The Gift of Elul

Elul, the lunar month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, marks a distinctive time in the Jewish calendar. By tradition, we begin the monthlong process of reflection and introspection that will culminate in the High Holy Days. We sound the shofar almost daily to awaken our souls and remind us of the special tasks that lie ahead. Much as we clean our earthly homes to prepare for Passover, we use this month to prepare our spiritual homes to welcome a new year.

We take stock of our relationships with ourselves, with others and with God, with the goal of making better choices to make the world a better place. It is a private, internal and personal task.

The process of looking inward is always challenging, but this year it is especially so. External events demand our attention. With Israel at risk and global anti-Semitism surging, self-reflection may feel self-indulgent. Too much danger looms, and too many need our support, to sit idly thinking about ourselves.

And yet, heeding the call of the shofar may be exactly what we need. Hearing the sound is meant to encourage us to search our souls and acknowledge our weaknesses, with the goal of becoming more compassionate towards each other and more reverent towards God. It is a time to celebrate life, an opportunity to resensitize ourselves and to renew our commitments. We are reminded that our individual choices matter and that every day we are given the opportunity to choose anew.

These times of large-scale political upheaval can make us feel frustrated and hopeless about our ability to improve the world. After all, others, much more politically powerful than us, are the decisionmakers. The month of Elul reminds us that each individual matters, that “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) depends on each of us doing our best. Quiet self-assessment and reflection may be a great place to start.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on August 28, 2014.

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