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The Jewish month of Elul—What is it and why should I care?

The Jewish month of Elul—What is it and why should I care?

By Chaplain Nancy

Elul is the Jewish month right before Tishrei, the month that starts with Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year. It is often called a “season of change,” not as in an external change like when we see the weather turn from summer to fall, but rather internal change. Elul gives us 29 days (this year August 16-September 15) to prepare for High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and to explore what changes we might want or need to make before our liturgy asks us to acknowledge how we have fallen short during the past year and pray for repentance.

Why should you care? Well, I don’t know about you, but I often find myself feeling like I am not ready for the deep introspection, intensity, and solemnity of the High Holidays. And if you feel the same way, we’re so not alone—there’s even a book, “This Is Real and You are Completely Unprepared,” by Rabbi Alan Lew (1). Perhaps we can use these days of Elul to consider calmly and carefully, as Rabbi Lew puts it, “the truth of our lives.”

So, in light of such truths, what kinds of changes might we make? Perhaps a change of heart or a change in our understanding of ourselves or in our perceptions of others. This process is called cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual accounting of the soul: where have we been and where are we going?

You might guess that a big part of this type of accounting involves forgiveness: forgiveness of ourselves, as well as forgiveness of others. I know, these are no small matters! But we have resources: we can take on the daily practice of praying Psalm 27, which is a plea for help: “Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call. Give me grace and answer me.” And every day except Shabbat, we can blow the shofar or hear its blasts, sometimes called our spiritual alarm clock.

But there are no shortcuts to finding and giving forgiveness. So, what exactly is forgiveness?

Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiving someone does not mean you condone or excuse their bad behavior or forget that someone hurt you. It does not mean that you are no longer angry or resentful, though you may want to reflect on this quote from Augustine of Hippo: “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” You still have boundaries and you can still pursue justice. And you do not have to let someone who wronged you back into your life.

Forgiveness is an acknowledgement of pain, a processing of the emotional consequences of that pain, and a decision to let go of this burden from the past—for your own sake. There are many good consequences of forgiveness: peace of mind, fewer negative feelings, calmness, and a sense of equanimity.

And, guess what else? You can also forgive yourself.

In fact, it is through finding compassion for ourselves, that we can more easily forgive others. It does require that we silence our inner critic, that part of us that can always find fault with what we did or didn’t do.

The Japanese repair broken ceramics with a gold lacquer, a process called “Kintsugi.” The gold color calls attention to the cracks and enhances the beauty of the object. We can take this same approach to repairing our own brokenness, our own cracks, and our own imperfections.

As we do this work, let’s remember this prayer poem from Rabbi Yael Levy (2):

Return, Elul calls,

Return to the luminous being that you are.

Return to the awareness that you are here

In relationship with all life.

You are loved.

You are necessary.

You are worthy.

Need help finding forgiveness or just need someone to talk to? Go to https://ruachsupport.org and request free short-term support from Ruach: Emotional & Spiritual Support.

  1. This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, Alan Lew, Little Brown & Co., 2003.
  2. Rabbi Yael Levy, A Way In Jewish Mindfulness (www.awayin.org)