Elul, the Jewish lunar month that began September 1, is a mysterious, emotionally fraught time in the ritual year. It is an annual event that has its own distinct message and special rituals. Elul’s meaning derives from proximity: It is the month leading up to the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which in turn kicks off the Ten Days of Penitence ending in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
And Elul is the preparation period for the New Year. It’s a big job.
Those 10 days are a solemn time when individuals and communities are commanded to look within and give a personal accounting of the year gone by. We seek forgiveness from individuals we may have wronged. We try to summon the self-awareness needed to understand our weaknesses and to change. We look up and try to make peace with the Oneness of the universe that is so beyond our grasp.
It’s a lot to get done in those one or two holy days, or even in 10. And so Elul is the time to prepare, so that when the New Year comes, we’re ready to swing into action.
It’s a tribute to the power of the High Holy Days that they require such elaborate advance work. No other holiday draws remotely as many Jews to synagogue in search of spiritual connection. It is the one moment in the year when millions of Jews around the world literally stand together as one.
All that summoning and peacemaking is going to be hard this year, harder than it’s been in years. It’s hard to think of a time when Jews were so bitterly divided among themselves. Something resembling road rage is taking over relations between hawks and doves, between liberals and conservatives, and among Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Seeking and giving forgiveness, coming together and standing as one mighty congregation around the world — these things are difficult to do when we are so angry at each other.
Accordingly, there is a certain urgency to Elul this year. We’ve only got a few weeks left to find that forgiveness within ourselves, to start coming to terms with the things that really are our fault and to imagine what it might mean to be members of one global community of spirit. But if we don’t make it, there won’t be much atonement in the new year ahead.