Put Away the Sword - An Elul Reflection
I grew up playing video games and I remember sliding the thick Nintendo cartridges into the 8-bit operating console that my parents bought my brother and me for Chanukah in 1987. I loved adventures most - including Super Mario Brothers, each of the Castlevania games, and The Legend of Zelda. Video games created a fantasy world that allowed me to feel powerful and heroic, even for just a fleeting moment so I could leap over pits, throw fireballs, and wield a morning star against Vampire Bats.
One of my favorite games was not originally available for Nintendo. I was eleven when Dad brought home Prince of Persia, the small 3 1/2-inch blue floppy disk, resting inside a large, hourglass shaped, purple-and-gold colored box. Cue the story from Aladdin. The Grand Vizier Jaffar has seized control from the Sultan and has locked the Sultan's daughter, the Princess, high in the tower of the palace.
The prince is plunged into the dungeons, and he must fight his way out, reaching level 12 within the hour, or the princess will die. The dungeons are intricate mazes filled with prison guards, armed to the hilt and ready for a fight, crevices over which the prince must make a running leap, pointy spikes hungry for impalement, and steel mashers ready to saw the prince in half. The prince finds a sword in the first level and from there, he must accept his quest, and fight his way through the palace.
But Prince of Persia contains a sub-narrative beyond the "rescue the princess" theme. First and foremost, the prince must save himself. Towards the end of Level 4, the prince triggers the switch that opens the door to the next level. But before he can reach the door, he encounters a large, gold-framed mirror. The prince must make a running jump through the glass and as he jumps, a greyed mirror image, a Shadow of the prince emerges from the glass, and runs in the opposite direction.
The prince loses sight of the Shadow almost immediately. While he encounters the Shadow at various points before the end of the game, we never know the Shadow's full narrative, or where he goes as the prince ascends the levels of the palace. For all we know, the Shadow is left behind. Or is he?
As the prince finally reaches level 12, he finds himself standing on a bridge. Two loose tiles give way and fall beneath him. Then, all of a sudden, the prince's Shadow jumps from the top of the screen, meets the prince, and draws his sword ready for combat. The prince draws his own sword in self-defense. En garde.
Only there's a problem here. If the prince strikes the Shadow, the Shadow strikes the prince back, wounding him. If the prince wounds the Shadow to the point of death, the prince dies too. If the prince knocks the Shadow off the bridge so that he plummets to his death (through the space created by the loose fallen tiles), the prince dies too. But until the prince finds a way to maneuver past the Shadow, he can't face Jaffar and complete the game.
The prince has battled his way through twelve demanding levels. And now, so near to the end of the game, he must learn that he cannot fight himself and survive. Facing his Shadow on top of the parapet, the prince recognizes that the Shadow is part of him. Harming his Shadow, he harms himself. So the prince must make the decision to put away the sword. As the prince sheathes his sword, the Shadow mimics his action.
Unarmed, the prince takes a step toward his Shadow. The Shadow moves toward the prince.
First one foot. Now the other.
Put away the sword.
The prince walks toward his Shadow and as they run into one another, they fuse. The screen flashes, and the prince can advance to meet his next challenge. The prince moves on by accepting himself, not by dueling with himself to the death.
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In Jewish tradition, the month of Elul, the month before the highest holy days of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), is a time for personal reflection, for taking what is called a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our soul. As we read in the book of Ezekiel, it is not the death of sinners that God seeks, but that we might turn from our ways and live.
God doesn't wish for us to meet our shadows with a sword or for us to strike ourselves mercilessly or for us to push ourselves off a bridge. (All this, from someone who is notoriously hard on himself!) It takes a tremendous amount of courage to walk through our own dungeons, to battle monsters, bosses of levels that take skill and strategy to meet and defeat. But beating ourselves up doesn't get us anywhere. Worrying incessantly about something we said or did, or something someone else said or did doesn't get us anywhere. It is far more important to forgive others and to let them go. It is far more important to forgive others and to let ourselves go gracefully through life.
Self-reflection has value. But much like the prince meeting his Shadow on top of that bridge, there is nothing to be gained in self-destruction. During the month of Elul, God issues us an invitation to reflect, to seek and offer forgiveness, and to let go of the past year while welcoming a new beginning. Perhaps more than anything, when considering ourselves and our lives, God just wants us to put away the sword.
 After Ezekiel 18:23.