I know, I know.
The month of Elul should inspire awe and fear. I have heard stories of people in previous generations who would tremble when Rosh Chodesh Elul (the approach of the month of Elul) was announced in synagogue.
Elul precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the two most important and awe-inspiring days in the Jewish calendar – a time of repentance, days of judgment when our fate is in the balance. Will we live or will we die?
And Elul is the time for us to do our personal self-evaluation.
Many employees have to do an annual self-evaluation nowadays before their boss, to show how much they contribute towards the company they work for, and how much the company gains by their presence.
So how much more should we prepare ourselves before we stand in front of our Heavenly Father, the King of Kings and justify our existence?
On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we say that “Repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil decree.”
We are given the ‘recipe’ for being written in the Book of Life.
And there is another side to Elul.
Elul is also known as the month of forgiveness, the month of mercy… and the month when “The King is in the Field.”
Not many of us have fields nowadays, but the idea is that the ‘King’ our Heavenly Father, comes down to meet us during Elul –whether we are in the field, the kitchen, the office or in school. He wants us to return to Him so he saves us half the distance to encourage and help us. He wants us to regret our sins of the past year and turn over a new leaf. His is approachable and closer.
So now you can perhaps understand why I look forward to Elul each year. I know I am very far from perfect. I haven’t behaved as well as I could to my ‘neighbors’. I have missed opportunities to help others, simple easy opportunities such as a smile to a lonely person or an offer to help a sick friend with a meal. But I intend to rectify these mistakes and go out of my way to be a better friend, neighbor and Jew during Elul.
I have missed easy opportunities to connect more with G-d but I resolve that in Elul this will change. Instead of checking my emails first thing in the morning I shall connect to Him in prayer first and let the digital world wait a bit longer.
I’ll buy or borrow a book offering guidance to self-improvement the Jewish way, or watch a video series on some topic I know I’m not familiar enough with, whether it is Shabbat observance or interpersonal relationships.
Yes of course I hope my pre-New Year resolutions will continue during the year but even if they don’t my attempts won’t have been wasted.
Rabbi Zev Leff, the rabbi of Moshav Matityahu, explained the idea as akin to building a house. Just as a builder intentionally uses stronger materials for the foundations of the house in order to ensure a solid, stable base on which to build the rest of the building – so Elul is the foundation of the new year and needs to be strong and solid. This will ensure that even if the good intentions peter out in later months the effect of the foundation will linger.
Even if you have a strong suspicion that the day after Yom Kippur your good intentions may be forgotten, nothing will have gone unnoticed.
So even though by the time I get to Av, the month before Elul, I’m pretty low on the ‘being-a-good-Jew scale’, G-d is nearby waiting to give me a hand to improve things a bit during the next month.
I sense His presence when I’m asked to bake a cake to distribute to needy families for Shabbat. Go on you can do it – at least this once and maybe even again another time.
I feel Him cheering me on when I get dressed and reach for my siddur (prayer book) instead of my phone. There’s nothing life or death in those messages – they can wait.
I sense His approval when I respond to a charity request with a donation instead of ignoring it. Some people don’t have money to put food on the table, I need to be grateful that we do.
Before I eat that piece of cake, which I don’t need but really want, I at least say a bracha (blessing) elevating the act from just satisfying my craving for something sweet, to putting G’d first.
Yes, during Elul I feel Him close by, looking over my shoulder, not in a judgmental way but encouragingly – and maybe, who knows, some of those little self-improvements might last longer than a month.
But even if not, it will still have been worth it.