Elul: a month of introspection

By Joshua Yudkin

A teacher once shared that her favorite part of being Jewish is the Jewish calendar — there are so many holidays to celebrate and commemorate. The Jewish calendar provides structure to our life and to our year. Steeped in tradition, our calendar empowers us to use our shared Jewish tradition and history to guide our individual and collective future.

Elul is the current month of the Hebrew calendar and leads up to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which are the time period between Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. As such, Elul is traditionally a time of deep introspection. From a biblical perspective, Elul was the month that Moses returned to Mount Sinai following the Golden Calf situation; the Talmud teaches us that Moses likely received the second tablets on what would have been Yom Kippur, a symbolic act to show G-d’s mercy and love.

For those who prefer a bit of Kabbalah, or mysticism, the gematria (numerical value) of Elul is 67, the same as the Hebrew word binah or wisdom. Our tradition also teaches that Elul may be an acronym for “Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li,” or “I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me,” from the Song of Solomon. However, rather than describing the union between two human souls as it is used at Jewish weddings, it is used to describe our relationship with G-d. Through its association with wisdom and our intentionally increasing proximity with G-d, Elul is when we reflect on this past year.

Ritualistically, our tradition also supports this deep introspection. We blow the shofar, recite additional prayers and often visit the graves of loved ones who have passed to awaken our spirit and provide spiritual guidance as this year comes to an end and we look ahead.

But as we look inside ourselves, what might we see and how might we choose to respond?

We will likely find mistakes — perhaps we mistreated our fellow man, our family and/or our very own self. We may have shown disrespect intentionally or unintentionally. We have been impulsive and rash. Impatient and/or manipulative. It is likely that we broke the trust and/or relationship with someone else or with ourselves. Yet, Rabbi Nachman of Breslau taught, “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.” It is inevitable that things (both tangible and intangible) will break — this truth is self-evident. Rabbi Nachman of Breslau reminds us that there is always an opportunity to fix things and make amends.

We will likely identify isolation and/or disconnection — perhaps from a partner, family, community and/or from ourselves. Through distance, divergence, routines and competing priorities, we may have found ourselves apart from those people, communities and spaces in which we find meaning, connection and purpose. Be kind to yourself and remember that the only thing constant is change. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that “the world is new to us every morning — and every man should believe he is reborn each day.” Elul is a time for us to reawaken and reconnect our inner self.

We will likely experience radical gratitude for the blessings in our life every day. Our physical health — sight, hearing, ability to move. Our mental health — our ability to think, remember, forget, feel emotions and express emotions. Our safety — both physical and emotional. Our physical environment — the roof above our head, our access to clean water, medical services. Our community — partner, family, friends and the larger imagined communities to we belong. Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, activist and teacher, shared, “For me every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart every time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.” Gratitude is an ever-present force that we can always access to elevate our every day.

Whether we realize it or not, we will likely want to practice teshuvah, the Hebrew word that means both “repent” and “return,” as we engage in this introspection. We will want to repent for the sins we committed against others and against ourselves. We will want to return to lead a life of purpose and meaning.

In the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in the Ketuvim, or Writings, there is a famous passage that reads, “There is a time for everything … a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.”

As we have entered the month of Elul, our Jewish calendar reminds us that this a time for us to be with ourselves. How can we better engage with rather than against another? How can we speak with rather than past another? How can we appreciate the divine in another rather than judge them for their humanity?

May we all continue to stay intentional, choose love and aim to be just a little better than yesterday.

Dr. Joshua Yudkin currently serves as a member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Community Relations Committee and works at the intersection of community building and public health.

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