This article is excerpted from The Guide to Jewish Practice, Volume 2, in a chapter written by Rabbi Yael Ridberg. The full Guide may be ordered from the Reconstructionist Press.
Jewish tradition understands that the Yamim Nora’im can be difficult and all-consuming. To get the most out of our prayers, celebrations and rituals, we must prepare ourselves. It is easy to let the summer months come to an end, return to work or school and the yearly routine, and then be unprepared when Rosh Hashana comes. We often describe the holidays as coming “early” or “late,” when really they come exactly on time, and it is we who need to be ready. The month of Elul, which immediately precedes the Yamim Nora’im , is a time of preparation. 1 The general mood of the month of Elul is one of introspection and renewal.2 As the month begins, we begin the process of ḥeshbon hanefesh (literally, accounting of the soul; taking stock of oneself). This process is a personal one in which we are asked to look back on the year that is coming to a close, to look carefully at our lives, to re-evaluate and reexamine who and where we are, and to look forward to the ways in which the year that will soon begin can be different. It is also a time to seek to heal relationships, to offer overdue apologies and to repair the damage we have caused to others.3
The journey of Elul is heralded by the sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn), which is sounded daily (except on Shabbat) throughout Elul in synagogues that have a daily morning service. The shofar can also be sounded at home. The shofar serves as a literal wake-up call to the work of t’shuva. The commandment is to hear the sound of the shofar, thereby underscoring the need to listen. Much like human relationships, in which hearing is simple but truly listening to what another person is saying requires great attention and intention, the mitzvah of hearing the sounding of the shofar means something deeper than just being able to hear the sound. During the High Holy Days, there are so many words spoken. Hearing and listening to the sounding of the shofar provides a primal connection beyond words. During traditional Rosh Hashana services, 100 blasts of the shofar are heard. They call us to remember both our personal and our communal past, and to rebuild our relationships and renew our lives.
Much like human relationships, in which hearing is simple but truly listening to what another person is saying requires great attention and intention, the mitzvah of hearing the sounding of the shofar means something deeper than just being able to hear the sound.
There are 40 days from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur. According to a rabbinic midrash (interpretation), these days correspond to the 40 days that Moses remained on Mount Sinai after the incident with the golden calf. When he descended from Mount Sinai the first time, he saw that the people had created a molten calf to worship. Out of anger and frustration, Moses broke the first set of tablets, which had been inscribed by God. They were the symbol of the covenant between the Jewish people and God. The calf was then burned and the ashes strewn into water for the people to drink as a punishment. When Moses told the people they were guilty of a great sin, he also told them that he would attempt to make atonement on their behalf. Moses entreated God on behalf of the people to spare them from collective punishment, but the Torah describes God as bringing a plague upon those who sinned. According to the text, a second set of tablets was later written by Moses himself, and as the cloud of God descended, the divine voice is said to have uttered the 13 descriptive attributes of God: “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, and forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.” (Exodus 34:6–7) 4 It still took Moses quite some time to recover from his first response and return from Mount Sinai to the people, once again holding the tablets, the symbol of the covenant, in his hands.
The midrash implies that the first set of tablets represents that which has been broken—promises, hopes, dreams and covenants. The 40 days can be understood as a metaphor of longing, of a deep desire to return to things as they were before they were broken. At the close of Yom Kippur, having done all that we can to repair what has been broken, we embrace the New Year, grateful for the opportunity to begin anew, to strengthen relationships and start new projects.5 6
Another tradition of the month of Elul is the daily recitation of Psalm 27. The theme of this psalm is trust in God—trust that the power that makes for judgment can become further manifest in the world by the presence of justice and mercy in all inhabitants of the world. The psalm opens with these lines: “God is my light and my life; whom shall I fear? God is the foundation of my life; whom shall I dread?” The psalmist expresses fear and doubts about the unknown, but ultimately ends the psalm with a message of hope: “One thing I ask of God; one thing do I seek: to dwell in the house of God forever…Look to God for hope, be strong and of good courage. Look to God for faith.” In this way, the text mirrors the work we are called to do at this time of the year. We are called to reflect upon the challenges of our lives and to resolve to seek the godly attributes of love, hope, repair and belief in the future.7
At the close of Yom Kippur, having done all that we can to repair what has been broken, we embrace the New Year, grateful for the opportunity to begin anew, to strengthen relationships and start new projects
The month of Elul is full of opportunities for deep introspection.8 Jewish tradition invites us to work from the broken parts of ourselves toward wholeness so that when we come together on Rosh Hashana, we are aware of our triumphs and our failures, and we are more humble and sensitive to the random nature of life, which can bring suffering, tragedy and sorrow. We begin with ourselves, even as we also focus on the complicated and often confusing world in which we live, where suffering, hatred and violence are so commonplace, and we set new goals to work for justice and peace. The month of Elul is understood by the Hasidic masters as an et ratzon—a time of willingness—that ends with transformation or rebirth at Yom Kippur.9 Each of us can seek out others and have the difficult conversations about our relationships that we need to have with family, friends and community members. We can prepare to change our lives for the good in the coming year.10
During the month of Elul, seeking out those one has unintentionally hurt or with whom one has had a difficult encounter or a breakdown in relationship can begin the process of seeking m’ḥila (forgiveness). A story is told about Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, a Hasidic rebbe of the late 18th century. Before going to bed each day, he would make a list of all that he had done wrong. He would recite the list over and over until regret and grief overcame him. The flow of his tears would be so great that the paper would be wiped clean of his transgressions. The teaching here is not that we need to attain perfection, but rather that we need to acknowledge our very real human imperfections and fragility before we can successfully move into the New Year.11
Some people seek forgiveness face to face, others by phone or letter. 12 Seeking and granting forgiveness are not easy. When approached by a friend or a colleague to forgive her or him, we can see that forgiveness is not casual or even accidental.13 It is a conscious act that requires us to recognize our own errors and acknowledge our own faults. In light of our own failings, we are better able to forgive others’ mistakes and recognize their humanity. 14 There is no simple formula for granting forgiveness. Many people live their entire lives never forgiving someone who has profoundly wronged them. Elul can be an opportunity to transform our grudges into gratitude and our hardened hearts into healing ones.15
Jewish tradition invites us to work from the broken parts of ourselves toward wholeness so that when we come together on Rosh Hashana, we are aware of our triumphs and our failures, and we are more humble and sensitive to the random nature of life, which can bring suffering, tragedy and sorrow.
Another custom during the month of Elul is to visit family graves. This practice may be tied into the theme of zikaron, memory—one of the names for Rosh Hashana is Yom Hazikaron, Day of Remembrance. We remember our loved ones, their expectations of us, and the values they imparted to us. This custom also underscores the confrontation with the uncertainty and fragility of life that lies at the core of much of the Yamim Nora’im . By remembering the dead we are better able to appreciate the sweetness of the gift of life that we renew a few days later at the start of Rosh Hashana.16 17 18 19
Finally, it is customary to give tzedaka (righteous action to those in need; also, charitable contributions) during this time. The giving of tzedaka should not be seen as a penalty for wrongdoing, nor should it be used as a justification for bad behavior. It can be an act that encourages an open heart and a sacred expression of hope for a better world. Just as we conduct ḥeshbon hanefesh (soul searching), so may we conduct an accounting of how our resources have been spent and how our values are reflected in our expenditures and our giving.20
- 1. Rabbinic teachings remind us that even as the mood of Elul is a sober one of introspection and inner stocktaking, it is also a joyful time, for it is one when we can become aroused spiritually and stir ourselves to inner awakening. We can imagine God as our beloved who yearns for us to return to her. The letters of “Elul”—aleph, lamed, vav, lamed—are said to be an acronym of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” (“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”) from the Song of Songs 6:3. (Mishnah Berurah, Arukh Hashulḥan) We reclaim our deeply loving relationship to God, to our own inner beloved. This mystical imagery also has a profound psychological impact: As we do the work of facing all that we have done wrong, neglected and failed at, we might enter into despair and depression. The acronym suggests that we are lovable and desired, claimed and embraced, even in the midst of our human shortcomings. Only with this abiding sense of ultimate well-being and acceptance can we dare to undertake the work of repentance that Elul beckons us to do. —MK
- 2. While we have a sense of urgency about doing t’shuva in the month of Elul because of the upcoming Days of Awe, t’shuva is actually a practice to be undertaken throughout the year. Self-examination need not wait until August. If I feel there is reconciliation work that needs to be done, for example, it is better for everyone if I do not put it off. —JJS
- 3. I often wonder how to deal with the Elul agenda of self-examination in a culture of intense, yearlong introspection. Many of us who are engaged in spiritual practices or psychotherapy are always dealing with these issues. How, then, is Rosh Hashana different? Is it that the introspection is now couched in Jewish language? That the spiritual journey is now a Jewish communal excursion? —SPW
- 4. The 13 attributes reappear regularly in the liturgy at this season, as well as when the Torah is taken from the ark on festivals. The overwhelming image that these attributes convey is of a forgiving, patient and loving God. By repeating this phrase, the prayer book encourages us not to be afraid of divine judgment. Rather, we should aim to be honest with ourselves and to become vulnerable in order to avail ourselves of God’s love and to feel divine forgiveness. —BP
- 5. We can never return to things as they were before they were broken. That is not possible. And that is not what healing is. We are returning to something that can never truly be broken after it has appeared to be broken. We return with a new tenderness, a new depth of wisdom, kindness and confidence. —SPW
- 6. The broken tablets from Sinai remained broken. An ancient teaching tells us that both the fragments of the broken first tablets and the whole second tablets were placed in the Holy Ark. We need not pretend that brokenness does not exist. But we can respond to the brokenness by creating something whole and new. Both the broken and the new remain part of us. —JGK/JAS
- 7. The Psalmist says, “One thing I seek … to sit in God’s house all the days of my life, to gaze on God’s pleasantness.” This can be an instruction for practice during the days of Elul. It can be a good thing to sit for a few minutes each day with a sense of being “in YHVH’s house”—to experience the godliness of our physical “house,” our own bodies. This requires little more than finding ten minutes of quiet, settling into the body, and becoming aware of the sensations of sitting and breathing. In addition to exploring the ways in which we have gone astray in the year past, Psalm 27 invites us to bring a sense of that which is pleasant and good in our lives into our contemplation. Strengthening our capacity for compassion toward ourselves and fostering an ability to sit calmly with our thoughts or sensations helps us to build a foundation for the work of t’shuva. —TS
- 8. Rabbis spend a great deal of time during Elul reading, thinking and writing. These practices can be helpful to anyone who wishes to enter the Yamim Nora’im prepared with the tools of t’shuva and s’liḥa (forgiveness). Keeping a journal during Elul can help us to focus on areas we seek to change or to notice the triggers that send us onto an undesirable path. —BP
- 9. The Hebrew letters that spell “Elul” are an acronym for “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”—“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” In rabbinic understanding, this verse speaks to the relationship between God and the people Israel. Elul, then, is a time of intimacy between the source of compassion and us, a time when we turn toward God and God turns toward us. I like to think of this as meaning that as we engage in the hard work of t’shuva, of examining our deeds and making amends, the universe is on our side, supporting us as we turn onto a path of wholeness and peace. —TSM
- 10. I often learn best what my Elul work will require each year by sitting and listening to my heart. —NM
- 11. Self-reflection is critical as one prepares for the Yamim Nora’im, but there are also Hasidic teachings that caution against being so hard on oneself that one becomes filled with depression and despair, guilt and shame. In such an extreme, one is mired in yir’a, fear in the sense of fear of punishment, perhaps fear of one’s own being and the bad things one is capable of doing. Such self-alienation is counterproductive. An important counterpoint to the accounting of the soul is to remember one’s n’kuda tova, the good inner point at the center of one’s being. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav offers a practice in which we actively seek out our good points and draw them forth in order to counter the inner voices of self-condemnation that may keep us mistrustful of ourselves and isolated from others. Those voices may also keep us from engaging the form of yir’a that the Hasidic masters understood as the more elevated form: awe—awe at the majesty of creation and at our ultimate place in the larger scheme of universal truths that embrace the mysteries of birth, life, joy, suffering, death and rebirth. Both of these practices—focusing on the suffering one has caused oneself or others, and focusing on the inner goodness of one’s being and actions— help us to hold ourselves more lightly and fluidly, understanding that it is our human nature to shift and change, and that we can both prune and fertilize the godly aspects of our characters throughout our lives. —MK
- 12. How does one seek forgiveness from people or grant forgiveness to them when they are out of reach—those who have passed on, those who refuse to engage, or those to whom we choose not to speak in order to protect ourselves from further harm? What does it mean to forgive someone who does not ask for it? What does it mean to ask for forgiveness when we have no way of knowing if we have been forgiven? One important outcome of seeking or granting forgiveness is the loosening of the rigid places within our own hearts. When we decide to forgive someone who will never know of our forgiveness, we become capable of lifting the burden of anger and the pain of bearing grudges. The same is true of asking for the forgiveness of those who cannot hear our plea. When we truly regret what we have done and resolve to do and be better, we can relieve ourselves of debilitating shame and turn our lives toward goodness. —BP
- 13. I am deeply moved when an individual approaches me to seek forgiveness, and I learn more in each encounter, no matter how personally challenging, about how to gain the courage to do my own t’shuva work. Conversely, I am left cold when acquaintances publicly announce to a group of which I am a part that they apologize for any harm they have done, and urge all listeners to follow up with them if they feel they have been wronged. The onus for seeking forgiveness rests on the person who has transgressed, not on the ones she or he has wronged. The work of atonement is difficult, sometimes mortifying, and there are no shortcuts. —DW
- 14. Just as there is a deep intersection between the judgment of others and self-judgment, there is an equally deep interconnection between compassion for oneself and compassion for others. God—however we may understand God—may judge. We humans are well served by concentrating our efforts on deepening our compassion. —DW
- 15. An ongoing part of my process of ḥeshbon hanefesh (soul searching) is working on the reality that at times I am far more interested in being right than in seeing something broken become transformed through forgiveness. Sometimes I invest great energy nurturing a garden of bitterness and resentment. What might grow if I were to direct that energy toward forgiveness? —DW
- 16. There is a minhag (a Jewish custom) of asking forgiveness from the deceased while visiting the grave. —YR
- 17. Sometimes the person from whom we need to seek forgiveness is inaccessible or has even died. In those cases, the culmination of ḥeshbon hanefesh may be to offer tzedaka in that person’s memory or as a personal recognition of atonement. —NHM
- 18. The daily bedtime Shema ritual includes a passage in which we individually grant forgiveness to anyone who has harmed us. The formula, “Hereby I forgive,” sounds like a completed action, but it may be hard to say it and mean it. The Hebrew can be understood as being in the present-progressive tense: “I am hereby forgiving.” We acknowledge the value in the process we are in, even if the process of forgiving is incomplete. —JGK
- 19. Are there some acts for which it is impossible to grant forgiveness? Heinous crimes of violence or abuse might qualify. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting that an offense occurred, nor does it require that a relationship be restored. It can sometimes be a letting go of the pain or anger so that the victim of abuse can move forward. —NHM
- 20. Most Jewish organizations use this season to remind us to support their causes. Choosing which organizations to support and determining how much to give can be an Elul practice all on its own. How we give reflects our deepest values. By carefully reviewing the appeals, we can recommit ourselves to our most cherished principles as we enter the new year. This can be an especially powerful lesson for our children when the family discusses such decisions together. In my family, we emptied our tzedaka boxes at the holidays and determined together where those funds would go. —BP