“On this journey, our soul will awaken to itself. We will venture from innocence to sin and back to innocence again. This is a journey from denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgement and self-forgiveness…It is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every single autumn of the great journey all human beings must make across this world.” – Rabbi Alan Lew (1943-2009)
Before Shabbat makes her appearance this week, we celebrate the arrival of Rosh Chodesh Elul – the new month of Elul – a very important month on our Jewish calendar. In fact, the word “Elul” itself gives us a hint as to the significance of this period for Jews everywhere, as it is similar to the root of the verb “search” in Aramaic, an ancient form of Hebrew. Indeed, this is the time traditionally in which we “search” inward, taking stock in what is called “Cheshbon ha-Nefesh,” literally an “Accounting of the Soul,” as we prepare for the High Holidays, also called the Days of Awe – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – which arrive in a month’s time. In honor of this special month, I will devote the next four Sabbath messages to themes related to the High Holidays: Prayer and Repentance; Faith; Memory; and Rosh Hashanah in the age of COVID-19. Following that, we will complete the holiday cycle, with themed messages taking us through the journey of Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and finally Simchat Torah – during this most unusual year.
The month of Elul has a number of customs associated with it, but the most central is the traditional daily blowing of the shofar. One of the most well-known customs of the High Holidays is indeed the blowing of the shofar – or ram’s horn. But what is less well-known is that it is often also traditionally blown daily after morning prayers during the month of Elul, other than on the Sabbath day. The reason given is again to prepare us spiritually for what is to come, to rouse us from complacency and to jolt us into the process of repentance. My father, of blessed memory, always referred to the shofar as our “spiritual alarm clock,” awakening us from our indifferent slumber. I still remember as a young child hiding under his Tallit (prayer shawl) as the shofar was blown in synagogue, since the piercing sounds were so primal, so raw.
There are other customs during this month, as well. But what they are all about is opening our hearts to the spiritual process and our relationship with the Divine. In fact, there is a beautiful teaching that the four Hebrew letters in the name of the month, Elul, is an acronym for a verse in the Biblical Song of Songs: “Ani l’dodi, v’dodi li: I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” Many commentators understand the Song of Songs to be an allegory in which the lovers described are God and the Children of Israel. Thus, at this time, we recommit ourselves to this special relationship with the Divine. In a sense, during this month, we open our hearts to God to begin the process, and at the close of Yom Kippur, the gates of heaven will close for the year.
This year, the challenges of preparing for the High Holidays during the current pandemic are like nothing we have ever faced before. I think I have a pretty good sense of this one! As a High Holiday cantor for close to 40 years, I spent about 4 hours one hot evening this week in Los Angeles pre-recording most of what I would normally be chanting in person in front of about 800 congregants. To say that it was strange to chant Kol Nidre in an empty recording studio behind a plexiglass screen, in view of COVID restrictions, 5 weeks before Yom Kippur does not even begin to describe it. But, I knew I was not alone. All over the world, Jewish clergy like me are working hard to help make this a meaningful year for their communities. And that gave me strength and purpose in contributing to an important project like this. And, on the bright side, it will mean that on Yom Kippur evening, my sister and I, generally cantors in two separate services, will be together on one recorded service for the whole community – a definite plus!
So, what do we do? How can we spiritually prepare ourselves to feel ready for this unusual year without the usual community we are surrounded by? I think we must change our thinking – and see this year as a unique opportunity for something different, and embrace this difference. Not an easy task, but we are a resilient people – we can do this! One way is to arm ourselves with some spiritual tools. Use the month of Elul to take advantage of the wonderful offerings online available to help us prepare for these important days. Our own Congregation B’nai B’rith has some great options. Do some reading to prepare. I suggest an unbelievable book called: This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, by the late great Rabbi Alan Lew, from which I quoted at the top of this message. (And if we have ever been unprepared, I would say it’s this year!) And finally, one more suggestion: my childhood friend, the incredible musician and Jewish educator, Craig Taubman, created a program about 15 years ago called The Jewels of Elul. Go to his website www.jewelsofelul.com to learn more about it and to receive a new “jewel” for each day of this month in your inbox to find your own inspiration, written by thinkers from all traditions and walks of life! Perhaps this year, we can create new traditions for these days.
With blessings for a Shabbat Shalom – and a special wish that you find this time meaningful,
Ruth Steinberg, LCSW, MAJCS
Director, Jewish Family Service