The sounds of Elul

The sounds of Elul

We’re in Elul now, the month preceding Tishrei, the month of Rosh Hashanah.

In many ways, Elul is set apart from the other months. It shares with Cheshvan, the month after Tishrei, the distinction of having neither holiday nor holy day, neither feast nor fast. Tishrei is overcrowded with special times – Rosh Hashanah, the Fast of Gedalia, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah. Thirteen of that month’s 30 days are spoken for, preprogrammed. It’s no wonder that we must build up to it slowly, and when we must recuperate in Cheshvan.

Elul is a bit of a conundrum. Its two special observances embody the double message it gives us. The uncertainties of divine judgment and the assurance of unconditional divine love vie for our attention. To clarify the core ambiguities, we could start by looking at the two observances unique to Elul. First, we blow four blasts on the shofar at the end of weekday morning prayers from the beginning of the month until the day before Rosh Hashanah. In this penitential season, the shofar, as Maimonides explained, wakes us from our slumber and reminds us to examine our deeds and repent. The shofar’s cry is piercing, unsettling, a jarring reminder that we need to seek forgiveness both from other human beings and from God before we arrive at the judgment of Yom Kippur.

But there is a counterweight to the somewhat threatening notion that all of our deeds are written in the metaphoric divine book and weighed on the divine scales of judgment. In Elul, Psalm 27, which is added at the conclusion of both morning and evening prayer services, offers us a much more positive vision. Before we go back to our daily pursuits we are reminded that God is our light and salvation, the source of strength that makes us fearless. The richly metaphoric psalm allows little room for doubt, as long as we maintain our faith in God. Even if our parents have left us, abandoned us, God will gather us up like orphans and care for us. Although faith in God seems requisite for God’s love, the tenor of the psalm is reassurance.

It is with the strength and sense of confidence in God’s benevolence that we approach the opening of the Ten Days of Penitence on Rosh Hashanah. But it is without cockiness or any certainty that we have done what is expected of us. We know that we are in God’s hands. In response to the shofar’s calls in the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah, we publicly acknowledge that all creatures stand for judgment, “either as children or as slaves. If as children may God have mercy upon us, as a parent has mercy on children; if as slaves, we look to You, hoping that You will be gracious to us and judge us favorably.”

Elul generally is viewed as a prelude to Rosh Hashanah, a time for beginning the process of personal self-examination and reconnection with God, but it is also a time when we think about the connection between God and the people Israel. In fact the rabbis read the Hebrew letters that spell Elul – aleph-lamed-vav-lamed – as the acronym for the four words “ani ledodi vedodi li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). While the Song of Songs is a series of poems about erotic human love, it long has been read also as an allegory for the intimate and unbreakable relationship between God and the people Israel. In this month of Elul we also must take stock of our behavior as the Jewish people.

The peoplehood aspect of Elul’s introspection also is reinforced by another special feature of Elul: all the prophetic haftarot recited after the Torah reading are among the seven haftarot of consolation drawn from Isaiah. Unlike the haftarot of the rest of the year, the three that precede Tishah B’av and the seven that follow through the end of the Jewish year are chosen not because of their connection to the Torah reading itself but because of the calendrical cycle. Isaiah’s voice resounds with consolation for the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Jews to Babylonia, conveying further reassurance of God’s undying love and support.

We human beings pretend to have dominion over time by measuring it out in minutes, hours, days, months, seasons, years, centuries. Fall brings a halt to the “endless summer” but it slowly permeates our lives in stages. We turn the non-digital calendar page from August to September. There’s the long Labor Day weekend, which represents the last opportunity for us in the northern hemisphere to grab that bit of vacation that eluded us and/or to sit in traffic snarled by other last-minute vacationers. The opening of the school year is a marker. And then, of course, there’s the September equinox itself, this year on the night of September 22, which seems officially to put all hope of summer behind us. But still we await the nip in the air and the red and golden hues of fall.

But as Jews we live in two worlds and at the intersection of two calendars. The Jewish calendar clearly is the more ancient. Thus when we say that Rosh Hashanah is a little late this year, we really mean that Labor Day or September 1 is early. As is the case with the secular calendar, the Jewish calendar eases us into the season, which is marked not by football but by introspection.

The autumnal harbingers of human fragility, of the days growing cold, of the long, dark nights, are reinforced by the liturgy of Elul, of the Yamim Nora’im, of the Awe-filled Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We are reminded that although we may be but a little lower than the angels, we are but driven leaves, but dust and ashes, in the grand scope of eternity.

May this year bring health, joy, and, above all, peace and wholeness to us all.