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The Awesome Holy Month of Elul

by | Feb 19, 2004

Elul is the most propitious month of the year for the sort of personal
change and growth we call “tshuvah”. Now, the term tshuvah is usually
translated as either “repentance”, “penitence”, or the like, but to my mind
those terms have a certain un-Jewish tone and feel to them. We prefer
“return”– the return to the relationship you’d had with G-d or others before
you erred.

The truth be known, we all make mistakes. We all, sad to say, hurt
others, perform mitzvahs perfunctorily or by rote, lack for spiritual spark,
or crave un-G-dly things. Hence, we all have to turn ourselves round back to
where we’d been before– or to even greater heights– through tshuvah.

Elul thus serves as the season of tshuvah, the special and rare moment
we’d been waiting for, the appointment we’d set for doing tshuvah for our

In fact, that’s why Elul is known as the month when G-d Almighty is most
approachable, most at hand. And we’d do well to take advantage of the moment
and prepare ourselves for an encounter with Him.

In his holy work “The Gates of Repentance” (2:15) Rabbeinu Yonah advises
us to be ready to great G-d all the time. As such, Elul is the best of many
times to do that.

Nonetheless Rabbeinu Yonah offers us a touching scenario based on the
words of our sages to illustrate the point. He speaks there of a sailor’s
wife who was all dressed up and made up, waiting by the shoreline, even
though her husband was overseas.

Her neighbors asked, “Hasn’t your husband gone very far away? So why are
you making yourself attractive for no reason?”

She replied, “My husband is a sailor. The winds might reverse at sea,
and he could easily come right home to find me. That’s why!” (based on
Kohelet Rabbah 9:8).

We, too, should be “dressed up” and “made up”– beautified by mitzvahs
and good intentions, loftiness of character, and a zeal for goodness. And we
should take advantage of the opportunity that Elul serves to do that.

But there are a couple of other aspects of Elul as well. Elul also
serves as a “training period” for Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur; a whole month
to prepare ourselves for those Holy Days. And the blowing of the shofar
after morning tephilla we experience in Elul helps in that.

For as Rambam says in Hilchos Tshuvah (3:4), the shofar sends the
following message to us each year. “Awaken, you sleepers!” it says.
“Arise, you slumberers! Examine your deeds, do tshuvah and remember your
Creator! Those who ignore the truth for passing fancies, and those beguiled
all life long by vanities and emptiness… should look into their souls,
improve their ways and rectify their deeds!”

And Elul serves one other purpose. It allows us to time to ready
ourselves for the year to come. After all, our fate is about to be
determined on Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. And the thought of that is often

Who knows what’s coming our way! We’re sure G-d will have mercy on us
and guide us in the best way to live out the next year. Still-and-all,
though, it’s sometimes frightening to consider the possibilities.

So the pious Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (“The Alter of Kelm”) suggests we
ready ourselves for that eventuality by dwelling in our minds upon three
different things in Elul.

  • The fact that G-d alone is in charge of the universe, no one else, and
    certainly not ourselves. It seems we always need to remember that, but
    especially now, when G-d is about to manifest his sovereignty in our life in
    the year to come.

  • We’d do well to concentrate upon the fact, The Alter continues, that
    everything that G-d does is good. After all, we’re taught that “G-d is good
    to all and merciful toward all His creatures” (Psalms 145:9). We tend to
    either forget that, though, and to lose sight of it in the roar and rumble of
    our lives.

  • And finally, it would serve us well to develop the noble traits of
    patience and resignation in the month of Elul. In fact, we in modernity have
    a lot of trouble with those very traits. We’re invariably agitated and
    impatient, determined and aggressive. We want everything right now, and we
    want it “just so”.

    Few are as blessed, though, as the patient and resigned, and few are as
    truly free as they. Would that we ourselves enjoyed that blessing.

So, let us hold fast onto this holy and awesome month of Elul, learn its
lessons, grow as a consequence of what it has to offer, and always strive to
be the best Jews we can be.

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