As we end the 6th month of the Hebrew calendar, traditionally called Elul, here are some reflections on the meaning of this season from our student Rabbi Dennis Jones of Temple Beth Shalom in Hickory, NC.
This year on Saturday, August 15, at sundown begins the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul, which is the sixth month of the Festival Calendar and the twelfth month of the Civil Calendar—leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the “head of the year,” has, since Talmudic times, become a season of particular introspection, repentance, and restitution.
According to the Sages of Israel, it was on the Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the month of Elul, that Moses ascended Mount Sinai following the people’s sin of the “golden calf” to make intercession before Adonai. You will recall that Moses stayed on the mountain for forty days. That would have covered the thirty days of the month of Elul and extended ten days into the month of Tishri, bringing Moses’ sojourn on the mountain to an end on the very day of Yom Kippur. It was on that particular visit to Mount Sinai that Moses received the second set of stone tablets containing the Law of God, since the first set had been destroyed at the incident of the golden calf. (Exodus 33-34)
It was also on this visit to Sinai that Moses had the opportunity glimpse just a tiny portion of God’s glory. This amazing self-revelation by the Creator has become known as the “Thirteen Attributes” of God and is chanted in Hebrew at many of our most moving prayer and worship services, particularly during the High Holidays: “Adonai, Adonai (God’s Name repeated twice), compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7)
Many Jewish sources have pointed out that the name of Elul, spelled aleph-lamed-vav-lamed in Hebrew, could serve as an acronym for the verse, “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li—I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs 6:3) The Sages have long interpreted this verse as an allegory for the relationship between God, the beloved, and the people of Israel. Just as Moses drew close to the Almighty on Mount Sinai at this season of the year following the Israelites’ miraculous redemption from Egypt, so should we draw close to our “beloved” Creator in the period preceding our holiest of days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (See Tracey R. Rich, “The Month of Elul and Selichot,” http://www.jewfaq.org/elul.htm)
The Chassidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, used to liken the month of Elul to a time when “a great king is in the field” as opposed to a time when the king is confined to the palace. When in the field, the king is among the people, and easily accessible to anyone desiring a royal audience! (“Elul Observances in a Nutshell,” http://www.chabad.org/holidays/)
Drawing Near to God
Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire Torah is the verse following the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b’chal levavcha uv’chal naphshecha uv’chal me’odecha.” It translates, “And you shall love the LORD (Adonai’s Name) your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” My congregation at Temple Beth Shalom probably gets tired of hearing me ask the rhetorical question , “Now, loving someone or something with all your heart, soul, and might…, what exactly would that look like?” Would you have a hard time getting that one out of your thoughts? Would that one’s name be the first thing that entered your mind upon arousing from sleep in the morning? Would your thoughts be on that one as you drifted off to sleep each night? Would you be overwhelmed with joy when in that one’s presence, and perhaps saddened to the point of sickness upon being separated from that one? I know that despite my best intentions and re-commitments each year, I fall far short of honoring and remaining conscious of the Source of All Life to the level directed by the Torah. And, I am sure that many of my co-religionists must feel the same. The month of Elul is a wonderful opportunity to re-examine our relationship with the Creator, and to map out strategies for greater devotion—more diligent study of Torah, more prayer and thanksgiving, perhaps greater support for our house of study and worship.
Relations with Others
Elul is also an opportune time to examine our relationships with our fellow man and woman. You will recall that in one of the most powerful of our High Holiday prayers, we pray, actually quoting from the Mishna, “For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” (Gates of Repentance, URJ High Holiday Prayer Book; Mishna Yoma 8:9) In Jewish tradition, we have an entire month, Elul, to consider our behavior toward others and make amends and possibly even restitution where needed. This month is also an ideal time to consider becoming more proactive in our relationships with others—increasing our acts of social justice, tzedakah (charitable giving), and gemilut chasadim (acts of compassion), for the sake of tikkun olam, “repairing the world.”
Over the last two millennia, the Sages of Judaism have developed the richest of traditions to serves as guideposts for the implementation of our faith principles. Beginning on the second day of the month of Elul and continuing until two days before Rosh Hashanah, it is the Ashkenazi custom to blow the shofar daily, after morning prayers, as a call to reflection, introspection, and repentance. The shofar is not sounded, of course, on Shabbat; nor is it blown the day before Rosh Hashana, in order to separate rabbinic custom from Biblical command. Also, during the month of Elul, Psalm 27 is added to the morning and the evening prayer services. In that Psalm, David exclaims, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the refuge of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? … One thing I have asked from the LORD, that shall I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.” These words are a clear reminder that the Protector of Israel is continuously in our midst, and we are continuously in God’s Presence. Finally, at sunset on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, S’lichot prayers, special petitions for the mercy and forgiveness of the Almighty are added before the shachrit/morning prayer service. If Rosh Hashanah falls early in the week, S’lichot begins the week before, so that a minimum of three days of these special prayers may be said. (Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “ABC’s of Elul,” http://www.aish.com/)
It’s Up To You
As I encourage all members and friends of Temple Beth Shalom to study our precious Jewish heritage and implement more and more of its lofty principles, I like to honor the teaching of my beloved mentor, Rabbi Theodore Gordon, who used to say, “As a liberal rabbi, I am certainly not going to tell people what they need to do to be Jewish. BUT, DO SOMETHING!” There are, according to the sages, 613 commandments/mitzvoth in the Torah. Explore it! Find which ones resonate and are meaningful to you and in your life. And, I remind you regarding all the commandments, as we pray in the Shabbat morning service, “…sh’adam okhel peiroteinu b’olam hazeh v’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam haba— the one (who keeps them) eats their fruit in this world, and reward accrues to that one in the world to come.” As we say in Hebrew, “Ken yehi ratzon—May this be God’s will!!”
You may read all of Rabbi Jones’s reflections at this link: From the Rabbi