We have just started the month of Elul, a forty-day period of repentance, judgment, and forgiveness in preparation for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This time recalls the weeks Moses spent on Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets and pray for God’s forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites who had sinned by building the golden calf.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, author of The Jewish Way, explains that Elul is a time for “accounting for the soul” or chesbon hanefesh, an accounting with oneself. This is the time for the individual to concentrate on mortality and the meaning of life.
I always knew about the Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur where we ask others for forgiveness, but didn’t realize until a few years ago that there are several customs during the month of Elul designed to remind us of the liturgical season and help us prepare our souls for the upcoming High Holidays.
These customs include the daily blowing of the shofar. Its sound is intended to awaken the soul and “kick start the spiritual accounting” that happens during the month. We also say special penitential prayers beginning with a Selichot service that starts around midnight on the Saturday a week before Rosh Hashanah. It is also customary to visit loved ones’ graves. This custom not only “reminds us of the individuals on whose shoulders we now stand and helps us honor their memories, but also prompts us to think about our own lives and the legacies we will leave to others.”
It is also customary to read Psalm 27 each day from the beginning of Elul through Sukkot. This is a prayer by King David to be saved from his enemies. In it, David expresses his desire to serve God in peace and harmony and shares a message of hope with the Jewish people. “Although their prayers may not be answered the first time, they should not lose faith and should strengthen their hearts and continue placing trust in God.”
Finally, during the month of Elul we are encouraged to study and take time for personal reflection around our actions of the past year. We seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.
I am spending this month of Elul listening to the shofar being blown each morning, rousing me out of complacency. In addition to my daily Tehillim reading, I have added Psalm 27. I am also spending much time reflecting by focusing on one middah (trait) a day. Frank is my chevruta (study partner). We examine each trait and discuss our actions to each one – how we have incorporated them into our lives and where we could do better, basically turning them into action. And of course, I am asking for forgiveness from those who I may have offended. This is no easy task. It is hard work.
I’ve been thinking about what is different for me this year since we are still negotiating the uncertainty of life due to the pandemic. Many of our feelings are acute. I know I have been much more reflective this year in general and have worked on middot (traits), many of which I have shared with you in my Shabbat blogs. For me, this time has been one of teshuvah or returning to God. I have been much more aware of my vulnerability and appreciative of the gifts I have. I have reached out more to others being intentional with my actions. I have been more generous through tzedakah. I have also increase my study of Torah and prayer.
This High Holiday season will be very different for some of us. Many of us will not be surrounded by family or friends, sharing the solemn moments as well as the sweetness of the holiday with others. That will be the case for me. Therefore, this month of Elul will be especially meaningful. I will double down on my intentions and reflections. Although it has already been a more contemplative time for me since COVID, I will continue on my path. Special time will be set aside for self-evaluation and for seeking out people to make amends. In a way, this year has been building to get me to this point.
As Rabbi Greenberg says, “To know how fragile the shell of life is, is to learn to handle it with true grace and delicacy. Only one who realizes the vulnerability of loved ones can treasure every moment with them.” This year has surely given us an opportunity to realize the truth in this statement.
May this month of Elul be a daily wakening and may you continue to contemplate the many gifts with which you are blessed.