ELUL, A WORKSHOP FOR THE SOUL
Elul, a month void of holidays, days of remembrance, or even fast days, is, nevertheless, one of the most momentous months of the Hebrew year. Following on the footsteps of Av, the 9th of which is the absolute nadir of Jewish history, (the day of the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Holy Temple), Elul presents us with a steady rise toward the spiritual pinnacle of the Hebrew year, the month of Tishrei, whose two towering peaks, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are followed by the sublime holiday of Sukkot, the festival of joy!
The 29 days of Elul provide us with the opportunity for reflection and introspection, for fixing our broken selves, for repairing the spiritual damage we have accrued over the past year, for reaching out to others whom we may have hurt, patching up relationships, and for coming clean with G-d, our Father and Creator.
Elul, in Hebrew, אלול is an acronym of "אני לדודי ודודי לי - I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine," from the Song of Songs (6:3), which describes Israel's and HaShem's mutual longing for one another. HaShem has created each one of us with a purpose and a destination in mind, and Elul is the time of the year for us to recalibrate and redirect our lives, to rediscover who we are and who we are meant to be, and to rededicate ourselves to fulfilling our own unique role in G-d's ever evolving creation. Only after much effort, integrity and honesty will we be ready to stand before G-d on Rosh HaShana and give an account of who we have been, who we are and who we intend to be.
The King is in His Field
A lovely parable told by the 18th century Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi describes a king, who once a year leaves the confines of his well-guarded palace and his devoted attendants and ventures out alone, far from his capital city. He walks unaccompanied through the towns, the workplaces and the fields of his subjects, approaching each soul unannounced. Any other day of the year for a citizen to have an audience with the king he would first need to make an appointment well in advance, adhere to the proper protocol, don the proper apparel, and speak the proper words. But not today! Today the king has come to you, unannounced other than a tap on the shoulder. You turn and immediately recognize the king but not to fear! The king, of course, is HaShem, and the occasion is the month of Elul, and HaShem wants only to see you unadorned, gritty and unwashed, as you are, the real you! For the real you is who He wants you to be. Elul is a blessed opportunity to simply be ourselves, our true selves, the people whom G-d created and calls His children.
Sounding the Shofar
It is a custom to sound the shofar throughout the month of Elul, every morning at the conclusion of the Shacharit (morning) prayer service. Of course, sounding the shofar is a commandment on Rosh HaShana. In fact, sounding the shofar is the only positive commandment to be performed on Rosh HaShana according to the Torah, along with additional (Musaf) offerings to be performed. For this reason Rosh HaShana is called by the Torah Yom Hatrua - the Day of the Sounding (of the shofar). Only later in history did Yom Hatrua also became known as Rosh HaShana. Sounding the shofar each morning of the month of Elul, while not a Torah commandment, serves as a wake-up call, a reveille for the soul! Arise - arise - we have work to do! The wordless message of the shofar tells us that talking the talk is not enough. Simply talking about changing our ways, about repentance and return and teshuva isn't enough. We need to walk the walk. The sound of the shofar penetrates right to the soul.
The World of Shofars
Hearing the sound of the shofar is the single, unique commandment of Rosh HaShana. The shofar we blow on Rosh HaShana is made from a ram's horn. Why is that? Can a shofar be made from the horns of other animals? What makes a kosher shofar? Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, the Founder and Director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Israel, answers these questions and much, much more, in this fascinating, hands on teaching about shofarot.
Selichot being sung at the Western Wall
Another time honored custom of Elul is the singing of Selichot. From the word selichah - forgiveness - Selichot are piyutim - liturgical poems which are sung by the congregation, whose focus, as the name indicates, is asking G-d for forgiveness. Selichot are sung by the congregation early in the morning before the start of the morning prayer. Sephardi communities sing Selichot every day of Elul. Ashkenazi communities begin their Selichot service following the final Shabbat before Rosh HaShana. Selichot continues to be sung up till the eve of Yom Kippur.