Approaching Rosh Hashana

Prayer takes on special meaning in Elul as we move toward Rosh Hashana, which celebrates the birthday of the world.

Notes cleared out of Western Wall ahead of Rosh Hashana‏ (photo credit: WESTERN WALL RABBI)
Notes cleared out of Western Wall ahead of Rosh Hashana‏
(photo credit: WESTERN WALL RABBI)
The holy month of Elul has begun, the sixth month in the Hebrew calendar. There is a rabbinic allusion to the month being named from the initial letters of “ani ledodi vedodi-li” (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine), describing the relationship between God and His people. Every weekday morning during this month, the shofar is sounded and Psalm 27 is recited. Sephardim have already begun saying Selichot, but Ashkenazim recite this only in the last days of the month. In the Aggadah we read that Elul has special significance because of Moses’ 40-day stay on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28) which was calculated to have begun on Elul 1 and to have ended on Tishrei 10 (Yom Kippur).
The word “selicha” means forgiveness – it is a plea for forgiveness for sins, and as we approach the time when we know that we will be judged, we practice a kind of spiritual stock-taking. We look inward, trying to assess what happened to last year’s dreams, asking pardon for wrongs committed and hoping that through repentance, charity and prayers we will be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav expressed it beautifully: “Every word of your prayer is like a rose which you pick from its bush. You continue until you have formed a bouquet of blessings, until you have pleated a wreath of glory for the Lord.”
Prayer takes on special meaning in Elul as we move toward Rosh Hashana, which celebrates the birthday of the world. Then we will recite a special prayer, called “Unetenah Tokef” (Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day), when we are made aware of our mortality. The translation of part of it reads: “Humanity’s origin is dust, and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered pot, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust on the wind, a dream soon forgotten... but You are the Ruler, the everlasting God.”
This prayer was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. He was ordered to convert to Christianity by the local archbishop. When he refused, his limbs were amputated, and as his mutilated body lay dying before the Ark of the synagogue to which he had requested to be carried he said these words, which are also part of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
When mystics pray, they believe there is an ascent of the soul, that it soars to upper worlds.
Prayers of thanksgiving and praise are deemed worthier than petitionary prayers, because they are selfless. Some people believe that the highest form of worship is silence. Prayers purify, refine and ennoble our hearts. The Bible tells us that Abraham was the first to utter a true prayer – for his fellow-man. And in these times when we are at war, agonizing over our losses and the many families who have lost loved ones to the fighting in Gaza, or to terrorist attacks, we in Israel need to have faith more than ever. (I heard about a young soldier who was working on the Iron Dome missile defense system in recent days. A few rockets aimed at civilian centers were not intercepted, but a gentle wind came and moved them so that they fell in open fields. If you live in Israel and don’t believe in miracles, you are not a realist!) So we pray for all Jews to have a good, safe year.
We share a common destiny – Jews in Israel and abroad – and if it is good for one Jew, it is good for us all. It is this shared destiny that binds us together, no matter how different our ethnic and cultural boundaries may be.
I memorized the following lines when I was a schoolgirl. Their author is unknown, although they have been attributed by some to French-born American Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet.
I think they are appropriate at this time, and all year round, for that matter: “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.”