I have always been enamoured with time travel movies. Some of my all-time favourites explore the concept in different ways.
The Hollywood classic Back to the Future hinges on the ripple effects for the future created by trying to change the past. The cult classic Donnie Darko uses the framework of Donnie’s psychological introspection to create a tangent universe that resolves the problems in the world. Run Lola Run allows for the protagonist to relive the same experience over and again each time adjusting her behaviour until she finds a way to resolve seemingly intractable problems.
Throughout the current Hebrew month of Elul we begin every morning with our own Jewish approach to time travel. Across the School, the day starts with the ancient sounds of the shofar. This represents an awakening call alerting us that the time has come to take stock of the year that has passed and to begin the process of looking backwards in order to look forwards to how we can improve in the year ahead.
Each of the films I mentioned offers us clues as to how we can best reflect on previous experiences to enhance our future.
Rabbi Sara Saradin discusses the significance of reflection during Elul: “Wake up! Wake up! After slogging through the year, going through the motions and coasting by rote, now is the opportunity to stop the relentless drive, open our eyes, and breathe. In this space, we begin the process of looking deeply at our lives, our choices, and our relationships, to evaluate where we are, where we have been and where we are going. “
This reminds me of the scenes in Donnie Darko where the main character awakes from his hallucinations to realise that he has unintentionally done wrong. Only in his waking state do we understand the true benevolence of his character.
In Run Lola Run, Lola simply refuses to accept her negative fate. Instead she sprints through Berlin changing her approach to scenarios and in-so-doing tries to repair her relationships and save the people she loves.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote that: “The genius of Judaism is that it gives us Elul to think about where we are going, where we’ve gone off course, where we’ve failed in our duties, where we’ve upset other people – and then begin to put them right.”
I have always been intrigued by the manner in which Judaism offers us Rosh Hashana ahead of Yom Kippur in the calendar. It seems strange that marking a new beginning should precede the time of repentance and judgment for the year that has passed. One could logically see them in reverse order – a closing off the previous year before beginning the new year with purity.
Rabbi Sacks (again) explains that there is reason to this process: ”Surely the beginning of the days of repentance should begin with repentance? The answer is one of the deepest truths of Judaism. To mend the past, first you have to secure the future.”
One could imagine this last sentence as a line of dialogue spoken by the mad scientist, Doctor Emmett Brown, in Back to the Future. However, in this film we learn that in trying to fix the past we can imperil the future.
Rabbi David Wolpe argues instead that the true power of Elul is to participate in honest self-reflection and in obtaining a true understanding of our own character. “Only by apprehending who we are can we shape real hopes about who we might become. Forge ahead without fear into the mystery of your own soul and emerge wiser this year, and kinder.”
Throughout Elul another tradition is to read Psalm 27 daily. This psalm transitions from a litany of doubts and anxieties into a state of hope and calm. Rabbi Sharon Forman characterises the psalm like this: “Initially, the anguished narrator is wracked with worry and almost every verse overflows with synonyms for “fear.” The author frets about being the target of evildoers, adversaries, false witnesses, and enemies. By the end of the psalm, however, the writer embraces the notion of divine providence. God is watching, protecting, serving as father, mother, and bodyguard. There is no reason to dread calamity; fear is replaced by joyful song.”
At one point in Donnie Darko, Donnie turns to a character who has suffered horrendous bullying, takes her head in his hands and declares, ”I promise that one day everything is going to be better for you.”
It is my hope that we can each use our reflections during the month of Elul to ensure that this is true for each of us.