A Word of Torah: Elul Thoughts – The Courageous Act of Waking Up!

by Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman

The sound of the shofar is, it has been said, a kind of spiritual alarm clock. With the dawn of the Hebrew month of Elul, this primal sound, seeming to encompass the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience within it, calls us to mindfulness, to wakefulness, and asks us plaintively and urgently to pay attention. Traditionally, the shofar is sounded each morning during the month of Elul. We are in the lead-up to the High Holy Days – and this month is a journey of readying ourselves for a new beginning. While in the days or weeks leading to the secular new year one might contemplate some possible “resolutions,” as we make our way toward the Jewish new year we are obligated to take a deep and honest look at ourselves– to reflect upon the year that has passed in order to move forward with authenticity and integrity.

It is so easy to distract ourselves from the urgent work of healing ourselves, our relationships, and our world (and all of these kinds of healing are interconnected); to “go down into ourselves with a flashlight” as Rabbi Alan Lew z”l has said, takes courage. This project of cheshbon hanefesh (literally: accounting of the soul) is not soul-searching for the sake of self-improvement as an end unto itself, but for the sake of that core Jewish value (which we at Temple Ohabei Shalom have also identified as one of our community’s core values) of Tikkun Olam. We take stock and look back in order to carry out our sacred obligation of healing our world. Our prayers during the High Holy Days are full of the first-person plural, “we have done wrong,” “we ask for forgiveness,” yet the spiritual work we are called upon to do during the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) is also so very personal, internal and intimate.

Our responsibilities as we move through the arc of the Jewish calendar are at once individual and communal. We move through this together, connected to the generations of individuals who have come before us, making mistakes and missing the mark (chet – sin – means “missing the mark,” a term borrowed from archery) just as we have. When we align ourselves emotionally and spiritually with the month of Elul and the High Holy Days which follow, we are reminded that life is complicated, human beings are both deeply fallible and capable of incredible goodness, and that the project of being human is messy and complex and always has been. We are not alone. Most importantly, we are reminded that we are works-in-progress, always capable of growth and change, always able to repair and to heal ourselves, our relationships, and our world.