by Natan Stern
Can we all agree that Elul—at least in the litvish/ashkinazi iteration—is a mindfuck?
I am one of those people who has no malice or anger towards the frum community. But I have little doubt that Elul scarred me. On paper Elul may sound like a good idea – we can all use a time to reflect on our life path and acknowledge the wrongs we may have committed against our fellow man – but that is not how Elul plays out in real life for your average yeshiva bocher.
People recognize nowadays that guilt and pressure can be toxic, but no matter how much a mashgiach may try to sugarcoat the reality, The truth is that the Torah is codified in a way that pretty much guarantees to mess up people who innocently take its directives seriously.
Consider the following ideas that are planted and percolate for years inside your average bocher’s mind.
A person who speaks lashon harah can lose their entire portion in olam habah
Even 84 fasts cannot undo the damage of masturbation / there is no real way to undo the damage of p’gam habris. Rav Yehudah HaNasi never even put his hand below his belly button out of terror of stumbling in this grave sin.
The tanna Matyah Ben Charash literally burned out his eyes and then poked them out with nails in order to avoid looking at a girl who was dressed inappropriately.
Our minds are like the kodesh hakadashim and when we think a lustful thought, we are like Titus who had sex with a harlot in the kodesh hakodoshim.
Just as Talmud Torah is the biggest mitzvah, bittul torah is keneged kulam. Every second spent not learning is a second of eternity that has been squandered.
Consider how cruel and twisted someone must be in order to put these ideas into the minds of an average bocher. It is not the easiest talking about myself, but Elul was a lonely and tragic time.
I always committed to trying to do better, and—inevitably—I would fail. I have a pretty healthy sense of self, but the utterly unrealistic demands of Yiddishkeit led me down a cycle of helplessness. It taught me that—no matter how hard I tried—I was always going to end up falling into sin. I could talk to nobody. I had far too much pride to discuss my dark secrets (being a normal teenager) with my mentors or rebbeim. I spiraled into a cycle of commitment, falling, promising to do better, falling again, recommitting, trying to find new ways to guard myself, falling, getting sick and tired, recommitting for real this time, falling, feeling filthy and dirty, re-committing, finding some new sefer or system to control myself, re-falling, getting sick and tired of getting sick and tired, re-committing, etc ad insatuim.
Looking back I now see that I was just a sincere, normal teenager being a normal teenager – but Yiddishkeit (1) filled me with guilt, (2) a conviction that I was unable to control myself, and (3) the burden of bearing the idea that I was living a dark secret life, that while everyone thought I was a top-notch bocher, in the next world everyone Hashem will play a movie of my whole life in front of the entire world and everyone will know that I was a dirty horrible person.
People love talking about how beautiful Yiddishkeit is – it’s not. Judaism is cruel. And at the center of this shitstorm is Elul. As someone pointed out here recently, Sha’arei Teshuva, one of the most popular “Elul seforim” – is chock full of toxic ideas. Hashem gave you everything AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY HIM! Hashem is walking in the garden, now is your time to run and BEG HIM FOR FORGIVENESS! Always remember you come from a SPOILED DROP OF SEMEN and your fate is to RETURN TO THE DUST so REPENT NOW while you still have a chance!
I know some of you will instinctively react by saying that I am distorting Jewish theology. This is not the “real” Torah outlook. I do not mean to close off debate, but I implore you to stop for a moment and consider that perhaps your comment is just minimalizing the very real pain of many of us who were very hurt by this system. Denying a problem that causes so much pain to so many is a form of gaslighting and does nothing to help the fundamental issue. Maybe in your version of Judaism, nothing is meant literally, and the Torah only gives positive encouragement. But please consider that your opinion may not reflect how Yiddishkeit is ACTUALLY EXPERIENCED by people who are educated in the typical yeshiva system. In yeshiva, we are exposed to the actual source text – not the sanitized version preached by moderates and kiruv people. I am not saying that you can’t find sources that preach a happy, healthy, normal version of Yiddishkeit – I am saying that many sources preach an evil and cruel version of Yiddishkeit and that, if you are a yeshiva bocher reading this – please understand: you are not the problem, Yiddishkeit is.