The Jewish tradition has a habit of extending sacred days over large segments of time. Tisha Be'av, for example, is extended backwards to the 17th of Tammuz, creating three weeks of mourning. Similarly, Rosh Hashana is extended backwards by an entire month to the first of Elul - a month that has absolutely no significance in the Torah - in order to create a month-long period of High Holy Day preparations. Neither Rosh Hashana itself nor the Ten Days of Penitence from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur are sufficient. We need the entire month of Elul to prepare ourselves for the task of renewal.
What is done during this month and what is it supposed to accomplish? The Maharal of Prague said, "All the month of Elul before eating and sleeping, one should look into one's soul and search one's deeds in order to make confession." There are different customs among different Jewish communities, but they all have three things in common: the daily blowing of the shofar (which in the Torah is confined to Rosh Hashana), the recitation of selihot - penitential prayers - and the daily recitation of Psalm 27.
Each of these customs is related to the fact that Rosh Hashana is Yom Hadin, The Day of Judgment. As the Mishna states: "On Rosh Hashana, all human beings pass before [God] as troops" (Rosh Hashana 1:2). How does one ready oneself for judgment? That is the question.
The blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana serves many different purposes. In Elul, it is a warning signal. It tells us to be aware that the time of judgment is upon us, that we must begin the journey to self-awareness. What have we done this past year? What have we not done? What are our strengths and what are our weaknesses? How can we better ourselves? How can we change?
Hearing that piercing sound each morning before we begin our day's work, we are challenged to remember that everything we do has significance. Beware and be aware. But tradition also has a hopeful message. It states that on the first day of Elul, Moses ascended the mountain to receive the second set of Tablets of the Law. Since these tablets represent the reconciliation of God and Israel, the sign of God's forgiveness, the sound of the shofar is also a remembrance of God's forgiveness for our sins. The Judge is also one who exercises the quality of mercy.
Selihot prayers remind us that we are constantly in the presence of God, a God of mercy who can and does forgive if we are worthy of forgiveness. They remind us as well that we must ask forgiveness both from others whom we have wronged and from God. There was a popular novel that misinformed us that "love means never having to say you're sorry." But the truth is that "I'm sorry" is required, but it is an apology that recognizes wrongdoing and seeks to change. The human condition is such that there is no one who does not do wrong. The wrong may be intentional or it may be unintentional, but it remains a wrong and wrongs must be righted.
Finally, the daily recitation of Psalm 27 gives expression to our deepest feelings at the prospect of judgment and indeed to the human condition. In phrases that remind us of the more famous 23rd Psalm, the psalmist sounds a note of confidence: "The Lord is my light and my help, whom shall I fear?" But as the psalm progresses, we learn that indeed he has feelings of great anxiety: Do not hide from me; do not reject Your servant. The confidence was superficial. He really feels abandoned by God, betrayed by human beings, and he begs God to be with him. But after experiencing this attack of anxiety, he calms himself and reassures himself to be strong, take courage, hope in the Lord.
Few and far between are those who have no fears, no doubts, no feelings of loneliness. We too need reassurance, which we receive in this psalm. Hope - repeated twice - is always there because God is with us.
It has been pointed out that one of the words toward the end of the psalm - lulei - "were it not" when read backwards in Hebrew is Elul and further that the word Elul itself is an acrostic of the verse from Song of Songs 6:3, Ani l'dodi v'dodi li - I am my Beloved's (God) and my Beloved is mine. What greater closeness to God can there be than this? Indeed, that is the function of Elul, of this month of preparation - attaining a feeling of closeness to God so that we do not enter Rosh Hashana as strangers, but as those beloved of God, assured of forgiveness and aware of the sensitivities needed to improve ourselves in the year ahead.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.