When the shofar was sounded and we began to recite Psalm 27 last week on Rosh Hodesh Elul, we inaugurated the season of the Days of Awe which extends from the beginning of the month of Elul through the end of Succot. This extraordinary period is the result of centuries of growth in which great religious minds - the sages of Israel - wove together various separate days that originally had little to do with one another into one magnificent tapestry into which are woven the themes of sin, forgiveness, judgment, repentance, responsibility and atonement, some of the deepest concerns of human life.
From a day proclaiming the coronation of God as sovereign of the world, a theme that still remains prominent in the liturgy, the first of Tishrei became Rosh Hashana, the start of the new year and the day when all humanity appears before God for judgment. Yom Kippur, at first a day whose main concern was the ritual cleansing of the Temple prior to the great feast of Succot, became the time for the confession of sins, cleansing ourselves morally and for attaining atonement and forgiveness through repentance.
To prepare properly for the Days of Awe, the otherwise ordinary month of Elul became a time for contemplation and for the recitation of slihot, prayers asking for forgiveness. Eventually Jewish mystics also reinterpreted the last day of Succot into Hoshana Raba, the final day for attaining forgiveness, thus giving us this extended period of time we now observe.
Originally the shofar was sounded only on the first of Tishrei (Numbers 29:1). It, too, seems to have been connected to the idea of God's coronation, as we read in Psalm 98:6, "With trumpets and the blast of the shofar raise a shout before the Lord, the king!" Much later the rabbinic commentaries to the story of the binding of Isaac added a new meaning to the shofar. Pointing to "the ram caught in the thicket by its horns" (Genesis 22:13), the midrash relates that God told Abraham "In the future Isaac's descendants will certainly sin before Me and I shall judge them on Rosh Hashana. If they want Me to find some merit for them and remember the binding of Isaac, let them sound the shofar - the horn of the ram - before Me and I will save them and redeem them from their transgressions" (Tanhuma Vayera).
The eighth century midrash Pirkei Derebbi Eliezer mentions the custom of sounding the shofar every day of Elul (except the day before Rosh Hashana) as preparation for the Days of Awe and connects it with the giving of the second set of tablets of the Decalogue, which represents the time when God forgave the sins of people of Israel and was reconciled with them. Thus the shofar is a reminder of God's forgiving nature. Maimonides, however, suggested that blowing the shofar was not intended to have an effect upon God but upon us. It was intended to make us think about our actions and repent, abandoning "our evil ways and wicked thoughts" (Hilchot Teshuva 3.4).
So too the recitation of slihot prayers. Sephardim recite them all of Elul, Ashkenazim only from the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana (unless there are fewer than four days, in which case they begin the week before). These prayers too emphasize the forgiving nature of God and are intended to cause us to ponder how we can break our habitual patterns and change for the better. We need the month of Elul to truly accomplish what the Days of Awe intend.
What this period of time comes down to is self-awareness, the need to scrutinize one's life and consider one's deeds. This is something we seldom if ever do. In the press of daily life, with all the pressures of work, family, home, we do not really have time to reflect on ourselves. And even if we have the time, there are other things we would prefer to do rather than self-reflection and self-judgment. It may be too painful.
Of course it is possible to let all of this simply pass over us and observe the rituals without getting to the true intent and meaning. Like everything else in religious observance, it is all too easy to go through the motions without paying attention to the meaning of what we are doing, in which case it is empty form with no content. I assume, for example, that over these past 20 years Bernard Madoff attended synagogue at least on Rosh Hashana. What did he think about when he heard the shofar? When he recited "Al Het" on Yom Kippur, what thoughts went through his mind?
I hate to imagine it. Perhaps he was thinking about those $2,000 trousers he had ordered but would never manage to pick up from the exclusive men's store in Palm Beach. But what an opportunity he missed. He will now have many years ahead with little to do except self-reflection.
We are given the opportunity for reflection in order to attain self-awareness. We should take advantage of what our sages created for us to improve ourselves, our lives and our world.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.