Elul: The time for a more loving connection with Hashem
Shofar blasts this month remind us to become better human beings
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I recently heard a lecture where the speaker, discussing recent events in Israel and the Middle East, mentioned in passing that these events are befitting the Jewish month of Elul. Although many listeners nodded in understanding, I was not sure what he was referring to; what does a Jewish month have to do with events in Israel?
— Gerald B.
The Jewish month of Elul is the month which precedes Rosh Hashanah. Traditionally Jews have assigned tremendous significance to this month, which we are presently in. The father of the “mussar” movement, Rabbi Israel of Salanter (19th Century) writes in his collected letters that he remembers in his youth how the entire congregation would literally tremble when the reader announced the upcoming month of Elul! This trembling stemmed from the very palpable belief in Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment when all matters, from monetary to life-and-death, would be judged and decided.
Rabbi Salanter writes that this “trembling” bore fruit in each person, as it was a wake-up call to begin to serious reflection and improvement on thoughts and deeds. He laments how, in his old age, that “trembling” has been largely lost among the Jewish people. (What would he say of our times?)
The converse theme of Elul is one of deepening and enhancing our love relationship with the Almighty. The word “elul” is spelled aleph –lamed-vav-lamed in Hebrew. Those letters form an acronym for the words of the verse “Ani ledodi vedodi li,” or “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me” (Shir Hashirim 6:3). “My Beloved” refers to God. The verse is saying; to the extent I reach out and extend my love to God, in turn He will reach back and extend his love to me. The month during which God reaches out more than any other is Elul. This is when the Heavenly gates of love open and beseech us to enter with love, and to reconnect with the Almighty as never before.
Since the beginning of Jewish history, Elul has been the month during which God expresses his love and mercy to the Jews. After the sin of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets, and following the Jews’ repentance, God invited Moses to return to Mt. Sinai for the third and last time, with new tablets Moses had to hew himself. The day Moses returned to Sinai was Rosh Chodesh, Elul 1. He remained there for 40 days and nights, culminating in God’s forgiveness on the fortieth day; the first Yom Kippur.
The morning Moses returned to the mountain on that long-ago first day of Elul, the shofar was blasted throughout the camp, reminding Jews not to return to their sinful ways of the Calf. In commemoration of that, and to serve as a wakeup call to all Jews to improve their ways, it is customary in synagogues throughout the world to blow the shofar every morning of Elul after the morning service, until Erev Rosh Hashanah (to distinguish between custom and Torah law on Rosh Hashanah itself). That shofar blast serves as a double reminder. First, the Day of Judgment is coming, improve our deeds! Second, make the most of this special time to forge a stronger, more meaningful loving relationship with God. (The two messages are two sides of the same coin).
Perhaps the speaker you mention was referring to the events in and around Israel as a type of shofar, a wake-up call for all Jews to introspection. Israel is surrounded by unprecedented levels of danger: Well-equipped terrorist enemies from all sides, the peace treaty with Egypt in grave danger, the specter of a nearly nuclear Iran, all on the eve of a possible United Nations-backed new terrorist country in its back yard. This is all given extra strength by a radically anti-Israeli Europe, which, according to the Wiesenthal Center, is expressing levels of anti-Semitism which rival or surpass that of the late 1930s. If all this isn’t a “shofar” blasting loud and clear … I don’t know what is!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.