Elul: The Month of Return
During the Hebrew month of Elul, we blow the shofar every morning in synagogue. This ritual coheres with a general principle of Jewish law, namely that we begin to prepare for a holiday 30 days before its arrival. We do not want to trip into a day of significance. We want to feel emotionally and physically prepared. As someone who prays at home daily but does not go to synagogue every day, I feel every year at this season that I’m missing out on an important wake-up call to prepare me and remind me of the importance of change and repentance.
The shofar’s blast is not like an alarm clock, however. The daily sound in Elul is one plaintive cry but when blown on Rosh Hashanah, it is “played” in a more staccato fashion. The shofar blower must squeeze out four different but related sounds. The tekiah is three unbroken blasts. The sheverim is a tekiah broken into three parts. The teruah is nine rapid-fire blasts, and the tekiah gedola is one long cry for the duration of at least nine seconds. Many blow the shofar until they are winded, trying to produce a long and wailing noise to pierce the solemnity of the day.
Because our tears over what we have done wrong, what we have not yet accomplished and for whom we mourn are not the same tears, the shofar must capture all kinds of crying. We are broken, and so the sounds the shofar makes reflect our brokenness. Sometimes we sob uncontrollably in short, breathless bursts. At other times, we sigh loudly until the air is knocked out of us. The shofar can only wake us up and encourage us to return to our best selves if it mimics our inner emotional landscape: our anger at injustice, our hurt over personal wounds and our defeat at the hands of temptation.
But when you do not hear the shofar every day leading up to Rosh Hashanah, it is less of a wake-up call and more of a fire alarm. I don’t know about you, but I often feel that when I walk into my synagogue for the first service of the High Holidays, I feel caught off-guard. How is it Rosh Hashanah already? Where did the year go? Why am I so unready? I am unready because I did not pace myself spiritually. I did not hear the shofar calling me a month earlier, pulling me in with its cries.
Last year, because of this vacuum, I took upon myself a unique project. I began to write essays for each day of the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the aseret yemei teshuva, or 10 days of repentance. It was a personal ladder for me to try to achieve a greater sense of holiness and responsibility and go into the Days of Awe feeling the requisite awe. Each day I scaled a new topic for self-improvement rooted in Jewish tradition. I was so absorbed in it that I expanded it into a book that has just been published, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe. In addition to a daily essay, I included portions of study on repentance in translation from Maimonides—the rationalist, Rabbi Kook, the mystic, and Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzato, the ethicist. I attached a life homework assignment to integrate study and action, using myself as a test case. I feel privileged to share what I learned.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, one of the great defenders of the Jewish people to God, was disturbed that many of his disciples were observing Jewish law but were not leading a moral life. One day he made a bold statement, “I wish to announce that there is a God in the world.” The shofar is our way of making the same announcement but without words. On Rosh Hashanah we coronate God as our king and relinquish the feeble control we have over our lives. We think about who we are and what possibilities we can bring to a new year. Are you ready?
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of “In the Narrow Places“ (OU Press/Maggid); “Inspired Jewish Leadership,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist; “Spiritual Boredom“; and “Confronting Scandal.”
Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list here.