FROM AV TO ELUL – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – SJN August 2017
When I was young, I loved the music of Simon and Garfunkel, in particular, the way in which each song tells a tale. One of my favourite songs was – still is – “April, Come She Will” (released in 1966), which tells the simple story of young love from the spring through the autumn:
April come she will / When streams are ripe and swelled with rain; / May, she will stay,
Resting in my arms again.
June, she’ll change her tune, / In restless walks she’ll prowl the night; / July, she will fly
And give no warning to her flight.
August, die she must, / The autumn winds blow chilly and cold; / September I’ll remember /
A love once new has now grown old.
April: So full of hope. In Jewish terms, the liberation from slavery and the birth of the Jewish people, celebrated at Pesach. Interestingly, having mentioned this Simon and Garfunkel song, at Pesach, we read Shir Ha-Shirim, ‘Song of Songs’, one of five books of the Bible set aside for recitation at particular times in the Jewish year, which happens to be a pastoral idyll of springtime love.
After the raptures of spring and early summer, Simon and Garfunkel infuse late summer with a spirit of melancholy: ‘August, die she must’. Of course, every child knows that melancholy feeling as summer ends and a new school year hovers on the horizon. As it happens, the latter part of the summer is also a sad time in the Jewish calendar, which includes a three-week period of mourning, from the day that the Babylonians breached the walls of Jerusalem on 17th Tammuz 586 BCE through the destruction of the Temple on 9th Av – Tishah B’Av.
But then, strikingly, Jewish time departs from the seasonal cycle. Yes, ‘the autumn winds’ may ‘blow chilly and cold’, but with the new month of Elul, the prospect of autumn brings new hope as the Jewish people turns towards renewal. It may be completely counterintuitive, but instead of inviting us to get ready to batten down the hatches for the winter, Elul invites us to reflect on our deeds over the past year, and to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, an ‘accounting of ourselves’, of what we have and have not done, with a view to renewing our lives and our relationships. Of course, if we take up the invitation we are in for a challenging and demanding time, but the goal of renewal can help to spur us on. And so, as the seventh month of Tishri begins with Rosh Ha-Shanah, ‘the head of the year’, a day of remembrance and judgement, we also eat apple dipped in honey in the hope of shanah tovah u’m’tukah ‘a good and sweet year’ ahead. There is so much wisdom in this approach to the cycle of the year. Just as the season turns, and death beckons for the natural world, Jews, individually and collectively, turn towards new life.