What a summer it has been. The hottest July on record. Possibly, one of the wettest Augusts on record. And then, the hottest late August bank holiday on record. And while experiencing climate change in action and dealing with its impact – not least on the National Grid and the rail network – some of us have also been finding times to reassure ourselves with visits to the beach, where the sight of people sunbathing and paddling and swimming suggests that, thankfully, some things don’t seem to be changing…
A new month begins tomorrow. Yes: September, with the prospect of new beginnings for schools, colleges and universities – and for the educational programmes for adults and children here at the synagogue, too. And another new month also begins tomorrow – rather, this evening at sunset: the Hebrew month of Elul. Traditionally, Elul is the time when we prepare ourselves for the aseret y’mei t’shuvah, the ‘ten days of return’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude on Yom Kippur.
Like the names of the other months of the Hebrew calendar that were derived from our people’s exile in Babylonia, the word, Elul is Babylonian. It originated in the Akkadian word for ‘Harvest’, elūlu, and first appears in the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Nehemiah, which relates the return of ‘N’chemyah, son of Hachalyah’ to Jerusalem forty years after the destruction of the city, to oversee the work of repair. Significantly, the month of Elul is mentioned in the context of a verse in chapter six stating that ‘[t]he wall was finished on the 25th of Elul, after fifty-two days’. Then, later, chapter 8 relates how the Israelites, having settled back into their towns, assembled before the Watergate in Jerusalem at the beginning of the seventh month, and listened to Ezra the scribe read ‘the scroll of the teaching of Moses’ – sefer torat Moshe.
The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and King Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. When the Persians defeated the Babylonians, King Cyrus of Persia permitted our ancestors to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. The scene described in the Book of Nehemiah relates to that great rebuilding project. And it also hints at another kind of repair: the repair of the people as they ‘assembled before the Watergate at the beginning of the seventh month, and listened to Ezra the scribe read ‘the scroll of the teaching of Moses’ – sefer torat Moshe.
So: Elul, the month the month that precedes ‘the seventh month’, when the work of repair begins, or rather, we prepare to make the journey of repair. In S.Y. Agnon’s marvelous anthology, Days of Awe, we find this story: “A tale is told of one who sat in study before the zaddik Rabbi Mordecai of Nadvorna, of blessed memory [19th cent.], and before Rosh ha-Shanah came to obtain permission to be dismissed. That zaddik said to him, ‘Why are you hurrying?’ Said he to him, ‘I am a Reader, and I must look into the festival prayer book, and put my prayers in order.’ Said the zaddik to him, ‘The prayer book is the same as it was last year. But it would be better for you to look into your deeds, and put yourself in order.’”
This tale reminds us of the purpose of the yamim nora’im, the ‘awed days’ that begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah and conclude on Yom Kippur, and of the unique opportunity that the month of Elul provides for us to examine our deeds of the past year and resolve to restore our relationships. By the time Rosh Ha-Shanah arrives, there is so little time to make amends – just ten days in all. How much more sensible to begin the process in Elul. There is an interesting difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi practice in this regard. In Sephardi tradition, which originated with the Jews of Sepharad – those who lived in Spain and Portugal until the expulsions of 1492 and 1497 – it is customary to recite prayers for s’lichot, ‘forgiveness’ and blow the shofar (ram’s horn) at the end of shacharit (morning prayer) from Rosh Chodesh (the new moon of) Elul until the eve of Rosh Ha-Shanah. In the Ashkenazi tradition that has its roots in Jewish life in northern and central Europe during the Middle Ages, s’lichot prayers and the blowing of the shofar begin from midnight on the Saturday prior to Rosh Ha-Shanah – unless there are, as this year, less than four days between Saturday night and the New Year, in which case, the ritual is put back a week.
So, it looks like Ashkenazi Jews lose out when it comes to making the best use of Elul as a month of preparation for the yamim nora’im. But there are other Elul traditions to help us prepare. There is the custom of expressing our best wishes to people l’shanah tovah – ‘for a good year’ – both in person, and when writing letters – and these days, emails. This simple practice serves as a daily reminder to ourselves and others that the New Year is approaching. It is also traditional to visit the graves of loved ones during Elul – reminding ourselves of our connection with those who went before us, and the legacy we have received from them. On a more demanding level, Elul is the time to begin to orientate ourselves to the major challenges of the Days of Awe: T’shuvah, T’fillah and Tz’dakah – translated most usually as, ‘Repentance, Prayer and Charity’. The Hebrew words are more complex. T’shuvah: We are called to ‘return’ to the true path of our lives, to ourselves and to others. T’fillah: We are challenged to judge ourselves – l’hit’palleil – essentially that is what t’fillah, ‘prayer’, means. Tz’dakah: We are summoned to practice ‘righteousness’ by giving to those in need. Each of these tasks, T’shuvah, T’fillah and Tz’dakah, represents a demand on our time and our energies – and challenges us to reflect on our values.
Elul is a month of preparation for the yamim nora’im. But for Jews, preparation is always practical; it is never simply a matter of what’s happening in our heads. We can make a start by engaging in cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally, make an ‘account of the soul’ – in much the same way as we examine the state of our finances. The t’shuvah journey begins in Elul with just such a cheshbon – an account of our souls and an account of our actions – towards family, friends, colleagues, fellow congregants, neighbours, people in the wider community, strangers near and far, and the world around us. In other words, we make a list of the wrongs we have committed that encompasses all the different errors and misdemeanors of our everyday lives: ignoring the needs of our partner or spouse, being impatient and jumping the queue, discarding our rubbish without checking which items might be recycled. The list goes on…
But there is a danger in drawing up an ‘account’ of our misdeeds, if we simply focus on what we have done to others. The danger is that we are left feeling totally wretched – which is the last place we want to be if we are going to have the courage to change. Our cheshbon ha-nefesh can only work if we also focus on what we have done to ourselves over the past year. In fact, this is the place to make a start, before we consider how we have treated others. If we can understand how we have hurt ourselves, mistreated ourselves, ignored ourselves, belittled ourselves, then we may have a chance of recognising what we have done to other people.
The month of Elul signals a new beginning. But it is important to acknowledge that Elul of itself does not bring renewal; it is up to us to use the month for this purpose. Disconcertingly, a similar word in the TaNaKh, the Hebrew noun, Elil, means ‘worthlessness’ – as in Jeremiah, where the prophet rails against the worthless divinations and deceits of false prophets. Spelt almost identically – except for the difference of a vowel – ‘u’ in Elul, ‘i’ in Elil, the words Elul and Elil – the one Babylonian, the other, Hebrew – are not related; although, curiously, in the verse in Jeremiah, Elil is written to look like Elul. But even without this scribal error, the similarity between these two very different words teaches us an important lesson: Unless we take steps to renew our lives during Elul, the gift of Elul will be worthless.
So: the month of Elul begins this evening. Like most Jews in Britain – and the other synagogues in Brighton and Hove – BHPS follows the Ashkenazi tradition. But let’s not wait until the Saturday night of 21st September to begin our journey of t’shuvah, ‘return’. As we read in another gem from S.Y. Agnon’s anthology – taken from the Maharil, an acronym for ‘Our Teacher, the Rabbi Ya’akov Levi’ Moelin: “All the month of Elul before eating and sleeping let every person look into their soul, and search their deeds, that they may make confession.” As the sun sets this evening, let’s resolve to begin the process of making a new beginning. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
31st August 2019 – 30th Av 5779