Reflections on Elul and Rosh Hashanah

We are nearly halfway through the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish year. With Elul’s arrival, we usher in a period of personal introspection, repentance and spiritual renewal, which takes us through the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Judaism’s holiest day.

There is an oft-repeated notion during Elul that G-d is in the field, and that we are urged to go out and meet G-d. Although G-d is always there, always accessible, the presence of G-d is more keenly felt during this time. I have always found this image of G-d very compelling.

We begin to prepare ourselves for the High Holidays daily when we hear the cry of the shofar, or ram’s horn, after morning services in the synagogue, and we add Psalm 27 to our morning and evening prayers. Sephardic Jews begin saying Selichot, piyyutim, or poems of forgiveness, every morning, while Ashkenazim begin doing so on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, or, as is true for this year, the Saturday evening before that, owing to the fact that Rosh Hashanah falls out on a Monday and Tuesday.

We are also urged during this period to ask forgiveness from those whom we have wronged during the course of the previous year, reconciling ourselves with friends, family members, and even those from whom we have been estranged. Although this part of High Holidays preparation is often times the most difficult and taxing, it is incredibly freeing. Once we have done the hard work of asking for forgiveness from others, we may begin our year anew, with a clean slate.

During this penitential period, we are also urged to do a heshbon hanefesh—soul accounting, to see in which areas we may have fallen short and need to improve in the year to come. Journaling is a very popular vehicle for doing this. Not only does this process allow us to take a frank and often hard look at ourselves and our failings, it also allows us to embark upon a path of self-discovery, to see in which direction we are heading and to discern where we hope to go.

There are many images associated with Rosh Hashanah that I find to be very universally compelling. Rosh Hashanah is traditionally seen as being the day on which the entire world is judged, as well as the anniversary of the world’s creation. This summer has seen far too much polarization and tragedy in our world, including the senseless and heart-wrenching shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, as well as the vitriol that we far too often see from our politicians, pundits and others. If we were to take these two associations with Rosh Hashanah seriously, how might our world be different? Were we to embark upon a national or even global accounting of the soul, in what areas might we find that we are succeeding and in which need we work harder?

Tikkun Olam—repairing the world—is a very popular and universally applicable Jewish idea. We are to make this world a dwelling place for G-d, a world in which all of us can feel the presence of G-d, not simply when we are engaging in our spiritual disciplines or practices of choice, but in our daily interactions with others and attitudes towards our planet from which we receive so much.

This summer’s tragedies and polarizing comments have underscored for me the need for genuine bridge building between Americans and others of different faith traditions and political persuasions. We are each created in the image of G-d, each with inherent, irreplaceable value and worth. We are all partners with G-d in creation. Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of G-d’s creation of the world, is an apt time for all of us to step back and reflect upon how we are doing, as G-d’s partners in this endeavor. It is too easy, in this increasingly divided world to stick with our own, so-to-speak. How might we all reach out and build bridges with those whom we seemingly have little in common?

Photo by Mirah Curzer and published with permission of author.

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