Guard and listen to all these words that I command you, in order that it be well with you and your children after you forever (Deuteronomy 12:28).
This week’s portion, Re’eh, contains a break in Moses’ speeches about Jewish history and destiny. Here he reminds our people of the laws that they must observe; it is a promise that as long as we stay true to our partnership with God, we will thrive. This year, the portion is read right before the start of the month of Elul, which begins next week — a month of intensity where it is especially imperative to remember those commandments.
For years when I was younger, I remember my swim coaches all saying the same thing: “The most important lap is not the last one, but the one right before the last.” Their point was that it was at that time that we needed to start making an extra effort, and not just wait until the very last moment before we kicked into high gear.
Our sages had the same philosophy, although it wasn’t directed toward swimming. In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we will take stock of our actions of the past year and make commitments for the next, they gave us a special time full of rituals and gifts so that we can make that “next to last lap” extra strong and begin to motivate our souls. This “lap” is the month of Elul.
Elul is a time to prepare ourselves for the great trial coming that is the 10 Days of Awe. The month is an acronym for “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” — “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine” (a quote from the Song of Songs, often used at weddings).
We are taught that during this month, God is walking among us (the Chasidic concept of “the King is in the Field”), inspiring us to begin to make teshuvah (repentance) and to awaken our souls. Each weekday during this month, it is traditional to hear the shofar blown, a blast to motivate us to start to really take stock of ourselves, our lives and our actions. It is a time to recommit and practice the instructions we find in this week’s Torah reading, which covers such things as prayer, interpersonal behavior, kashrut, tithing, the observance of holidays and even the forgiving of loans.
We are given many tools besides the shofar to help us “wake up” during Elul. There are numerous pieces of liturgy designed to aid us as well. Traditionally, we recite Psalm 27 each day. It’s an acrostic psalm that reminds us to have faith and courage in the compassion of God. Many people additionally recite 10 psalms a day, reading the Book of Tehillim (Psalms) twice in the month. Penitential prayers are recited every morning, peaking with the Selichot service. There is also the custom of visiting the graves of those we love during the month, using their memory to inspire us further in our quest to awaken from our spiritual slumber.
HaShem has given us other subtle ways of helping ourselves during this time, often through the birth of extraordinary sages and events. Nachmanides (a great medieval commentator and mystic), the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of modern Chasidism), and Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the founder of Chabad) were all born in this month; and the Shulchan Arukh, one of the major codes of Jewish law, was first published in Elul. We were also given the great sign of hope during Elul when the dove returned to Noah with the olive leaf — a sign that the world would be renewed.
It is a time of renewal. A time to renew our personal commitments as well as to renew our passion for spiritual growth. This is the time to invite others to sit at our tables and join us for services at our synagogue; to learn and pray together; and to make that extra push to fix the wrongs we have done. It is the month to give that extra effort, and to really look inside and see what is there. Not to just accept that we are “OK,” but to be honest and really go deep within ourselves in self-reflection.
And it is a time to celebrate that God gives us the opportunity to have the upcoming High Holy Days and to make teshuvah. Elul is a time to be grateful, and to express that gratitude.
Are we expressing gratitude to God, and, as importantly, to each other? Are we using the guidelines given in this week’s portion to wake ourselves up to living more fully, joyously and with integrity? Are we asleep to ourselves and life or do we choose, this year, to fully wake up?
My prayer for all of us as we enter this month of Elul is that we awaken to our potential as individuals and as a community, and that we fill the darkness of the world with the light of our tradition’s teachings.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul in Westlake Village (newshul.net) and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.