On the Jewish calendar, the Hebrew month of Elul begins tonight. This will be my second month of Elul in Israel. My family and I made Aliyah last September, two weeks before the High Holiday season. I was so excited and overwhelmed by the newness of our situation–moving across the world, from Florida to northern Israel–that I personally didn’t do much real preparation. This year, I hope to make up for it!
I work on improving myself and my life throughout the year, but particularly during Elul I feel an elevated sense of personal and communal growth. Now that I’m living in the Holy Land, this is really my first time getting to experience this transitional time of year with awareness and insight.
But why is the Hebrew month of Elul so special?
Elul is typically a time of prayer and introspection, the prelude to the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
Biblical commentators say that the Hebrew word “Elul” can be expanded as an acronym for “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li” – “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3), a verse that refers to our intimate relationship with God.
Elul is the 12th and final month in the Jewish calendar, connecting the past year with the coming year—a time when the people of Israel reflect on where we are in life and where we should be going.
The origins of Elul as a month of special Divine grace and mercy go back to the time of Moses, in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE) – the first year after the Jewish people went out of Egypt.
Moses ascended Mount Sinai three times to receive the Hebrew Bible from God. The third time he remained on the mountain for 40 days, from the 1st of Elul until the 10th of Tishrei (Yom Kippur). During this time, he obtained God’s whole-hearted forgiveness and reconciliation with the people of Israel. Ever since, the month of Elul serves as the “month of Divine mercy and forgiveness.”
Elul is a special time to review one’s deeds and spiritual progress over the past year, and prepare for the upcoming “Days of Awe” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Each day of the month of Elul (except for Shabbat and the last day of Elul), the Jewish people sound the shofar (ram’s horn) as a call to repentance. But how can we ask God to forgive us if we’re not aware of and accountable for our actions?
For the past few years I’ve been immersed in a twelve-step program that involves accountability, improvement and examining family-of-origin issues. More than 50 similar spiritual programs have evolved during the past 70 years, with millions of people across the world–including Jews and Chrisitans–benefiting from twelve-step recovery.
Interestingly, the twelve steps are built on a paradigm of self-growth that Judaism has been teaching for 3,000 years. In Jewish tradition, repentance is called teshuvah, a Hebrew word best translated as “return.”
Simon the Righteous, a Jewish sage, says that the world stands on three things:
- on the Bible (spiritual/intellectual)
- on service (physical)
- on kind deeds (emotional).
The process of teshuva is rooted in these three pillars of the Jewish being. It bridges the gap between who we are and who we can be.
Judaism also teaches that a person has three ongoing relationships:
- with oneself
- with others
- with God.
A relationship with myself means an honest assessment of my character strengths and defects, an awareness of my purpose for living, and taking responsibility for my actions, especially during the month of Elul.
A relationship with others translates into fulfilling my role in this world, how I can benefit others, and being aware of the impact I have on those with whom I have contact.
A relationship with God connects me to the Infinite Power in this world, tapping into ultimate peace and allowing me to humbly see my place in the grand scheme of creation.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explains: “When we forget the essence of our own soul… everything becomes confused and in doubt. The primary teshuva, that which immediately lights the darkness, is when a person returns to himself, to the root of his soul; then he will immediately return to God, to the soul of all souls.”
Elul and the High Holidays remind us of our mortality. We think of all the things we still want to accomplish while we’re in this world.
God loves us and He wants us to return to Him. I pray to merit feeling joy, strength and clarity over the coming weeks of Elul as I take steps closer to my Beloved, my Creator, and the person I am truly meant to be as a Jewish wife and mother now living in the land of Israel.