By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution on December 31st? (“I’m going to go to the gym more often…” I’m going to eat only healthy foods…” “I’m going to be more helpful around the house…”)
Have you ever actually KEPT these promises beyond say, January 3rd?
In the Jewish calendar, before the High Holy Days, we are offered the entire month of Elul to reflect on our lives, our behavior, and our relationships with others. This month connects the past with the future: where we have been and where we want to go. It is like standing in front of a mirror; but instead of wondering, “Does this shirt really go with these pants?” we look deeply into our souls and ask, “What behaviors do I need to change?” and “How can I be a better person?” Most importantly, we should come up with a plan that answers this question: “What concrete steps will I take to improve myself and the way I treat those around me?”
There are certain rituals practiced during Elul to help us get into the spirit of the High Holy Days. They serve as reminders that this month is special, providing us with daily opportunities to prepare for what lies ahead in the Days of Awe. These rituals include:
Daily blowing of the Shofar (except on Shabbat). This is a way to awaken our souls to the spirit of the High Holy Days, reminding us that self-growth is always a better option than complacency.
Communal recitation of prayers and poems known as S’lichot (“forgiveness”) either daily or at a special worship service held on a Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. Here is part of one S’lichot prayer:
Creator of Your world’s every creature,
Sustainer of all, sustain us now.
O hear our song and our prayer.
Daily reading of Psalm 27, which contains themes that reflect our vulnerability and spiritual journey during this time. This Psalm opens with:
God is my light and my salvation,
Whom shall I fear?
God is the strength of my life,
Of whom shall I be afraid?
Visiting the graves of our loved ones. This ritual offers us the opportunity to reflect on the important life lessons those we loved taught us, and a chance to ponder the legacy that we ourselves hope to leave behind.
During the month of Elul and the High Holy Days, we engage in the process of t’shuvah (returning to wholeness and holiness). Our tradition teaches that during this time of t’shuvah we need to make amends not only with God for our transgressions, but also with those human beings we may have hurt. This process of introspection, forgiveness, and the healing of ourselves and our relationships takes time and effort.
If we wait until the High Holy Days to begin reflecting on our actions of the preceding year, there may not be enough time for us to achieve meaningful healing and growth. We may be sincere in our resolve to improve our behavior as we chant the Ashamnu (“We have sinned…”) prayer on Yom Kippur. Yet by beginning in Elul, our efforts at long-term self-improvement and t’shuva are more likely to succeed.