This weekend we’ll enter into the lunar month of Elul — the four weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. This is the time to begin the journey of introspection and reflection which can deeply enrich your experiences of the High Holidays. Who have you been, over the last year? What are the things you feel great about, the things you’re proud of? What are the things you feel not-so-great about, the places where you missed the mark?
One tradition says that Elul is the time to work on teshuvah, usually translated as “repentance” though the word really means “return,” in our relationship with God — whatever you understand that term to mean — God far above or deep within, the Source of meaning, Love, the Cosmos, the Cosmic Parent, the Beloved, whatever metaphor works best for you. This is also a good time to work on repairing our relationships with ourselves: where have we disappointed ourselves, and how can we learn to offer ourselves forgiveness? What are we most grateful for, and how can we cultivate that gratitude in our lives every day?
If we spend Elul engaged in this work, then by the time Rosh Hashanah rolls around we will already be steeped in the themes of the season, and the prayers in our prayerbook may resonate in a different way… and we’ll be better prepared to spend the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, mending our relationships with the people in our lives. (Of course, that kind of interpersonal repair work can be done during Elul, too.)
Here are seven ways to dive deeper into Elul:
- Take a few minutes every day to breathe deeply, be present in the moment, and take your emotional-spiritual temperature: how are you feeling, not physically but emotionally? What’s arising in you today?
- On social media check out the hashtag #blogElul, which all month long will bring you blog posts and tweets on themes of repentance and return. (This is an annual thing organized by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, a.k.a. Ima Bima.) Or check out #Reflect4Rosh, a new online pre-high-holiday initiative organized by Rabbi Dan Horowitz of The Well, which invites people to reflect each day and to post photos and reflections tagged with that hashtag.
- Read an Elul poem every day and spend a few moments letting the poem soak in and seeing what it awakens in you. (In my office I have copies of my collection See Me: Elul Poems available for borrowing or purchase; you can also buy the book on Amazon if you are so inclined, and if you do so, you can get the e-book for 99 cents.)
- Come to Shabbat services. Dip into song and prayer with our community. You may find that it opens your heart and enlivens your spirit in ways you didn’t expect… and you’ll also get some advance glimpses of some melodies we’ll be using during the Days of Awe.
- Read, pray, or sing Psalm 27 every day. This is the psalm our sages assigned to this month. Here are some different versions to try:
- Reb Zalman (z”l)’s English translation
- One verse of the psalm set to music, in Hebrew, by Nava Tehila
- Alicia Ostriker’s psalm 27
- Achat Sha’alti melody by I. Katz
- R’ Brant Rosen’s English translation
- Kirtan Rabbi’s Achat Sha’alti (info) and mp3
- (Added in 2018): R’ David Markus’ new setting of Psalm 27:13, Lulei He’emanti
- Go for a walk. Another tradition teaches that Elul is the month when God leaves the divine palace on high and wanders in the fields, waiting for us to come and walk and talk and pour out our hearts. Take time this month to walk in the fields, hike up the mountains, and silently or out loud say to God whatever you need to.
- Hear the shofar each day. Tradition invites us to hear the sound of the shofar during each day of Elul as a spiritual wake-up call. What do you need to wake up to: in your own life, or in the world around you? There are many shofar videos on YouTube — here’s one:
I hope that some or all of these methods speak to you. We’re entering one of my favorite months of the year. If we open ourselves to it, it can work some powerful transformations on our hearts and on our souls.
Wishing everyone an early chodesh tov — may your month of Elul be meaningful and sweet.
Blessings to all,