In the Month of Elul

This Hebrew month, Elul, is a special time of preparation for the hard work of self examination and repentance Jews engage in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Simcha Bunam, an 18th-19 C Hasidic leader in Poland taught that everyone should have two pockets, each inscribed with a different quotation. In one, for when he/she is feeling puffed up and full of pride, let there be the reminder, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the other pocket, when a person feels that his/her efforts are of no consequence, let her/him read: “For my sake the world was created.”

During this month of Elul we Jews dedicate our thoughts to examining our actions and thoughts during the past year with the goal of becoming kinder and more caring in the year ahead. If our self-scrutiny is honest we know that there are many times we have fallen short of both our own ideals and the Almighty’s hopes for us as creatures created in the Divine image. At such times it is easy to fall into despair and see ourselves as without merit, or little more than dust and ashes.

At such time it is good to remember that our tradition teaches us that this world is no accident and that our lives are not accidents either. They can have purpose and meaning!

We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world. The world was created for us human beings to use our talents to make the world a better place. Few of us will find the cure for cancer or bring about world peace, but that should not stop each of us from dong something. We each can teach a child to read, help an elderly person cross the street, cook and serve a meal at homeless shelter. The possibilities are endless.

But when we become puffed up in the pride of our accomplishments or even in our acts of kindness, it is good to remind ourselves that as Abraham realized when he addressed the Almighty (Genesis 18:27) we are ”but dust and ashes.”

One of life’s must difficult challenges is to find the balance between conceit and despair. Henry David Thoreau reminded us: “We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice.”

I think that it is no accident that, as Bahia ben Asher of Saragossa (13-14th c.) noted the zodiacal symbol for Tishri (next month, the month which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year) is a balance scale. As we count down the weeks toward Rosh Hashanah, our tradition enjoins us to think of our good and evil deeds as weighing equally on the scale of merit, and that our next act will tip the scale of judgment for good or for ill.

Think of the power the image can have. If each of us awakens feeling an urgent need to do a good deed, what an amazingly positive impact our collective actions will have on our families, our communities and our world.

Approaching Elul

 On the night of August 26, the Hebrew month of Av ends, and the month of Elul begins. Elul in Jewish thought is a sacred time during which we begin in earnest the process of self-examination and reflection in preparation for Rosh Hashanah (The Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) a month hence.

 We need this month to prepare for the grueling period of introspection that the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) should be. A sports team does not simply put on their uniforms and show up to play their first game. They prepare and practice for weeks beforehand. So it should be with us and the Days of Awe. We do not just show up and expect to be “ready to play” on Rosh Hashanah. We carefully prepare during the month of Elul by reviewing our thoughts and actions over the past year and asking ourselves, “How can we do better in the year ahead?”

 It is a worthy task that elevates our humanity. If we take it seriously, the Days of Awe themselves will be much more meaningful, and we will enter the new Year better equipped to use the talents with which God has blessed us to make on this earth a more just, caring and compassionate society!

 The moon of Av wanes rapidly,

And soon Elul arrives—

A holy month, our Sages taught,

A chance to examine our lives.

 We prepare ourselves for the Days of Awe

The Holy Days just ahead.

We look at our thoughts, our words, our deeds,

“What might we have done instead?”

 To better live true to the Covenant

The Almighty asks we uphold

To work to create a better world

As our lives unfold.

 Will our world be a kinder realm

Because God planted us here?

Will we strive to make the earth a place

Where no one needs to fear?

 As the moon of Av wanes rapidly

And sacred Elul arrives

May these be the questions we ask ourselves

As we examine our lives!