The holy month of Elul has begun. It is the final month of the Jewish calendar, and it is a period of reflection and self-assessment before Rosh Hashanah.
During this year of Covid, and deep division within our society, the arrival of Elul appears as a blessing. During this month, it is customary for Jews to meditate on the past year and take stock of our actions. Not every Jew cares about the holiday or the month, but for many, it is a gift that allows us to pause and consider all that has transpired in the last year. Here’s an Elul primer to lift the soul as we prepare to begin the new year:
According to tradition, we pay our respects during Elul to relatives and friends who have passed on. At the cemetery, we place stones on graves to honor the deceased and to let others know that the grave has been recently visited.
In Elul, every morning service ends with a blast of the shofar – save for the day before Rosh Hashanah. According to scholars, one reason the shofar is sounded in Elul is to commemorate Moses’ second ascent of Mount Sinai. That ascent, which stretched from the first day of Elul through Yom Kippur, was complemented by shofar blasts. If you can, find a rabbi or someone who has a shofar. Close your eyes, and listen to the notes drift to the heavens. It can be an otherworldly experience.
Elul is a period of introspection. In our prayer books, we read that Teshuva (returning to God), charity and prayer can nullify harsh decrees. These are simple ways of repairing the soul: when we talk directly to God, we release our burdens, anxiety and pain; when we give charity, we generally feel better; when we pray, we meditate, and can reach new spiritual heights.
Words can elevate others, and during the month we offer the greeting Ketivah Vachatimah Tovah, or “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” This is an affirmation of life, and who doesn’t like to bestow or receive a positive message or blessing? It can change a person’s day.
Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner. Try one or more of these customs. It seemed to work for a lot of our relatives as they prepared for the new year. Maybe you’ll find there’s an innate wisdom to these traditions.