The summer – what we’ve had of it, weather-wise, is over. At least there were the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in July, then the Olympic Games – and now the Paralympics: enough going on to ensure that the weather has not been the primary topic of conversation. And yet, it is hard not to regret the lack of a good spell of sunshine and heat… So, after a good bout of wind and rain yesterday, here we are on September 1st – summer has officially turned to Autumn… Lines from one of my favourite Simon & Garfunkel songs comes to mind:
August – die she must
The autumn wind blows chilly and cold.
In just over two weeks’ time it will be Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year. Actually, to speak of the ‘New Year’ is a little misleading – although Rosh Ha-Shanah does, indeed, usher in a New Year. As the Hebrew tells us, Rosh Ha-Shanah is the rosh, the ‘head’ of ha-shanah, the ‘year’. Falling at the beginning of the seventh month of Tishri, Rosh Ha-Shanah is the high-point of the year, marking the moment, when, six months having passed, the year turns.
Rosh Ha-Shanah marks a turning point, and so, apart from, proclaiming a New Year, the Shofar, the ram’s horn, calls us to reflect on our actions, turn our lives around, and return to one another, to our true selves – and to the Eternal: which for some means God; and for others represents a sense of the Transcendent; that which is larger than ourselves and our finite lives.
Rosh Ha-Shanah: the first of the ten days of t’shuvah – literally, ‘returning’ – an intensive period of repentance, that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, At-one-ment; it is a big deal; a very big deal; it is momentous. How many people gathered here today had a summer holiday? Well, like a holiday, the aseret y’mei t’shuvah, ‘the ten days of returning’ – also known as yamim nora’im, the ‘awed days’ or ‘days of awe’ – represent a special period of time outside our daily routine. And yet, unlike the way we approach a holiday, many of us – perhaps most of us – do little or no preparation for the yamim nora’im. Yes, those who attend the synagogue for Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services do make a note of the dates when these two particular days fall, and make plans to attend. But what else do we do? Do we think about where we will be going during the ten days? Do we think about what we will need for our t’shuvah journey? Do we reflect on the year that is drawing to a close and get ourselves ready for a new one? Do we begin to turn ourselves round?
We need time to prepare for the yamim nora’im. The month of Elul prior to Rosh Ha-Shanah is such a time. Today is the 14th day of Elul – so we’re already almost halfway through. Interestingly, the word Elul only came into usage after the Babylonian exile, which began in 586 BCE – and is in fact a Babylonian name, which was later adopted into Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. The first occurrence of the word is in the biblical book of Nehemiah, which relates the return of ‘N’chemyah, son of Hachalyah’ to Jerusalem forty years after the destruction of the city, to oversee the work of repair. Significantly, the month of Elul is mentioned in the context of a verse in chapter six stating that ‘[t]he wall was finished on the 25th of Elul, after fifty-two days’ (6:15). Then, later, chapter 8 relates how the Israelites, having settled back into their towns, assembled before the Watergate at the beginning of the seventh month, and listened to Ezra the scribe read ‘the scroll of the teaching of Moses’ – sefer torat Moshe (8:1ff.).
In Sephardi tradition, the Jewish way that originated with the Jews of Sepharad – those who lived in Spain and Portugal until the expulsions of 1492 and 1497 – the Shofar is blown every morning during the month of Elul as an aid to preparation. In both Sephardi practice and the Ashkenazi tradition that has its roots in Jewish life in northern and central Europe during the Middle Ages, it is customary to recite psalms and penitential prayers each day during Elul, and for the congregation to gather for a special service late on the Saturday night or early Sunday morning prior to Rosh Ha-Shanah, when the Shofar is blown. Known as S’lichot, because of its emphasis on the quest for ‘Forgiveness’, which is one of the goals of the t’shuvah journey, this service serves like an intensive warm-up for the yamim nora’im – an opportunity to direct our minds and hearts on the time ahead. Next Saturday evening, we will hold our S’lichot service, preceded by a study session.
There are other Elul traditions to help us prepare for the ‘awed days’ from Rosh Ha-Shanah to Yom Kippur. There is the custom of expressing our best wishes to people l’shanah tovah – ‘for a good year’ – both in person, and when writing letters – and these days, emails. This simple practice serves as a daily reminder to ourselves and others. It is also traditional to visit the graves of loved ones during Elul – reminding ourselves of our connection with those who went before us, and the legacy we have received from them. On a more demanding level, Elul is the time to begin to orientate ourselves to the major challenges of the yamim nora’im: T’shuvah, T’fillah and Tz’dakah. Translated most usually as, ‘Repentance, Prayer and Charity’ – the Hebrew words are more complex: We are called to ‘return’ to the true path of our lives – the ‘root’ meaning of t’shuvah; to judge ourselves – l’hit’palleil – essentially that is what t’fillah, ‘prayer’, involves, and to practice ‘righteousness’ – tz’dakah – by giving to those in need. Each of these tasks, T’shuvah, T’fillah and Tz’dakah, represents a demand on our time and our energies.
Elul is a month of preparation for the ‘awed days’ that lie ahead; but for Jews, preparation is always practical; it is never simply a matter of what’s happening in our heads. Just think of making preparations for a holiday: all the thoughtful mental planning in the world won’t get the tickets booked and the cases packed.
We can make a start by engaging in cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally, make an ‘account of the soul’ – in much the same way as we examine the state of our finances. The t’shuvah journey begins in Elul with just such a cheshbon – an account of the state of our souls, an account of our actions – towards family, friends, colleagues, fellow congregants, neighbours, people in the wider community, strangers near and far, and the world around us. In other words, we make a list of the errors and wrongs we have committed that encompasses everything from ignoring the needs of our partner or spouse and bullying a workmate, to jumping the queue, being rude to a waiter and discarding our rubbish on the beach.
But there is a danger in drawing up an ‘account’ of our misdeeds, if we simply focus on what we have done to others. The danger is that we are left feeling totally wretched – which is the last place we want to be if we are going to have the courage to change. Our cheshbon ha-nefesh can only work if we also focus on what we have done to ourselves over the past year. In fact, this is the place to make a start, before we consider how we have treated others. If we can understand how we have hurt ourselves, mistreated ourselves, ignored ourselves, belittled ourselves, then we may have a chance of recognising what we have done to other people.
So here are some questions for ourselves: Have I slept and rested enough? Have I taken the time each day to eat a proper sit-down meal? Have I exercised? Have I paused to notice the trees sway, the shapes in the clouds and the changes in the quality of the light at different times of the day? Have I forgiven myself, when I’ve made a mistake? Have I stopped to reflect and appreciate myself when I’ve done something well, or when someone has thanked me?
The month of Elul signals a new beginning. But it is important to acknowledge that Elul of its self does not bring renewal; it is up to us, as it was up to our ancestors before us, to use the month for this purpose. Disconcertingly, a similar word in the Bible, the Hebrew noun, Elil, means ‘worthlessness’ – as in Jeremiah chapter 14, verse 14, where Jeremiah rails against the worthless divinations and deceits of false prophets. Spelt almost identically – except for the difference of a vowel – ‘u’ in Elul, ‘i’ in Elil, the words Elul and Elil – the one Hebrew, the other, Babylonian – are not related; although, curiously, in Jeremiah 14:14 Elil is written to look like Elul. But even without this scribal error, the surface similarity between these two very different words teaches us an important lesson: Unless we take steps to renew our lives during Elul, the gift of Elul will be worthless. The chorus from another Simon & Garfunkle song comes to mind:
And the leaves that are green turn to brown,
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand.
As autumn gathers pace, we won’t be able to do anything about the leaves turning from green to brown and withering with the wind, but we can turn ourselves towards the task of renewal. As Rosh Ha-Shanah approaches, may each one of us find our own ways to begin the journey. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
1st September 2012 /14th Elul 5772