Making the most of Elul

Make the necessary adjustments this month

Elul offers a priceless opportunity to examine what’s wrong and to fix it in time for Rosh Hashanah

By Rabbi Dan Lewin

As the NFL wrapped up the preseason preparation, evaluating the details of each player’s performances and making the necessary adjustments to ensure their teams victory in the upcoming season, we entered the height of the Jewish “preseason” — the month of Elul. This month is a period reserved in the Jewish calendar for us to make the necessary adjustments, allowing us to weed out any internal deficiencies that will impede our success for a good sweet new year and for accomplishing our general goals.
Unlike the flavor of the High Holy Days, the spiritual atmosphere in this month of preparation is not dressed in royal garb. There are no solemn tunes to stir our introspection, no large gatherings, or long hours spent in the sanctuary. It appears to be an ordinary month, yet is perhaps the most significant in the opportunity it offers.
There is a famous verse in Proverbs which speaks of relationships: “Just as water mirrors the face, so too the heart of one person to another.” The general idea is that the response one gets from another in a relationship is often dependent upon one’s display; the face that you present to the world is the reflection that you will see.
This verse emphasizes the value of taking the initiative. A relationship by definition entails the merging of separate entities. The goal is for there to be a progressive connection. For that to happen, one of the parties must take the first step, signal some interest and create an opening for the other to welcome that sign and reciprocate.
In human relationships we must train ourselves to both create that opening and to pick up those signs. But in the more abstract personal relationship with God, the question may be asked: Who takes the initiative? Is it that we work to create that opening to connect, and when we act accordingly, we get a sign from the Heavens, an indication that God is involved in our lives? Or the opposite; that we pick up on some little miracle or kindness, and we decide to show our appreciation and respond?
The answer is that it works both ways depending on the person or circumstance. Sometimes we make the effort and God responds. Other times we are suddenly provoked and respond in kind. Yet the commentaries explain there are specific times in the year that are ripe for our effort, and other months during which we receive more assistance from above without necessarily earning it.
Elul is the prime month for our initiative. This idea is hinted at in a verse in Song of Songs. Many know it from the ketubah. “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” This verse, as with the entire book of Song of Songs, is a metaphor for the connection to God. The first letters of each word in Hebrew spell out the name Elul. “I am to my beloved” is our initiative; “my beloved is to me” is God’s response. To be sure, there another verse reverses the order. The difference between them is who begins the process.
What this means practically is that every day of this month is a unique opportunity for us to build, so when we stand on Rosh Hashanah we don’t suddenly look around and say, “I am inspired, but what do I do? Where am I coming from? What do I want this year?” We have already done the work to lay the foundation.
For this reason Elul is known as “the month of accounting” during which we review the details of our lives, get things in order, examine past mistakes and make resolutions for the future. More specifically, many people may look back at earlier times in their lives when they were fresh and inspired, and realize that, somewhere along the line, in their demanding schedule, preoccupations with earning a living, and so on, they lost their sense of motivation, the perceptive that once fueled them.
The good news is that this is the month to get that inspiration back. The advice given is: Just as when one loses a physical object, one retraces the steps to determine where the lapse occurred. So too on a deeper level, when one feels as though he (or she) has lost the inspiration, one must retrace actions to determine what decisions or events caused the loss of that vision.
There are many pleasures in life — physical enjoyment, the pleasures of music, intellectual pleasure. The deepest pleasure comes from personal growth and change. When, with our own hands, we find our flaws, and instead of resigning ourselves to character stagnation, attempt to restructure ourselves and emerge fresh, we discover this most profound pleasure. Elul offers us the opportunity.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is the director of the Maayan Chai Foundation, a nonprofi t organization. He hosts the Sinai Café, a series of weekly Torah study classes at the JCC and in the community. For more information, visit Rabbi Lewin would love to hear from readers. You can e-mail him at with any questions or comments.
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