Everybody has a busy season. For retailers it's December; for balabusters (Jewish domestic managers, I don't like the expression homemakers) it's Pesach; for rabbis it's Tishre, with the High Holidays and Sukkot (which I believe are one unbroken continuum, but that's another article). I remember growing up (at least in measurement) and seeing a box on the front page of the Boston Globe (which irony of ironies, is owned by the New York Times) starting the day after Thanksgiving announcing how many shopping days were left before December 25. Either we were stupider in those days or because stores were closed on Sundays it was harder to figure out on our own. Today our phones would tell us. Our Sages did the same thing for us before Rosh Hashanah. They gave us reminders that the Days of Awe (just Awe, no shock, please God) were imminent. And the reasoning is similar. These occasions require preparation to be observed in the preferred manner. For one, it's shop til you drop; for the other, well, that's the subject of this article.
The warnings of the approach of Rosh Hashanah really begin with Shabbat Nachamu, that Shabbat right after Tisha B'av. That Haftorah of comfort and consolation begins the healing or tikun process which is the essence of repentance, and that week starts a series of seven haftorot which culminates with Rosh Hashanah. The intensity increases with Rosh Chodesh Elul when we start to recite Psalm 29, L'David Ori, and daily shofar blasts are heard. The alert climaxes with the chanting of Slichot, the week before the New Year. This step by step build up, makes us acutely aware of an impending spiritual storm. But what are the implications? If a hurricane approaches, I know to stock up on canned goods and batteries. What do I do to prime myself for these Days of Awe?
The S'fat Emet (Rabbi Aryeh Leib Yehuda Alter of Gur, 1847-1905) asks this same question in a much more sophisticated way. He quotes from a verse which is prominent in our liturgy: But, as for me, may my prayer to You, O Lord, be in an acceptable time. O God, with Your abundant kindness, answer me with the truth of Your salvation (Psalms 69:14). We recite this verse every Shabbat Afternoon and sing it (3X) when we remove the Torah from the ark on holidays. The Rebbe is concerned over this expression 'an acceptable time'. How can we talk about an acceptable time vis a vis God, Who is unchanging and outside the space-time continuum? In 1874, he answered that it’s the time that changes. There are times which reflect historical events in our relationship with God. Elul has a special significance and is an acceptable time, because Moshe ascended Mt. Sinai for the second time (perhaps third) at the beginning of Elul to pray for the forgiveness of the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. It worked then, because 40 days later (Yom Kippur) he returned with the replacement set of Tablets, and we still cling to the hope that this time period carries the aura of that event and remains efficacious for the critical enterprise called Teshuva. We repent now, because our ancestors repented at this time so long ago. This is why every Pesach is the time of our deliverance, and each Shavuot we reaccept the Torah. Those days carry that ambience. Now we can understand something Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote in his Laws of Repentance: Even though repentance and pleading for forgiveness are always appropriate, they are even more appropriate in the ten days between New Year and the Day of Atonement, when they are accepted immediately, as it is written, "Seek out the Lord while He may be found"(chapter 2, law 6). God never changes and is always available, but these times make the approach more appropriate and, hopefully, more effective.
In 1880, the Rebbe revisited this question and wrote that Elul is the special time for repentance because during this period Jews accept the yoke of God's sovereignty upon themselves. He continues that if our hands are bound to the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination or the Dark Side) we can't commit to God. Therefore, it's up to us during Elul to free ourselves from the bondage to this world and bind ourselves to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Which is it? Is Elul the special time for repentance because of our ancestors' experience or because of our efforts? Well, both. And this point is critically important for understanding Elul, our calendar, and the entire nature of our tradition. When in 1874 the Rebbe said that this season is so important because of what happened so long ago, he was right. However, those events still impact us only because we continue to observe them. Someone may be walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon, but never notice the awesome beauty because they're preoccupied. It's so sad, but common, that we're oblivious. Even though I like that analogy, it's not perfect. The splendor of the scenery is not improved by our ogling it. The exquisiteness is unchanged. With Elul it's different. The grandeur is enhanced by the Jews observing and reacting to the collective memory, and the more of us who join in the stronger it is. This is isn't only mystical. There are secular parallels. I remember Memorial Day when I was kid. Stores weren't open, and everyone was connected to soldiers who had died in WWII. The day had a feel which is totally lost today. Why? Because hardly anyone is involved anymore in visiting the cemeteries and planting the flags. The overall effect is proportional to the intensity and extent of the participation.
Rosh Hashanah is wonderful, with this synagogue and others overflowing with huge crowds, but wouldn't the experience be enhanced if our preparation for this spiritual event including more than shopping for new clothes and scrumptious meals? My exhortation to you, my dear readers, is to use these next few weeks to prime yourselves for the Days of Awe. This can be done by reading articles online about the holidays, reading through the prayers in advance, going to classes about these days, or just thinking, discussing or meditating about the significance of these impending awesome days. Often the experience is in proportion to the preparation.
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