Elul, the lunar month that precedes the Jewish New Year, is by tradition a time of reflection and self-accounting. It is the warm-up to the spiritually grueling Ten Days of Awe and Penitence that run from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. As we scrub our homes each year in the days before Passover, so we scrub our interior souls in the days before the New Year, preparing for the awesome assemblies of accounting and atonement.
In recent years the process of stocktaking in Elul has, as we’ve noted before in these pages, taken on an increasingly ancient, cosmic, almost atavistic feel. We moderns had grown accustomed over the past century or two to thinking of our spiritual accounting as a private, internal affair, a personal examination of relationships not nurtured, of words unsaid, bills unpaid.
Now, somehow, the stakes seem suddenly to have changed. Elul has become a time of catastrophe, of biblical storms and global conflicts: September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the sieges of Moscow and of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, intifada, disengagement and now, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Iran and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Suddenly, Elul is no longer about the fragrance of our personal gardens but about the survival of our planet. And now, suddenly, we find new meaning in the ancient liturgy of the New Year, in all the words of divine wrath and punishment, the prayers for deliverance and compassion, for one more year of life. We feel humbled, reduced. All our modern conceits of individualism and empowerment and personal fulfillment seem empty and false.
But the catastrophes of the 21st century have one more lesson to teach us. It is a very modern lesson in the power of human agency and choice. Every one of the threats that looms over us this fall is a result of choices made by individuals — government officials in their situation rooms, terror masters in their caves, corporate executives in their boardrooms, soldiers on their battlefields and, most of all, citizens in their voting booths. We humans chose, each in his or her own way, the playing fields, the players and the rules. We decided which warning signs to heed and which to ignore. And every day we choose anew.
The power of Elul is its mandate to look within, to take stock and to set a new course, to start the year fresh. In two weeks, with the coming of the New Year, we will stand together and scrub our souls and pledge to start our personal lives anew. Six weeks after that, in November, we will go to our polling stations and scrub our nation’s soul. It is an empowering ritual, and a humbling one. We are, as the closing chapters of the Torah remind us in this season, commanded to choose life.