This week, Shabbat and Sunday marked Rosh Chodesh Elul, the start of the last month of the Jewish year – the countdown to the ever impending Rosh Hashanah begins now. For some, this simply invokes a panic about how we’re possibly going to find the freezer space to fit enough fish balls to feed the five thousand. For some, it’s about the religious equivalent of a panicked January gym membership, and all the similarly short-lived resolutions that resurrect themselves alongside this, year after year. It doesn’t seem to matter how may times we’ve done this before, the run up to Rosh Hashanah is still cloaked in panic and turmoil. Perhaps it’s the notion of something ending, of needing to fit everything in before it’s too late. Or perhaps it’s the idea of a new beginning, a fresh start, and the surmounting pressure of our desire not to waste that opportunity. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, I don’t know. But add in the fact that Rosh Hashanah is synonymous with a time of judgement and reflection, both internally and on a Divine level, it’s unsurprising that this period often leaves us struggling to find the ground. This, I believe, is where Elul comes in. Elul gives us a chance to breathe, to get some perspective and to ready ourselves for the transition ahead.
Practically, Elul is when our religious preparations for Rosh Hashanah truly begin. From 1st Elul, we start adding Pslam 27, L’David Hashem ori, into our prayers each morning and evening, and we continue to say it right up until Shemini Atzeret. Then, there’s Selichot, the communal prayers of Divine forgiveness that are said on fasts, and during the period of the High Holidays. Sephardim say Selichot during the whole of Elul and, whilst Ashkenazim begin Selichot usually the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah itself, it’s fair to say these prayers are still a prominent feature of the month of Elul. We even blow the shofar each morning throughout Elul, reminding us that the New Year is just around the corner. So, what is it about these practices? What is it about Elul that relieves us of the panic and aids us in our Rosh Hashanah mindset?
We even blow the shofar each morning throughout Elul, reminding us that the New Year is just around the corner. So, what is it about these practices? What is it about Elul that relieves us of the panic and aids us in our Rosh Hashanah mindset?
Firstly, there are the acronyms that the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (128:1) suggests for the letters of the word Elul – אלול – aleph, lamed, vav, lamed. The most well known of these is that of Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – אני לדודי ודודי לי – ‘I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me’. In it’s original context in Shir HaShirim (6:3), this passage refers to the relationship between two lovers, alluding to the relationship between us and G-d. Often, this acronym is taken to suggest that Hashem is closer to the Jewish people during Elul, that somehow it is easier to be more spiritually connected in this time period – it captures the essence of our teshuva, our repentance; returning to a closeness with G-d. However, I think that there is more we can say. Around Rosh Hashanah, it is easy to see G-d solely in a judicial role, to let our awe and fear of G-d overpower our love. We are so determined to acknowledge our flaws and repent for our mistakes, that we forget to consider the wholeness of G-d, the totality of being, and the reciprocal nature of that relationship. If I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me, then I must consider the whole picture of G-d, particularly if I wish the whole picture of me to be considered; all of my goods, weighed up against all of my not-so-goods, the classic Rosh Hashanah imagery. And if my relationship with G-d is allegorical to my relationship with others, and with myself, then I must also learn to look at others in their wholeness, to only judge them in light of the complete picture, and to do the same with myself. Elul reminds of the good – not just to focus on the not-so-goods, but to be kind to others, and to be kind to ourselves in the process.
In the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, we again consider G-d as a judge, shining a light on us and inspecting our deeds, deciding our fate. By the close of Yom Kippur, we have prayed for forgiveness for our sins and (hopefully) have been saved – hence, G-d as salvation.
Secondly, there is לדוד ה’ אורי וישעי – the ‘Elul Psalm’ – ‘G-d is my light and my salvation’. The midrash in Vayikra Rabbah (21:4) interprets these words as referring to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, hence why Psalm 27 becomes part of the service at this time of year. In particular, the midrash associates G-d as light with Rosh Hashanah, and G-d as salvation with Yom Kippur (and later, G-d’s house/tent with Sukkot). In the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, we again consider G-d as a judge, shining a light on us and inspecting our deeds, deciding our fate. By the close of Yom Kippur, we have prayed for forgiveness for our sins and (hopefully) have been saved – hence, G-d as salvation. This is the notion of choice and consequence that so conveniently links with the notion of blessings and curses in the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh – if you obey the commandments, blessings; if you don’t, curses. Yes, the idea of choice and consequence is key to our conception of G-d, key to our whole religion in fact, but, again, one cannot help but feel that this explanation leaves something missing in our quest to connect to Elul. G-d is not simply אור, light, in Psalm 27, G-d is אורי, my light. G-d is not simply the judicial light of the microscope, ready to inspect; G-d is my own personal light, guiding me and showing me the way, setting me on the path that is right for me. This doesn’t happen overnight. This doesn’t even happen in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a process that is ongoing, heightened as we start to recite Psalm 27 from the beginning of Elul, leading all the way through Yom Kippur, enabling our salvation, and continuing its heightened period right up until the end of Sukkot, when we sit in huts in the garden and acknowledge how G-d has protected us; G-d’s house, G-d’s tent.
Yes, the idea of choice and consequence is key to our conception of G-d, key to our whole religion in fact, but, again, one cannot help but feel that this explanation leaves something missing in our quest to connect to Elul. G-d is not simply אור, light, in Psalm 27, G-d is אורי, my light.
When we say Selichot, the first night is recited after midnight, in the darkness, whilst every recitation thereafter occurs before Shacharit, early in the morning, at dawn. Elul marks our transition from the darkness. Elul forces us to wake up early, to watch the sun rise and feel the light shining onto our face. Yes, this happens every day, but Elul forces us to realise it, to acknowledge it. Elul is our awakening. Whether it’s to take on an extra mitzvah, to consider G-d in totality, to be kinder to others, to ourselves, to notice the light and let it guide us; Elul is our awakening. This is our preparation.
Jemma Silvert is the Program Development Coordinator for JOFA UK.
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