This month of preparation is no ordinary month

When looking at the current period within the Jewish calendar, a common misperception is that next month is a big deal — “the High Holy Days” — but now we’re still in ordinary times. But as with any major event in life, the preparation period possesses its own distinct flavor, a mix of anxious anticipation and excitement that prods focused effort, a collection of necessary steps to embrace the moment, so you don’t find yourself in an awkward position, standing on the big stage in stunned hypnotic stillness as the bright lights suddenly come on.
In some ways, the preparation period is even more precious and valuable than the main event. What we do in the absence of an externally imposed urgency, when things appear routine, can be the most telling mark of character. It also sets the tone for our performance when it really counts.
Elul — this month of preparation — has a unique character and appeal: There are two general modes of ongoing interaction between us and God, between the soul and its source. The first is likened to an ethereal waterfall — heavenly streams and messages that fall to us and manifest in feelings of inspiration, prompting our action. The other mode begins with human initiative — grinding, digging, climbing the spiritual ladder — before detecting a response.
Within the yearly cycle, this is the time when we activate our strength to connect. Drifting through Jewish communities across the world, is a fresh breeze of heartfelt prayer and teshuva — a struggle to return to personal peak form. Nevertheless, as we strive to progress during the month leading up to the Days of Awe, we receive a hidden push like a supernatural tailwind that elevates our effort through divine compassion, a unique form of “the 13 attributes of mercy.”
The Code of Jewish Law refers to the onset of Elul as an eit ratzon, a time of goodwill. Simply put, some periods are riper than others to achieve desired results. In a marriage, for example, receiving a check-in call from one’s spouse at the office is not the same quality of bonding as entering the home, sitting comfortably together and talking face-to-face with tenderness. So too, there are more intimate stages within our abstract spiritual connection, windows when God comes closer and is more approachable, so to speak, which provides tremendous opportunities.
This favorable period is not random; it has a history. On the first day of Elul, Moses ascended to Mount Sinai a third time, staying there 40 days, until Yom Kippur, which marked the completion of forgiveness. He then descended, holding the second tablets of the covenant. Ever since, Elul has been distinguished as days of goodwill, with the 10th day of Tishrei stamped as “the day of atonement.”
Four classic verses hint at how to tap into the power of Elul. In the first, noted by Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal), the letters spelling the name Elul are the same initial letters of the words “(God) caused it to happen, and I will provide (a place) for you (to which he can flee)” (Exodus 21:13). The literal context of this verse involves establishing “a city of refuge,” a protected area where someone who has accidently killed runs to be healed. The broader hint is that Elul is a refuge in time, the opportunity for personal rehabilitation, and the rectification of any slips over the past year, even inadvertent blunders.
Since Elul is the preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of creation, the prime service during this month entails the three pillars that uphold the world — Torah, prayer and deeds of loving kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2). These are also the channels to refine our thoughts, speech and action.
While the general function of Elul as a spiritual refuge in time, a more specific reference is to Torah study — purifying the mind. As the Talmud says, “The words of Torah offer refuge.”
Perhaps the most famous phrase associated with Elul is, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me,” which refers to tefillah (prayer), the daily purpose of which is to join man and God. Finally, Elul is the same initial letters of the phrase “each person (shall give) to his fellow, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22) — an obvious reference to tzedakah (charitable acts). During Elul, the commentaries conclude, a person should be quick to pursue these pillars and increase them with more intensity.
The core, the internal ignition for us to travel smoothly down these three pathways toward the metaphysical “city of refuge” is teshuva (return). This inner shift is alluded to in another verse whose opening letters spell Elul: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
Such a cryptic phrase — possessing a natural association with the fleshly process — begs explanation, and there are many. In the view of the Ramban (Nachmanides), the passage forecasts the ultimate transformation, a return to the pristine environment of Gan Eden, where man lived in perfect harmony.
Tradition relates that the primordial sin sent the world out of order. After being exiled from the garden and its beauty, man yearned for the light in which he once lived. Then, in the blackness of night, he fumbled around and found two stones. Rubbing them against each other, he saw a spark fly out — which provided hope that he would eventually return to the brightness in Gan Eden. Though a physical flame is but a poor flicker compared to the heavenly brilliance, it is reminiscent of the great light.
Jewish mystic teachings explain that our task in this world is to put things back in order, beginning with fixing “the miniature world,” ourselves. Sometimes a person feels dried up inside, like a dark dead planet. The soul has forgotten its song. What face, sound or sentence will revive its memory is yet unknown.
But there is fresh hope. Elul is the auspicious time to remove all internal obstacles to growth and joy. Only, unlike the above verse, where “the Lord your God will circumcise your heart,” we begin to make the change ourselves. At the same time, we have extra assistance from this “month of mercy” to return to God and uncover our ideal self.
As the shofar is customarily sounded each morning (as practice), we are reminded that what we do right now, during these days, is most valuable. For soon, we will be tiny figures placed on the grand stage, singing in the synagogue with pleading prayers that pull blessings and renewed life into the entire year. Let’s not miss this opportunity to plant internal seeds — developing the consciousness, an alert mind and healthy emotions — that will easily blossom into a sweet, healthy new year.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

Leave a Reply