Tradition Today: Preparing for judgment

The month of Elul begins this Sunday, and with it the time to prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

A man blows a shofar while others read ‘slihot’ during the Days of Awe at the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A man blows a shofar while others read ‘slihot’ during the Days of Awe at the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Days of Awe are upon us. The month of Elul begins this Sunday, and with it the time to prepare for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The Torah tells us nothing about Elul, but then the entire concept of Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), of a period of judgment beginning on 1 Tishrei and continuing for 10 days through Yom Kippur, is a later development within Judaism that originated during the time of the Second Temple. The Torah does not even have a specific name for 1 Tishrei, certainly not Rosh Hashana. It is termed Yom Terua (the day of sounding the horn), with no reason given for doing so (Numbers 29:1-2).
It has been suggested that it was similar to a Babylonian holiday celebrating the coronation of their chief god.
For Israel this may have become the day for celebration of the kingship of the Lord over all the world – an act commemorated by sounding the horn. This idea eventually became one of the major themes of Rosh Hashana, incorporated into the prayers known as Malchuyot – the kingship or sovereignty of God.
In any case, that day is basically another Rosh Hodesh, but one of special importance because it is the seventh month of the year. In the Torah it is not related to Yom Kippur in any way. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, in the Torah is already the day of great sacredness, the day of ridding us of that which makes us unclean. The Sanctuary itself had to be cleansed of impurity in order to be ready for the most important festival, Succot, five days later. So, too, human beings have to purify themselves of their sins before that important time. Later the two dates were connected, with Rosh Hashana beginning the period of judgment for human beings and the verdict being finalized on Yom Kippur.
The evolution of these days into our Days of Awe demonstrates beautifully that the Judaism of today is the result of growth and development. It has never been stagnant, but always growing, developing and changing. We are rabbinic Jews, the heirs of the Pharisees, and what differentiated them from the Sadducees was the concept of a Judaism that included ideas and interpretations beyond the literal word of the Torah.
We are fortunate that this is so, otherwise our Judaism would be much poorer than it is and we would not have the great spiritual adventure that begins in Elul. In many ways it is the most profound spiritual creation of our people, a time of introspection, of self-judgment, of the possibility of change and improvement, a time to ponder the greatest themes of existence, the meaning of one’s life, free will and free choice, the celebration of living, human responsibility.
These days are the most universal and humane of all our holidays. Unlike other Jewish holidays, they are tied only tangentially to Jewish history or to agriculture.
They speak to the deepest level of our being. Because of their importance and their depth, it is easy to understand why it was thought that one should not enter them quickly, without contemplation and preparation.
Therefore, eventually to the Ten Days of Penitence was added the entire month of Elul, devoted to directing our attention to these great themes. The very name of the month – Elul – was turned into the initials of the words Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li (I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine), the Beloved, of course being God. This month becomes the opportunity to come close to the Divine by directing our hearts and our minds to these great themes, by looking within ourselves and seeing where we have strayed, where we have erred, where we have been less than we should have been and finding the strength to acknowledge our faults in order to remake ourselves into the person we would want to be.
Three things are done in Elul to help us prepare: the shofar is sounded daily, a sound of warning to begin to scrutinize our lives and be ready for judgment. Prayers of Slihot (forgiveness) are recited, assuring us that we are judged by a God who is willing to forgive if we repent properly. A special psalm, Psalm 27, is recited daily in which we turn to God for forgiveness and repeat out trust and hope in the Lord.
Through these three things, each day of Elul becomes a special time strengthening our faith deepening our devotion to God and to living up to God’s requirements as the prophet taught them: “What does the Lord require of you? Only to act justly, love kindness and walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
The writer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, a lecturer and author whose book Entering the High Holy Days (JPS) received the National Book Award. His latest book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS).