Dear Jew in the City,
The month of Elul is a beautiful concept, but can be hard to relate to. What do I do actionably in Elul? What should we be trying to accomplish pre-teshuva?
Thanks for your question. First, let’s examine what Elul is. You might not realize how much it’s connected to the three-week mourning period that extends from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av.
The aforementioned Three Weeks are an inauspicious time for the Jewish people because of disastrous things that historically happened in that period. This began in the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai in Sivan and returned 40 days later with the first set of tablets. Unfortunately, he found the Jews celebrating an idol of a calf that they had made in his absence, causing him to smash those tablets. This was on 17 Tammuz.
On 18 Tammuz, Moshe began a 40-day prayer vigil, in which he entreated God to forgive the Jewish people. This vigil ended successfully on 29 Av, the last day of the month. The next day, 1 Elul, Moshe returned to God to receive the second set of tablets, which he delivered 40 days later on 10 Tishrei, better known to us as Yom Kippur.
While Moshe was away receiving those second tablets, the Jews took preventive measures to ensure that they didn’t make the same mistake twice. One thing they did was blow the shofar every day. This is the origin of our practice to blow shofar on every weekday in the month of Elul. Doing so served to remind the Jews in the wilderness that they had sinned and that they had better stick to the straight-and-narrow. Similarly, it reminds us to arouse ourselves to do teshuvah.
The prescribed practices of Elul are to blow the shofar (as we have discussed), to recite Psalm 27 (“The Lord is my light and my salvation”) twice daily as part of our prayer services and, closer to Rosh Hashana, to begin reciting Selichos (prayers for forgiveness). The custom to recite Psalm 27 (which refers to God as our “light”) is based on Proverbs 20:27, “The human soul is the lamp of God, searching all the hidden crevices.” This is what God does on Rosh Hashana, and we prepare ourselves spiritually and emotionally for the experience. “Salvation” in Psalm 27 refers to Yom Kippur, for without God granting us atonement, neither we nor the world could survive. (We intend to discuss Selichos in detail in a forthcoming article.)
So much for the “assigned” practices of Elul. Beyond that, anything you do to prepare for Rosh Hashana is of a personal nature, between you and God. We all know our own shortcomings better than anyone else. Only you know if you have to:
•Stop gossiping about your friends behind their backs;
•Keep your hand out of the till at work;
•Lay off the Internet porn;
•Quit terrorizing your family with your temper;
•Do something about that massive ego of yours;
•Apologize to someone you have wronged;
•Etc., etc., etc.
We all have some area that could use improvement and Elul is the perfect time to work on it.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi used the following metaphor. Most of the time, the king is in his palace. His subjects are able to see him but it involves traveling to the capital, scheduling appointments through bureaucrats, and going through a lot of red tape. It can be done but it’s a lot of work! However, sometimes the king goes out to the fields, where the people are. When that happens, all his subjects have to do is walk up to him, and the king greets them joyfully.
Elul is when God, our King, comes to meet us “in the fields.” We can always go to Him but we should take advantage of this opportunity and approach Him when He makes Himself most accessible. As Isaiah 55:6 says, “Seek God while He can be found; call upon Him while He is near.”
I disagree with your assumption that Elul is “pre-teshuvah.” You don’t wait until Passover starts to remove your chometz and you don’t wait until Succos has begun to build your succah. If you wait that long, you’re too late – those preparations are meant to be made in advance! Similarly, by the time Rosh Hashana rolls around, our teshuvah should be well underway! (Rosh Hashana is yom hadin – “judgment day!” You absolutely want to do your teshuvah before you get judged!)
The zodiac sign for Elul is Virgo, the virgin. Jeremiah 31:20 urges us, “repent, virgin of Israel!” Elul, the sign of the virgin, is very much the time to reflect upon our deeds and to change our ways. While teshuvah is always welcome and always effective, God facilitates it at this time. Let’s not wait for the last minute or we may be caught unprepared on the big day!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent