The month of Elul — the 12th and last month of the Hebrew calendar — has come to be seen as a month of preparation for the High Holy Days and the New Year. Based on midrashic readings, some view these days as marking the time when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the second set of tablets. (Midrashic tradition has him coming back down from the mountain on Yom Kippur). Moses, we are told, neither ate nor drank while he was on the mountain, and so some even have the custom of fasting during the daylight hours in this period. Fasting is seen as the atonement for sins and the expression of the desire to purify the soul.
A more widespread custom is to sound the shofar every day during Elul trumpeting this special time of year, a ritual act that many understand as a call to repentance, and to add a psalm (Psalm 27) to the morning and evening service.
Psalm 27 talks of yearning for God and not of sin and regret, and so may offer us a different approach to the task we are to engage in during these days leading up to the new year. The fourth verse of the psalm introduces this theme, “Only this would I ask, that I may sit in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and view the peace of God…” or as some translate, “and view God, peacefully.” The poet asks for only one thing — to see God, all the days of his or her life. And in the same vein, the psalmist continues later in the poem, “About You, my heart says, ‘seek my face,’ I seek Your face” (Verse 8). The psalm is an intense poem of yearning — the wish to be with God, to feel God’s presence.
But the poet goes on to express how absent God seems: “Do not hide your face!” the poet cries. And behind this heartfelt plea we hear the poet’s anguish of knowing only the hidden God whose face is not seen. The poem concludes with the line, “Hope in God…” And so, instead of a direct experience of the Divine, what we are left with is our own feeling of expectation — we are left with the resolve, the commitment, to hope.
Similarly, looking at the root of the Hebrew word for prayer, we discover that it may mean “to instill in oneself hope.” Jacob exclaims to Joseph, “I never hoped (i.e. expected) to see your face…” using the active form of the same reflexive verb “to pray.” It’s intriguing to think of prayer as the fostering of hope.
What might it mean to uncover our capacity to hope? We sometimes meet inexplicable evil, we may experience terrible tragedy, we may feel justified fear; the poet of Psalm 27 recognizes these aspects of life, pleading, “Do not abandon me to my foes, for false witnesses have risen against me and people breathing violence,” and further declares, “even my mother and father may abandon me” (Verse 11).
Yet, the poet argues, we need to recognize the mystery of life, to understand that though we suffer inexplicable tragedy, though we know that there are those who would commit evil, it remains our choice to enter into relationships with an openness, to trust. So how might I enter the world with less fear, with more hope that my kindness and care will be reciprocated? How can I hold onto a dream of reaching an inner spiritual balance even as I am challenged by the burdens of everyday life? How can I fight for justice despite all the frustrations I meet in that battle?
The psalmist goes on, “Teach us Your ways, lead us in the true paths…” The task of these days is to find our way, a way that does not abandon our deepest yearnings, a way that incorporates and strengthens them. Psalm 27 argues that the search is not easy, but that we ought not give up hoping, that we may find our way.
Rabbi Edward Feld is the author of the newly published “Joy Despair and Hope: Reading Psalms” (Wipf and Stock).