very year when Elul comes around the image of the tightrope walker makes my heart sing as I look forward to all the gifts beckoning at the end of the line and the start of a new cycle: Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur and Succos. It’s a subject I’ve written about in the past but just as Rosh Hashanah comes around again every year with perfect regularity I beg permission once again to bring up the image that fills me with hope.

Yes Elul is here again. Another year has gone by and once again we haven’t lived up to the Torah’s expectations or our own. If we even remember the promises we made last Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we know we haven’t fully kept them. Of course we did teshuvah to the best of our recollection. At least we tried. But why is it that we never feel during the year that we’re maintaining the spiritual heights we attained on the Days of Awe although at the beginning of the year we sincerely believed that this time we could really do it?

And now once again the Yamim Noraim are fast approaching. As we look back on the receding year we see that we’ve carried out very few of our resolutions in actual practice. The holidays of Tishrei passed winter came and already we found ourselves pulled into the murky current of materialism. With every passing day our grand promises slipped further into the distance. This becomes more deeply frustrating as the years stretch out into decades. We wonder: Is there any point in repeating this yearly cycle if we never succeed in keeping our resolutions? It is Elul the month of forgiveness but we look back in shame and frustration perhaps even in anger at ourselves for being so weak. Worst of all we know that this year too we will make promises for real improvement in every aspect of our Yiddishkeit — yet no matter how sincere and determined we may be little will be left of it all by this time next year. It’s enough to make us feel like the mythical Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a heavy rock up a steep hill only to have it roll back down again repeatedly for all eternity.

Is this really our situation? A famous teacher of mussar says no. Precisely at this point when we feel a keen sense of having failed and might be tempted to give up trying the meaning of Elul comes to the rescue. It’s all about the tightrope walker.

A tightrope walker in a circus says this mussar giant makes his way in a self-assured manner across the high rope pulled taut and tied tightly at both ends. Anyone among the spectators can observe that the starting point and the endpoint are at the same height. In the middle the rope always sinks a little lower as the acrobat maneuvers his way from one end to the other. But as he draws near the endpoint he slowly gains height until he finds himself once again at the same level at which he started.

Rosh Hashanah is like the end and the beginning of that tightrope. During the past year the acrobat (that’s us!) has sunk from the spiritual heights he trod on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of 5776. He’s become immersed in the practical material concerns of life. But now as Rosh Hashanah of 5777 approaches he climbs back to those heights — through prayer introspection regret teshuvah and restocking his spiritual warehouse. By Rosh Hashanah he’s returned to thathigh pointonce again. If chalilah we didn’t have these “stations” marking the yearly cycle we would deteriorate spiritually to a point of no return. After a number of decades like this we would be utterly coarsened clods eons away from the true purpose of our lives. Don’t we know what happens to people who become totally cut off from the spiritual wellsprings that nurtured them even if they were raised in the world of the yeshivos or the chassidic courts? They become coarsened beyond recognition.

But the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim that follow halt this process of sinking and bring us back every year to our starting point so that even if we haven’t made the progress we hoped for at least we are kept from sinking too low. Every Rosh Hashanah we have a new source of hope for the year stretched out ahead.

But the tightrope walker hasn’t yet taught us all he knows. Look at him and you’ll notice that to keep his balance and avoid falling he holds his arms out to the sides and rocks slightly to the left and to the right. He is continually in motion. If he were to stop and stand straight and motionless for one second he would immediately plummet to the depths. Furthermore he is always moving forward. He progresses step by step in order to reach his goal.

We too who walk the tightrope of life must stay in motion throughout the year using all our abilities to move forward despite the temptation to stagnate and as an inevitable consequence to fall. In order to remain standing to retain our spiritual integrity as Jews we must keep moving forward. Even as we get on with our “secular” lives throughout the year we must resist spiritual inertia. It’s important to keep up that perpetual motion those unceasing efforts to be better in accordance with the resolutions we’ve made — even if we aren’t visibly successful. The world of action flows all around us and its current goes against our inner progress. When we’re going against the current we must never stop rowing if we expect to get anywhere at all. In order to reach next Elul this is the minimum we must do. Otherwise we’ll get caught up in the current and find ourselves carried helplessly downstream.

And there’s something more to be learned from the tightrope walker.

It is told of one of the fathers of chassidus that he went out with his followers to see the performance of a tightrope walker that had the entire village riveted. The great rebbe watched attentively as the acrobat made his way across the high taut rope. He kept his eyes on the man for a long time while his talmidim watched their own rebbe closely taking in every detail of his interest in the sight.

When he returned home his chassidim asked him what he had seen in the performance. Why had he devoted so much of his time to watching an acrobat?

The rebbe asked them “Did you notice how much concentration the acrobat put into every step he took?”

Yes they answered him.

“Does he get paid for his performance?” the rebbe went on to ask.

“Certainly” they said.

The rebbe then asked them “While he is walking the tightrope threatened by the danger of falling at any moment if he isn’t careful enough does he think about the pay he will receive after his performance or is he totally focused on making his way across in one piece?”

“Of course he isn’t thinking about his pay!” the chassidim replied.

“This” said the rebbe “is the way a person must serve his Creator. He must be totally focused on the ‘tightrope walk’ of his life on performing his duties with great care that he shouldn’t fall in the middle of the walk! And as for his reward it will come in the end.”