Elul is a wonderful month. Although it has no holy days to celebrate, in a sense every day is a holy day and the entire month is infused with a feeling of spiritual exaltation.
Though never singled out for mention in the Torah, rabbinic Judaism endowed Elul with special significance by making the entire month an introduction and time of preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe that follow in the month of Tishrei.
One cannot simply enter that period with no preparation and expect it to be meaningful. The interpretation given to the very name of the month, Elul, says it all. Tradition understands it as the opening letters of the words from Song of Songs 6:3, ani l’dodi v’dodi li – “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine”– with the Beloved, of course, being God.
Elul, then, becomes the time when we make the attempt to come close to God, to establish that relationship of intimacy, of mutual belonging, of fulfillment of the love that we are to have for God and God has for us, as expressed so well in the love poetry of Song of Songs. The rabbis understood this book as teaching that our ideal relationship to God can only be understood when compared to the love between man and woman.
This preparation consists of three things: daily sounding of the shofar; recitation of Psalm 27 morning and evening; and special slihot (penitential) prayers.
The shofar is a wake-up call. It reminds us that we have to consider our actions and seek to improve and change. The Days of Awe are predicated on the concept that human beings are endowed with free will and are responsible for their actions. Therefore, they can choose to do evil or choose to do good. They have the possibility of change and are not doomed to do the wrong thing. That is a fundamental principle of Judaism, taught in the very first stories of Genesis – Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel.
The ancient rabbis took the New Month (Rosh Hodesh) of Tishrei – the seventh month of the year – and turned it into a time in which we celebrate our ability to choose and our ability to change, emphasizing the responsibility we have for our own choices and actions. Reciting slihot is a necessary introduction to that concept, for unless one recognizes what one has done wrong and seeks forgiveness for it, change is impossible.
The selection of Psalm 27 is very interesting. The interpretation of that psalm found in the rabbinic commentary on Psalms, Midrash Tehilim, indicates that from ancient times this psalm was connected to the Days of Awe. “The Lord is my light - on Rosh Hashana, since this is the day of judgment… The Lord is my salvation – on Yom Kippur, when He saves us and forgives our sins” (27:3).
The psalm itself is complicated. On the one hand, it begins by asserting that because of closeness to the Lord, one has no reason to fear or be afraid (verse 1); yet toward the end, the psalmist pleads, “Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger… do not forsake me, do not abandon me…” (verse 9). It seems that the psalmist very much desires the closeness of God – echoing the idea of “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine” – but feels he has not yet attained it, and God is still far from him. Thus he does feel fear and trepidation, which he has to work to overcome.
He concludes by encouraging himself to continue the search and not give up – “Look to the Lord: be strong and of good courage! O look to the Lord!” (verse 14). The message being conveyed by the psalm is that it is not easy to attain the feeling of intimacy with God, which is desirable and will banish our fears, but we must work toward it and never abandon the search.
There is no question that feelings of concern and even trepidation are part and parcel of the High Holy Day experience, even if they do not define it. The reason is simple. As we confront a new year, we begin to think of what lies ahead – and one never knows what that is. Uncertainty breeds concern.
This is expressed most openly and strongly not in the order of prayer itself, but in piyyutim – liturgical poems – that have been added to it, especially the magnificent Unetaneh Tokef, which describes the Day of Judgment.
The images there are taken from prophetic books in which the end of days, the final day of judgment, is depicted. “Who will live and who will die,” we say.
Who would have thought last Rosh Hashana that we would have had a 50-day war this summer? Who would have predicted that Russia would be invading Ukraine, that a new Muslim Caliphate would be taking shape on our very border? We therefore have no idea what to expect this coming year, either. No wonder we express anxiety, as is expressed in Psalm 27.
Fortunately, the month of Elul gives us the opportunity to grapple with these feelings, of accepting responsibility for those things that are within our control, namely our own actions, of seeing how we can improve and, most of all, of moving closer to a relationship of love with God which will help us to deal with our fears.
“I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine”: These are our tasks during the month of Elul.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).