Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Month of Elul
To dedicate this lesson

Once Again Elul


Rabbi Berel Wein

Elul 5768
The month of Elul has arrived with all of its awe, anticipation and subdued excitement. It is the final month of the old year but it is always seen in Jewish tradition as the entry month of the new year. It is seen as a month of preparation, introspections, self-analysis and personal commitment to self-improvement and spiritual gain. In previous times and circumstances, absent instant communication and constant availability Elul was truly able to take on this somber anticipatory mode. However in our distracting, overly busy, information-bombarded society Elul seems doomed to take on the hues of an ordinary month no different than Tevet for example. Politics, domestic and foreign, security threats and countermeasures, the beginning of a new school year with all of the family adjustments attendant to this momentous time in the lives of so many, plus the usual and regular hassles of ordinary daily life, all conspire to push the spiritual Elul to the back recesses of our behavior and thoughts. That is too bad for a proper Elul leads to a meaningful observance and appreciation of the great and awesome holidays of Tishrei. Elul so to speak is the charger for our life battery that allows it to be fully functional in Tishrei and in the months beyond. We have all experienced the frustration of a dying battery on our cell phone or laptop computer at a vital moment. Well I think that this is how our soul feels if it was not somehow meaningfully recharged in the month of Elul. It runs out of power at crucial moments of our life. And that is usually the time that we need it most.

Elul is not a quick fix month. Rather it demands of us small increments and gradual improvement of behavior and speech. The sudden, wrenching, all-or nothing approach to self-improvement, like crash diets and desperate almost impulsive decisions and policies bring only further disappointment and frustration with one’s self. The Talmud records for us a number of instances of people who performed evil acts and suddenly completely regretted and repented from those acts and thereby gained immortality for their souls. However in each of those instances the penitent died on the spot. A 180 degree turn while driving at high speed is almost inevitability a fatal course, no matter how necessary or commendable that turn may be. Elul seeks a change of commitment and direction in one’s thinking and lifestyle but it seeks it in a gradual, healthy and normal fashion. In fact, Elul is the height of normalcy, of how to behave as a decent human being, at home, at the workplace, on the road and in the automobile and in the synagogue and marketplace. The highest expression of fealty to God and the Torah lie in the small things in life, in the words of Rashi and Midrash "in those things that a person unwittingly crushes under one’s heel." Elul teaches us that only by paying attention to the small things in life can one adequately prepare one’s self for the great challenges of life and the new year that will surely arrive.

The sounding of the shofar in the month of Elul lends a sense of immediacy and drama to Elul. Small things never are a big deal. But Jewish tradition has chosen to make a big deal out of Elul. Because as I have previously stated the small things in life shape our fortunes, attitudes and purposes. Maimonides famously comparers the sounding of the shofar in Elul to a wakeup call. But it is more than that. It is a sound that is both jarring and soothing, reassuring and challenging. The sounds of the shofar reflect accurately these moods of Elul itself - challenge, direction and spiritual growth. They are incremental short sounds that lead to a longer note of serenity and satisfaction. Elul reflects these ideas of ultimate triumph and redemption. The note of serenity at the end of the series of shofar soundings is the harbinger of the ultimate redemption of the Jews both individually and nationally. There are no shortcuts to that final note - to the great tekiah. The difficult short sounds must precede it. And Elul is the necessary precursor to this challenge of greatness that the Lord demands of us. Only by preparation can achievements truly occur. Elul serves as the entrance foyer into the great Jewish palace of purpose, holiness and immortality. In the words of Avot, "prepare yourself in the foyer so that you may then enter the palace in a proper fashion."
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