Rosh Hashanah may be weeks away but the High Holidays are already in the air. For shul goers, there are early morning confessional prayers, the reciting of a special Psalm and of course, the daily blast of the shofar.
Why do we start blowing the shofar a month before the New Year? Maimonides wrote, “Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep; wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep; search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator.”
Although many people compare the shofar to a wakeup call, Yonatan Sredni suggests a slightly different analogy. “The shofar of Elul acts much in the same way,” says Sredni. “In order to be ready to hear the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, we start ‘training’ ourselves a month beforehand. Every day, day in, day out, the shofar acts as our alarm clock … Whether it’s the first day of school or the first day of the new year, we have to be ready to answer that bell – or blast.”
Selichot, the special penitential prayers, are recited daily (except for Shabbat) by Sephardim from the beginning of Elul and by Ashkenazim at least four days before Rosh Hashanah. The central phrase in the Selichot service lists God’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy first spoken by Moses as he received the second set of tablets at Mount Sinai.
Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses. (Exodus 34:6-7)
Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz asks why we spend so much time repeating God’s attributes. Shouldn’t we focus on our own spiritual growth? His response: although Jewish tradition suggests recitation of the Thirteen Attributes arouses divine mercy, just uttering the words isn’t enough. “Rather, we need to make sure that in action, our own lifestyles reflect these attributes as well.”
In order to grow, Rabbi Berkowitz says we need to make sure our own lifestyle reflects these Godly traits. “For example, the Talmud says that if you are patient with others, then God will be patient with you. You can only demand that God employ all these attributes if you apply them in your own relationships.”
Rabbi Elianna Yolkut’s twins were born in the month of March but her love for them came much earlier. “The moment we learned of our impending arrival (at the time we thought it was a singleton), I hurriedly prepared for this new journey. I made some major changes in my life – how I ate, slept, exercised, worked, in other words, how I lived. I was now taking care of this impending life and preparing for his/her arrival. I was preparing for unconditional parental love.”
Rabbi Yolkut compares that preparation to the type of spiritual accounting Jews do in Elul well before the arrival of Rosh Hashanah. “We recall our thoughts and actions over the past year and begin to seek teshuvah (repentance) for the things we did wrong, or that harmed others, and seek forgiveness from those we may have wronged. In other words, Elul is the pregnancy before the birth of the New Year.”
Part of that preparation started on the first of Elul, as Psalm 27 has been recited twice daily after prayers. “A psalm of David – the Lord is my light and my salvation… for He will hide me in his tent.” The Midrash explains the appropriateness of this prayer during this period: “The Lord is my light” – on Rosh Hashanah; “and my salvation” – on Yom Kippur; “for He will hide me in his tent” – on [the festival of Sukkot.]
A few thousand years later, the late Debbie Perlman composed her own psalm in honour of this special month:
In the month of Elul, we uncover our secrets,
Examining them with a truthful heart,
Counting the pulse beats of our life,
The selfish pressures we apply and resist.
Call us to the consultation of our souls,
For You are a God of healing and mercy;
Call us to begin without delay,
That Elul might draw us near to You.