Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
On Tuesday evening, August 26th, we’ll enter into the new lunar month of Elul. Elul is a very special time on the Jewish calendar; it is the final month of the old year, and it’s our time for the spiritual “ramp-up” process which will prepare us for the Days of Awe.
In Hebrew, the name Elul is spelled אלול. These four letters can be read as an acronym for the phrase Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” That’s a quote from Song of Songs. In this context, the Beloved is God. Elul is the month when we remember that our relationship with God is quintessentially a relationship of love.
Jewish tradition teaches that during Elul, “the King is walking in the fields.” This is the month when God departs from the divine palace and wanders in the meadows, among God’s people. In this metaphor, it’s presumed that during most of the year God may be difficult to access (like an earthly king in his palace, protected by guards and by layers of beaurocracy) but during this month, God is right here with us, all of the trappings of royalty discarded, ready to listen to us as a friend listens to another beloved friend. What would it feel like to wander in the beautiful fields (perhaps right here behind our synagogue sanctuary) and speak quietly with God, knowing that God is listening with compassion and with love?
This is the month when we deepen our practice of teshuvah, repentance or return. Teshuvah is the spiritual work of looking closely at our actions and emotions, our thoughts and our souls, and discerning where we’ve missed the mark and how we could do better. Some sages teach that the month of Elul is the time to apologize and repair our relationships with other human beings, so that during the Ten Days of Teshuvah (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) we can focus on repairing our relationship with our Source.
There’s a custom of blowing the shofar every day during the month of Elul. The shofar is a kind of spiritual alarm clock; when we hear it, it’s meant to wake us up! If you’re not able to blow shofar (it’s not among my skills, for sure), you can listen to someone else blow it.
Embedded, above, is a YouTube video of someone blowing shofar for Elul. And if you have a smartphone, and want to hear the shofar this month on your phone, there’s an app for that: here’s a Shofar app from RustyBrick (for iPhone and iPad) and here’s Mighty Shofar (for Android phones.)
If you’re looking for materials to help get you “in the mood” for teshuvah, for self-reflection, and for the coming Days of Awe, I always recommend Rabbi Alan Lew’s This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. And/or, feel free to borrow or buy a copy of Elul Reflections, a paperback collection of the Elul meditations I wrote last year during this holy month. (I have several copies in my office, and if I’m not here when you drop by, there are also copies on the bookshelf right outside my office door, with a little sign indicating that you can help yourself to a copy.) I have six copies to lend out; if you want to buy one, they cost $8 in person or on Amazon.
One final Elul custom is reading psalm 27 every day. There’s a gorgeous translation of the psalm in Psalms In A Translation for Praying, by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l (may his memory be a blessing.) And/or, you can hear or sing Achat Sha’alti, an excerpt from that psalm — “One thing I ask of You, I earnestly pray for — that I might dwell in Your house all the days of my life, knowing the beauty of You, and dwelling in Your holy place.” What does it mean to dwell in God’s house? Maybe it means recognizing that wherever we are, that place can be a holy place, a place where the divine presence can dwell, if we only open our hearts. Kein yehi ratzon — may it be so!