We have just entered the month of Elul, which sets the stage for the Days of Awe in the month of Tishrei. We very often think of the month of Elul as a solemn period, filled with penitential prayers, breast-beating, sobbing and guilt. This perception, which stems from a number of rabbinic sources, in fact, can be experienced in many of the traditional yeshivot. An atmosphere of angst and tension fills the beit midrash, as students and teachers engage in heavy soul-searching. The words of the Rosh Hashanah service: “On this day, all are inscribed: who will live and who will die…” become very real and are taken very seriously. There is much to be said for this sobering approach, which highlights our human frailties, vulnerability, and insignificance.
But, in true rabbinic fashion, we find a complementary approach which is quite upbeat. The letters of the word E-L-U-L are taken as an acronym alluding to the verse “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me” (Song of Songs 6:3). There is a famous midrash (Pirkei D’R. Eliezer Ch. 45) which says that on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the sounds of shofar blasts were heard throughout the camp, heralding Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai and signaling a dramatic turning point. When G-d gave Moses the second tablets forty days later, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish people received a tangible sign that demonstrated G-d’s forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf and the renewal of the covenant. But more importantly, it expressed the tremendous love of G-d for His people, which eventually led to the construction of the Tabernacle, a holy and intimate space for the ultimate I-Thou encounter.
From this perspective, the month of Elul also introduces the days of celebration in the month of Tishrei. It is an Et ratson, a time of reconciliation and goodwill. G-d opens the door, invites us and encourages us to engage once again in an intimate I-Thou encounter that is exhilarating, uplifting and empowering. We rejoice in the kindness and compassion of G-d!
This approach can be experienced in a Sephardic selichot service. The traditional Sephardic practice, from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur, is that the community gets up very early each morning and, before the regular weekday service, recites penitential prayers accompanied by shofar blasts. Contrary to what one might imagine, the atmosphere during these services is very festive. Most of the prayers are sung in a very upbeat tone and there is a very powerful feeling of communal bonding.
The rhythm of Elul reflects the general rhythm of Jewish experience – a dialectical tension which balances mourning and rejoicing, sadness and exhilaration, vulnerability and empowerment.
For the past month and a half in Israel, we have been experiencing our own “Elul.” The sound of the shofar has been replaced by the alarm of the sirens; the “protected shelters” have become our houses of worship. Nevertheless, we have experienced the goodness of G-d in the countless miracles which occur every day.
May the curses of this year end with its conclusion and may the New Year bring in only its blessings!