Elul is the month in the Hebrew calendar that precedes Rosh Hashanah. It is not a “lazy, summer” month but a month of intense repentance and preparation for the upcoming High Holy Days. In Elul, we begin to prepare for the very important Day of Judgment (Rosh Hashanah) and the sealing of that judgment (Yom Kippur). It is a time to examine our lives with a critical lens and begin to make changes for the upcoming year. One of the goals of this month is to take the time to create a blueprint for our future – to be able to appeal to G-d with a plan in hand for the upcoming year. What behaviors do we need to change? How should we refocus our values? What goals in the realm of Jewish life have we set for ourselves?
The word Elul is an Aramaic word meaning “search”, and this month is certainly a month of internal investigation. It is also a month filled with special customs to assist us during this introspective period.
From Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first of the month), the shofar is blown - aside from Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashanah - each morning. Like our alarm clocks that often blast us out of a deep sleep, the penetrating sound of the shofar is a wake up call that is hard to miss.
Most of us associate the custom of asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt with Yom Kippur traditions, and indeed it is part of the Day of Atonement. However, the month of Elul is the time to begin working on asking others for forgiveness.
Psalm 27, “G-d is my Light”, is recited during the month of Elul. Throughout the reading, we ask to “dwell in the house of G-d all the days of my life” and commit to “seek Your presence, Oh G-d, I will seek”. We ask that G-d “lead (us) in the straight path”. This is an uplifting Psalm, carrying us toward a deeper and more meaningful connection to G-d. In the midst of our heartfelt repentance, this Psalm brings hope and strength for the year to come.
In the Ashkenazi tradition, it is customary to gather at midnight on the Saturday preceding Rosh Hashanah to begin saying Selichot. Selichot are special prayers of forgiveness. Part of the recitation includes the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy expressed by G-d, told after the sin of the Golden Calf. It is also customary during this month to visit the gravesites of loved ones. This is an expression of honor. It also puts us in touch with our own mortality and the deeper purpose of living we should be fulfilling.
The month of Elul is another “build up of time” in the Jewish holiday cycle. Like the time before the holiday of Shavu’ot, where we count seven weeks of seven days (the Omer), Rosh Hashanah does not come to us out of the blue. We have traveled through the month of Elul. We have entered the period of Selichot. And, we have arrived at Rosh Hashanah.
May you embrace the month of Elul with deep commitment, renewed faith, and the desire to make next year a “better year”.