging the coming of the messiah. But, as Mr. Freidenreich emphasized, Elijah had violent tendencies, and his early career was a rocky one.

As it is written in the First Book of Kings (1 Kings 19), Elijah massacres 450 Israelite prophets who are worshipping Baal and then is forced to flee for his life from Queen Jezebel. He ends up on Mount Horeb where God questions him about what he is doing there. Elijah insists that he has killed in God's name and seems to think that he deserves to be rewarded rather than turned into an outcast.

God puts on a show for Elijah, displaying a series of three cataclysmic events--a hurricane, earthquake and fire. But He makes it clear that He is "not in" these natural disasters. Elijah fails to get the point, though, that God does not condone senseless destruction. Thereupon, God tells Elijah to appoint Elisha in his place--a man who, in stark contrast to Elijah's narcissism, agrees to become a prophet only after kissing his parents goodbye and feeding his people.

That night, my wife and I were having an argument that was no different from dozens of arguments that we have had before. But I suddenly saw myself reflected in her eyes not as myself but as Elijah. I realized that I needed, on a much more consistent basis, to think more about her feelings and less about my own. I needed to be less like Elijah and more like Elisha. Even when I was most convinced that I was in the right, I might actually be totally (and perhaps even quite disastrously) wrong.

What would it be like to truly see our own psychological conflicts mirrored in the texts of the Torah? Many Jews pay close attention to the words of the Torah only on the High Holy Days. But the readings chosen for the Days of Awe, especially for Rosh Hashanah, are nothing if not bizarre. On both days of the New Year, "Our Father" Abraham commits a horrendous act of child abuse for which, in our own society, he would likely be arrested and put in jail.

On the first day, he sends his eldest son, Ishmael, to die in the wilderness. On the second day, he takes his youngest son, Isaac, up a mountain, ties him up, and prepares to murder him. And God, rather than refusing to accept such behavior, has inspired it in the first place! On the High Holy Days, we are instructed to put our lives in the hands of a deity who brought out our ancestors' worst and most destructive impulses. But perhaps this is exactly the point; as in the Elijah story, we are meant to wrestle with parts of ourselves that normally struggle to keep at bay. If we see God as many secular Jews do, as essentially a literary character, it makes sense that God is also a projection of our own best and worst selves.

My favorite religious ritual of the High Holy Days isn't listening to the shofar calling me to account for my misdeeds, casting breadcrumbs on a body of water to simulate the jettisoning of my sins, or chanting the haunting Kol Nidrei to absolve myself of the vows that I know that I will make and fail to honor. These all seem like ways of pretending to do the work of becoming a better person while only approaching this task in a metaphorical way. No, my favorite custom is that of going around to ask people whom I have wronged for forgiveness before Yom Kippur. Because my friends and family live all over the country, I tend to do this by phone (sometimes, I blush to say, by text, email or Facebook message).

I'm wondering what it would be like to look into their eyes. Will I be able to handle what I see? Or are there parts of myself that, like Elijah, I would rather not have to face?