No matter when the Jewish holidays fall, there is always a certain newness about the fall. It is the beginning of the school year, full of new friends, new teachers, new classes, new challenges and probably new clothes and new supplies. In many places the air turns crisp and invigorating, making us feel ready for the new season of beginnings.
In Jewish Orange County there are new people, new organizations and reinvigorated organizations, as well as familiar faces in new roles. Things are happening non-stop, and we are still a month away from the New Year. Our tradition tells us to take time away from the mad frenzy and take stock of ourselves.
Why is Elul so special, and why do we need a whole month to prepare for the High Holy Days? Why should we take advantage of every chance we get to reflect and reinvigorate?
“Elul is traditionally a time of introspection and stocktaking — a time to review one’s deeds and spiritual progress over the past year, and prepare for the upcoming ‘Days of Awe,’” according to www.chabad.org. “Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi likens the month of Elul to a time when ‘the king is in the field,’ and, in contrast to when he is in the royal palace, ‘everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him, and he receives them all with a cheerful countenance, showing a smiling face to them all,’” the site explains.
As Judaism 101 (www.jewfaq.org) explains, “According to tradition, the month of Elul is the time that Moses spent on Mount Sinai preparing the second set of tablets after the incident of the golden calf (Ex. 32; 34:27-28). He ascended on Rosh Chodesh Elul and descended on the 10th of Tishri, at the end of Yom Kippur, when repentance was complete. Other sources say that Elul is the beginning of a period of 40 days that Moses prayed for G-d to forgive the people after the Golden Calf incident, after which the commandment to prepare the second set of tablets was given.”
Perhaps the best explanation of Elul is an article written by Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l, an activist, author and rabbi of Congregation Valley Beth Shalom (www.vbs.org) and presented on Jewels of Elul (www.jewelsofelul.com), a treasure trove of thoughts to prepare people for Rosh Hashanah:
Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be.
Not what is a synagogue, but what ought a synagogue to be.
Not what prayer is, but what prayer ought to be.
Not what ritual is, but what ritual ought to be.
Focus from is to ought, and our mindset is affected. Is faces me toward the present; ought turns me to the future. Ought challenges my creative imagination and opens me to the realm of possibilities and responsibilities to realize yesterday’s dream.
Ought and is are complementary. Without an is, the genius of our past and present collective wisdom is forgotten. Without an ought, the great visions of tomorrow fade.
Ought demands not only a knowledge of history but of exciting expectation. Is is a being, ought is a becoming.
Ought emancipates me from status quo thinking.
Ought is the freedom of spirit.
Ought we not Ought?”