Let’s move away from being Elul Jews

  • Howard Feldman 2018
I was at the gym in Melrose Arch, talking to a friend on my cellphone while ordering a (double) espresso. With one hand, I picked up the cup, squeezed the phone between my ear and my shoulder, bent down to pick up my gym bag, and started to walk towards the exit. Just as I got to the turnstile, I realised that I hadn’t paid for the (double) espresso, so I turned around and walked back in order to do so.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Aug 23, 2018

“Stealing a coffee!” said my friend who was still on the phone. “During Elul! That’s terrible!”

“No,” I answered, “the theft of the coffee is the issue, not the month. I suspect that we shouldn’t be thieving coffees any month of the year. Not only Elul.”

He was shamed into silence, and I realised how much “Elul Jews” irritate me.

It doesn’t take a Rabbi to remind us that we shouldn’t be stealing in the months of Tishrei, Sivan, or Adar for that matter. And yet somehow…

Elul is the Jewish month that proceeds the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Sephardim in our community start to say the daily prayer of slichot (literally meaning apologies), with Jews of Ashkenazi descent starting the week before. Everyone tries to up the game in all other areas of observance. I assume this includes refraining from walking out of the gym without having paid for the (double) espresso, as you might have done in Tishrei, Sivan, or Adar.

I don’t doubt the value of trying a bit harder. I don’t doubt that it is helpful every year to “reboot”, and pull back on the things that we might have let slide. But I do have a problem with adhering to an ethical standard during a month of the year, plus the 10 days that culminate with Yom Kippur.

We live in a country that has hovered on moral bankruptcy. The Zuma presidency contaminated everything it touched. It became infused into the psyche of the populace, and no one was spared. Behavioural economics expert, Professor Dan Ariely shows in his research that one of the most significant influences on our ethical standard is the environment in which we operate – whether that be family, business, community, or the country. If those like us are corrupt, then it is likely that we will also be corrupt. Most of us do as everyone else does, and it takes a massive effort to resist the descent into corruption.

With the changing of the ANC guard comes the opportunity to examine our own behaviour and morality. None of us is unconflicted, and none of us is beyond reproach. There is a (double) espresso somewhere that we have not paid for.

It has nothing to do with Elul, and everything to do with aspiration about who we want to be, as individuals, as a family, as a Jewish community, and as South Africans. If our morality is dependent on the month of the lunar calendar, then the problem might well be worse than we think.

I paid for my (double) espresso, and explained to the cashier that I was not doing so because it was Elul. In fact, I insisted I was doing this despite it being Elul. It had nothing to do with Elul, and I resented her thinking it was. She looked at me, nodded slowly, took my money, and shrugged at her co-worker with an expression that said: “They just get stranger and stranger.”


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