Rosh Chodesh, Elul and Me

Every month, I look forward to Rosh Chodesh. This started in September 2001, soon after moving to Swampscott from Denver, when I was invited by some new acquaintances to join them at a Hadassah evening of study and community. The focus of the evening was Rosh Chodesh, and we all received a copy of “Moonbeams,” a guide to Rosh Chodesh celebration and ceremony. The cover charmed me with its watercolor image of a woman in tallit, backlit by a pink sky filled with clouds, stars and moon. Fresh from Denver’s two-year Florence Melton Jewish studies program, I was thirsty for traditional knowledge and also contemporary customs. “Moonbeams” had both, with poetry and other writings as a bonus. And it was so pretty.

Then in 2002, my daughter was bat mitzvahed. On a Sunday morning. On Rosh Chodesh. On Mother’s Day. The stars and moon had aligned. I was like the mother of a bride who wants a barefoot potluck wedding in a pasture in Vermont instead of the sit-down, catered affair I had envisioned for her. My connection to this event eclipsed hers. My daughter soldiered through it all, and still shudders at the recollection of the process and the day itself. For me, it was another sign that Rosh Chodesh and I had some sort of a special bond.

All this rose to a new level when I started attending morning minyan on a regular basis and realized that my favorite ritual, the blowing of the shofar, occurred more often than during the High Holidays. In fact, it occurred monthly, on the first day of every Jewish lunar month. Hearing its ancient call more than compensated for the fact that services that morning, with the additions of Torah, Hallel and Musaf, were twice their usual length.

Next came my learning to chant the Rosh Chodesh parsha from the Torah (so far just parts 1, 2 and 3 but I will master 4 before long). My beloved and dearly missed spiritual guide and minyan companion, Cantor Emil Berkovitz, inspired and encouraged me to study trope at the classes he taught on Sunday mornings. As part of the study, we learned the Rosh Chodesh parsha. Makes a lot of sense if you’re only going to learn one: you get to do it 12 (sometimes 13!) times a year. That’s a lot of bang for the buck. I have read these three parts of the parsha at most Rosh Chodesh services this past year, always using the yod I had bought for my daughter to use at her bat mitzvah.

It was Rosh Chodesh Elul some years back when I discovered that, for the entire month, we blew the shofar every morning (except, of course, Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashanah). That’s how special Elul is.

Preparing us for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Elul begins the month-long process of putting our spiritual homes in order to welcome the New Year, much as we clean our earthly homes to prepare for Passover. It is a sacred time of self-reflection and quiet, private assessment. It is a reminder that each of us matters and that tikkun olam (repairing the world) depends on each of us doing his best.

This morning, Rosh Chodesh Elul 5775, I stood at the torah. I chanted what others have chanted before me for thousands of years and what others will chant for thousands after. With my daughter’s yod lighting my way, I felt blessed by the feeling that in that one moment and by that one act, I was indeed being and doing my very best.

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.