In advance of the new year, people often ask rabbis, “Are you ready for the High Holidays?” I, for one, never know exactly how to answer. Is readiness measured in sermons written? In liturgy practiced and perfected? Or perhaps in High Holiday tickets ordered and received? What exactly does it mean to be “ready” for these days?
Our tradition guides us toward an answer by way of Elul, the Jewish month immediately preceding the new year. Elul is set aside as a time for reflection and renewal, a space to ready the mind and prepare the heart for the New Year to come. We call this process cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul.
We enter the month of Elul primed for this exercise in spiritual accounting. And when the shofar sounds, as it does every morning of the month, it rouses us from our collective stupor and forces us, with a mighty blast, out of complacency.
Wake up! Wake up!
After slogging through the year, going through the motions and coasting by rote, now is the opportunity to stop the relentless drive, open our eyes, and breathe. In this space, we begin the process of looking deeply at our lives, our choices, and our relationships, to evaluate where we are, where we have been and where we are going. “Elul calls us to be deep sea divers into our souls…” writes Rabbi David Wolpe. “Only by apprehending who we are can we shape real hopes about who we might become.”
It is during Elul that we focus on the process of rigorous self-examination and investigation. We ask probing questions in service of finding that true, core self, questions like: What has this year meant to me? What have I accomplished? Where have I struggled? What am I most proud of? What would I like to change? Are there people I’ve hurt? Are there cherished relationships I’ve neglected?
Elul is also about initiating the steps of t’shuvah, or repentance. As we look to obtain (and grant) forgiveness we ask, “Have I dug deep enough and opened my heart wide enough and extended my arms long enough to fulfill my obligation? Have I been sincere enough in looking at my flaws and judging my character? Have I been honest enough in determining where I have missed the mark?
If it sounds awfully similar to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, it is. Elul is the preview to the big show, the sneak peak before the main event. Elul gives us a much- needed head start on the sometimes-rocky path toward renewal and reconciliation. T’shuvah takes time, and we are blessed to be given more of it.
From my own vantage point as an admittedly imperfect mother, wife, rabbi, and friend, a woman acutely aware of my deficits and my dividends, I look to Elul as a golden opportunity – to think, reflect, and dream with purpose and with intention. It is, moreover, a singular chance to get my soul in order and my priorities straight. Elul reminds me that I have work to do: lifestyle changes to make, habits to break, relationships to nurture more assiduously, and loved ones to embrace more unreservedly.
So as the balance of summer begins to tip heavily toward the fall, it’s time to lay my cards out on the table. It’s time to take a hard look at my life and take stock of what I’m doing. It’s time to be candid about those I’ve helped and those I’ve hurt, and time to begin this painstaking process of repair.