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Introduction to Elul and the Start of Real Change

09/01/2019 06:00:00 AM


Rabbi Scott Nagel

Elul 1 Sept: Week One

Introduction to Elul and the Start of Real Change

Task: Fill in the self-improvement handout (click here to download).


The High Holy Days are not just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They are a season of time that begin NOW in the month of Elul and continue through the end of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Elul is the Hebrew month directly preceding Rosh Hashanah – the last 29 days of the Jewish Year.

We blow the Shofar every day in the month of Elul to awaken us to the fact that Rosh Hashanah is coming and to remind us, no matter who we are, that WE ARE TOTALLY UNPREPARED.

There is work to be done in Elul. The great journey of turning, repentance and transformation begins NOW with the acknowledgment that we need to make it. We need to prepare ourselves to fully participate in and appreciate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Our tradition tells us again and again of this requirement: The 16th century rabbi called the Mateh Moshe proclaimed, “Every person must prepare themselves for thirty days beforehand for the day when he will appear in judgment before God on Rosh Hashanah. Therefore, let every person scrutinize their actions with a view to mending them. Let them exclude themselves for one hour every day and examine themselves,” and the Maharal of Prague said, “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into their soul and search their deeds, that they may make confession.”

The Shofar horn blows once every day in Elul so that we do not slip into mindlessness. Every day we are called back to the present and asked to examine ourselves.

The weekly Torah portion we read as the month of Elul begins is Parshat Re’eh, and it begins with the exclamation, “Look! I put before you this day a blessing and a curse.” Every moment in our lives is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, and avoiding the latter. Thus we must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves and engage in cheshbon-ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting of our lives.

The primary mission of the High Holiday season is Teshuvah – which is repenting for what we have done wrong, turning inward toward mindfulness, and returning to the person we want and strive to be – all at the same time. It is not easy. Through this task we try to connect with God, to reconcile with others, and to anchor ourselves in the ground of our actual circumstances, so that it is this reality that shapes our actions and not just the habitual, unconscious momentum of our lives. This cannot be done in one day or even ten. That is why there is the Month of Elul.

We might begin by asking ourselves, “What are the loose ends in my life? How is my mind torn? Where are the places my mind keeps wanting to go instead of staying in the present? What is the unfinished business in my life? What have I left undone?”

In some cases we might decide that it’s just time to let go—to recognize that we are distracted by something that will never be completed—and in some cases, we might decide that the only cure is in fact completion; that there’s nothing for it but to tie up that loose end, no way to keep our energy and focus from constantly draining away from the present-tense reality of our actual experience except to finish that which remains unfinished. Life is impossibly complex. It is time to organize.

In the 29 days of Elul we have an opportunity to be mindful every day. As we prepare for the New Year, let us take a few moments to list 15 positive qualities, attributes, or actions that we want to embody and/or take on in the New Year. At the same time, let us list 14 areas of growth, things that we want to let go of, things we want to minimize or change. Those are 29 points of thought and introspection, one for each day of the month of Elul.

Here is a blank calendar for you to use as a worksheet. (Click to download.) Please fill in the days with your list and place the calendar somewhere conspicuous so that you might see it every day. Dedicate a few minutes each day to reflect on and think about the item you have written down on that day. Ask yourself, “How can I increase my awareness about this task? What can I do to make this a possibility? What small step can I take TODAY to move towards this goal?”

Even if you can’t hear the shofar each day of Elul (we will blow it at Temple all month long) you can use this daily calendar as your wakeup call to pay attention and prepare for the coming year because indeed we are all, as of yet, unprepared.

Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Scott Nagel

Tue, July 14 2020 22 Tammuz 5780