Elul — The Common View
Elul is upon us. That means daily shofar blowing, special psalms and for Mizrahi Jews – waking up half an hour earlier to recite selichot. The name of the game is repentance and preparing ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A month-long period of repentance and preparation should allow us to get safely through the days of judgement and ensure ourselves another safe and healthy year.
This, I suspect, is how most observant Jews see the period.
On the eve of Elul I found myself in conversation with a Hasidic friend/teacher, telling him how little I relate to Elul. As described above, it doesn’t work for me. And I have serious doubts about the real efficacy of the practice even for those who engage in it sincerely. 40 days (Elul +the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Kippur) is a very long time to keep a focus on repentance. It is so long that it loses its efficacy. If one is sincere in one’s repentance, God forgives one on the spot (the point is made beautifully in Sefer Hatanya, Igeret Hateshuva, Chapter 11). Holding the same note, and repeating the very same prayers day after day for 30 days, in addition to an already too-long and too-verbose liturgy, is a recipe for not succeeding in cultivating genuine repentance.
We’ve Also Lost Rosh Hashanah
Actually, the problem with Elul is more fundamental. It goes to the core of our understanding of Rosh Hashanah. We need Elul to prepare for Rosh Hashanah because we consider Rosh Hashanah a day of judgement. Our fear of judgement leads us to advance the process of repentance and seeking Divine forgiveness by a month. But this is a very mistaken, or at least partial, understanding of Rosh Hashanah. A look at the core liturgy, instituted by the Rabbis, for Rosh Hashanah teaches us that the theme of the day is completely different. It is a day of enthroning God, of proclaiming his Kingdom, of thinking of the entire world as subject to God’s kingdom. It is a day of praying for the world, not for our own safety in face of a terrible judgement. Later generations added another layer of meaning, based on later Talmudic statements representing Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgement (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 16b), and this meaning has eclipsed the fundamental meaning of the day. Concern for God’s kingdom has been replaced by concern for making it safely through divine judgement and this has, in turn, shaped our Elul. Can we imagine a different Elul, as preparation for the deeper and truer meaning of Rosh Hashanah?
Celebrating Elul — A Suggestion
If Rosh Hashanah is about praying for God’s kingdom and God’s will in the world, we can prepare for that very message during Elul. We can cultivate that perspective, decentering attention from ourselves, and thinking of God and the world, as we prepare our minds and hearts for Rosh Hashanah. Here is a suggestion. We spend much of our time thinking of Israel and the world. We consume news of the world, especially of politics, in huge doses, exceeding anything prior generations could have dreamt about. We have, in short, a global consciousness, yet the scope of our religious life is narrow and centered on our wellbeing and survival. Elul could be a time to change that. Imagine every day of Elul could be a day to pray for another world leader or state, asking that the given world leader be in alignment with God’s will, an instrument for fulfilling God’s kingdom. We need not decide anything about local or global politics. We need not align ourselves with any political camp. We simply need to translate the broad mandate of praying for humanity, as formulated in our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, into small prayer-size units, that could be applied on a daily basis to leaders and nations in turn. For all the time we spend talking of Putin, Trump, Merkel, Macron, Urban, Duterte etc., we could spend a few moments each day, praying for one of them, in turn, asking for them to be guided by God and preparing our own hearts to raise the entire world to God during Rosh Hashanah. It seems to me that selfless prayer for others, in the framework of realizing God’s will for humanity, will go at least as far, probably farther, than repeating one more time the request for divine pardon for our sins. It will be selfless. It will open our hearts to think of others. It will focus our mind on God, and not on ourselves. And, perhaps more than anything, it will allow us a return to a mission we have lost sight of, repentance in the truest sense.
A Kingdom of Priests
Exodus 19:6 states, right before the giving of the Torah, that we are to become a kingdom of priests. This is a vision that we have mostly lost sight of. What does it mean for Israel to be a kingdom of priests? One important strand of interpretation considers that the priest has the duty to bless and to pray for others, and so Israel is the priest among the nations, caring for their welfare. The earliest witness to this view is Philo of Alexandria:
A priest has the same relation to a city that the nation of the Jews has to the entire inhabited world. For it serves as a priest…through the use of all purificatory offerings and the guidance both for body and soul of divine laws… For this reason it is astounding that some dare to charge the nation with an anti-social stance, a nation which has made such an extensive use of fellowship and goodwill toward all people everywhere that they offer up prayers and feasts and first fruits on behalf of the common race of human beings and serve the really self-existent God both on behalf of themselves and of others (on the special laws 163; 167)
If we think of return and repentance, we should consider return to our core vocation, one that is all too often eclipsed by our concern for survival. If our vocation includes caring for and praying for others, what better time to fulfill this than as preparation for the days when we affirm God’s sovereignty over the entire world? Surely, God will take great pleasure in our concern for His Kingdom and raising humanity to it. If we rise to being good instruments for His purpose, He will surely, I believe, also forgive our sins.