Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 74

August 6, 2021

The "Process" of Elul"

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and in good health!

This upcoming Shabbat morning, we will announce the upcoming Jewish month of Elul during our prayer services. As you are likely aware, there is a longstanding custom that during the Hebrew month of Elul, which precedes the High Holy Days, we sound the haunting and awakening voice of the shofar every day. Our tradition teaches that these shofar blasts help prepare us spiritually for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah.

In fact, during this Hebrew month, many sources encourage us to begin our own internal process of Teshuvah (repentance) and Cheshbon HaNefesh (personal inventory). Through the blasts of the Shofar, we are reminded that Elul is a “process.”

There are several reasons offered for the blowing of the Shofar during the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. One source suggests that after Israel sinned with the golden calf, Moses spent 40 days pleading for forgiveness. Then, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai once again for another 40 days, after which he descended with the second tablets. This second ascent began on the first of Elul, lasted until Yom Kippur, and was accompanied by shofar blasts. Another idea is that Elul is the month during which we search our souls in anticipation of the High Holidays. The soul-stirring shofar blasts inspire us to come closer to G‑d, as we read, “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid?” A third tradition suggests that the blowing of the shofar, which is obviously a Rosh Hashanah activity, confuses the prosecuting angel in heaven, who now has no idea on what day is the “real” Rosh Hashanah.

Finally, the mystical text of the Zohar, explains that “at the beginning of Elul we are Achor el Achor, meaning “back-to-back” with God, and by the end of Elul we have the potential to be Panim el Panim, or “face-to-face” with our Creator.

During the year, these mystical interpretations suggest that there is a natural tendency to turn our backs metaphorically from spiritual challenges, personal tribulations, strained relationships, and unintentionally, even from our Jewish heritage. Over the course of a long year, we may even unwittingly harbor resentments and frustrations causing us to close the door, or turn our backs, from life’s fullest spiritual potential.

The Zohar thus challenges us to use each day of the preparatory month of Elul to slowly turn back around to our true essence as loving human beings and spiritual creatures. I believe the rationale behind the Zohar giving us the full month to reorient, rests in the notion that sometimes it is hard to turn around immediately a full one hundred and eighty degrees. Rather, each day offers us the possibility to turn around ever so slightly, so that by the end of the month, in time for the Holy Days, we will be “face-to-face” with our existential realities.

So, while we prepare together for the upcoming holiday season and hear the blast of the Shofar during morning minyanim, let us pray that we can use this time to turn back around and stand face-to-face (whether masked or unmasked) with our loved ones, friends, family, community, synagogue, and our Creator. As we eventually reencounter our lives fully in this face-to-face manner, we will undoubtedly become a blessing to ourselves and to the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD

201 562 5277

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