The Jewish Month of Elul
Rabbi Berel Wein
The serious month of the Jewish calendar is upon us. All months are serious but Elul is just more so. It has no special holidays or commemorative days within it but it certainly serves as the transitional month between the seasons of summer and autumn - of school vacations, trips, camp and the solemnity of the High Hoy Days of the beginning of Tishrei.
As such it always occupied a special place in Jewish tradition. It became a time of very intensive Torah in the schools, seminaries and yeshivot of higher Jewish education. Great Chasidic mentors who greeted and advised thousands during the remainder of the year went into private seclusion in Elul, receiving no visitors. Great communal rabbis took leave of their communal and congregational positions for a period of time during Elul to refresh themselves in the atmosphere of Torah learning and piety in the yeshivot of their time and place.
An atmosphere of anticipation, introspection and a search for one’s better self was created by the advent of the month of Elul. In our world of 24/7 with its constant pressures of work, finance, family and just getting around to where we wish to go – looking for a parking space in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is a special form of penance imposed upon us for our misdeeds – almost precludes the desired atmosphere of Elul from reaching us.
Nevertheless it is unthinkable that we should approach the High Holy Days without some measure of preparation and introspection. After all, in the long view of matters, it is me and who I really am that determines the value of one’s life and accomplishments. So Elul should be exploited to the extent that we can do so and not simply ignored or dissipated.
One of the great aspects of Elul is that it dwells upon the future. Months that contain within them days of commemorations and holidays always possess a necessary emphasis on the history of past events. Elul possesses no such commemorative days. It encourages us to look forward to creating a better future for ourselves, our families and communities. It emphasizes that the misdeeds and sad events of the past should be considered as having ended and disappeared and now we can only look forward to better times and more positive behavior in the new year that now appears over our horizon.
The emphasis on introspection that I previously described as being part of the Elul package – and introspection always concentrates on dealing with past events and behavior – is tempered and balanced by Elul’s demand to look forward and deal with the future in a hopeful and positive fashion. The ability to balance the past and the future in our lives is always a difficult task.
Dwelling on the past often induces unrealistic and distorted nostalgia which again always cripples our ability to deal with our current lives and our future. Once again, dealing only with the future and ignoring the events and lessons of the past can only lead to frustrations and disappointments when our rosy predictions and seeming certainties turn out to be wrong, useless and even dangerous.
Elul sets the right tone. It emphasizes our future while still demanding that a measure of introspection allows one to learn from the past year gone by - and to create a better emotional and psychological frame of mind and soul.
Elul is marked by the sounding of the shofar in the morning synagogue prayer services and by the recitation of selichot in the Sephardic and Near Eastern Jewish communities. These customs are meant to internalize within us the opportunities that the month of Elul offers for our spiritual restoration and growth.
There are no easy or even proven methods to help this process along within ourselves. Every individual must find his or her way alone. Judaism generally is not a one size fits all faith when it comes to spiritual growth. While we are all bound to perform the commandments of the Torah in their entirety, no explicit guide to finding spirituality in one’s life is granted to us.
Elul is a time to search deep into one’s own self for the personal road that we all seek - to become closer to the Creator and to leave a legacy of decency and Jewish commitment to those that will follow us. Elul is truly a special month for all of us.