Spring cleaning. Summer vacation. Back to School sales. Holiday shopping. We live in a culture that often links rituals (both mundane and profound) to a particular season or time-of-year. We learn, as we grow older, to mark time in this way. Of course, living our lives along the Jewish calendar affords us a number of other opportunities to note the passing of time and to add rituals based on upcoming holidays or events.
The Hebrew month of Elul is no exception. This month is filled with a sense of anticipation, preparation, and even a little fear. Elul is the month right before the High Holy Days and the start of the new year.
The High Holy Days mean different things to different people, depending on your level of observance. For some, this time of year might hold limited associations: it may be a time to buy new clothes to wear to services. It may be the only time some people walk into the synagogue all year (almost like a yearly physical at the doctor’s office).
For others, who spend much of their lives in and around the synagogue, High Holy Days might not feel that much different from any other day. For active volunteers, or even for some clergy, it’s just another holiday, or another time to work hard within the synagogue walls.
Our tradition, however, begs us to view this season differently than any other time of the year. These aren’t just like “any other holiday.” Nor is this just a fashion show held at the congregation. Rather, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are intense, spiritual days that afford us a yearly opportunity to check in with ourselves on a deep level. These days are so rich in meaning and possibility that we are gifted with an entire month to prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for the Days of Awe.
We are encouraged to embark upon a Cheshbon HaNefesh – an “Accounting of the Soul.” In modern Hebrew, a cheshbon is the bill we are given after a meal at a restaurant. It delineates the choices we made, what we took into our bodies, and what the cost is to our wallets. It also helps us decide if we will visit that restaurant again.
In a similar way, a Cheshbon HaNefesh is the list we create for ourselves about the year that has just passed. We can reflect on the choices we made (or didn’t make) throughout the year, and why. We can ponder what influences, ideas, or knowledge we took into our lives – both positive and negative. We can evaluate the costs or benefits that various experiences had on our lives. And we can therefore decide how we want to live differently in the coming year.
This process, at its best, leads us to approach true teshuvah. While teshuvah translates as “repentance,” it also is related to the word for “turning.” The High Holy Days, and the month that precedes them, allow us to turn around…to turn back…and to return to what our path is meant to be.
Doing this is not easy. We may have hurt others in the past year, requiring us to put aside our pride in order to apologize and work towards rebuilding the relationship. We may have broken a promise we made to ourselves – a hurt that can be even harder to forgive. We may feel that we have let God down in some way, or that we have been angry at God, and we might not know how to reconnect. Many of us might not feel ready to face these difficult experiences, nor may we be ready to do something about changing them. Isn’t it fortunate that we have an entire month to think about how we might start the process?
A midrash teaches that Elul is an acronym for “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li.” I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. This quote from Song of Songs is generally understood to be a promise of love between God and the People of Israel. In this way, the month of Elul helps us slowly start the process of rediscovering the Divine – in our lives, in our relationships, and in the world around us.
May we all be blessed with the courage and strength to have a meaningful month of Elul. May we all take the time to contemplate our past with an honest, yet forgiving, eye. And may we all be blessed with a good, sweet New Year.
"Y'all Ready for This?"
Now that the High Holy Days are less than one month away, Rabbi Bellows explores the ways in which we can prepare ourselves, inside and out, for this special season.