D’var Torah Rosh Chodesh Elul – Monthly Ritual To-do List
Aug 6, 2021 – by Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel
Elul is the month that leads into the High Holidays. And while we often associate great and meaningful rituals with the holidays of Tishrei — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah amongst others — there are powerful and meaningful rituals that each of us can do in Elul to make it a month of spiritual preparation, reflection, and lay the groundwork for our soul’s renewal.
So, now, here is your Elul Ritual To-do list:
1) Before Elul even begins, as the moon wanes, start “moon watching.” Our Hebrew calendar is lunar, which means that as the moonlight grows and diminishes in the coming weeks, so, too, will our year come to an end. You can anticipate Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, by moon watching. Notice it. Sit with it. Reflect on it. Look, I know you may be skeptical. When one of my teachers, Rabbi Richard Levy z”l asked me to do this the first time, I remember thinking, “Yeah, that’s not for me.” But when I tried it, I found moon watching to be a powerful and meaningful practice during Elul.
2) Mark your calendars for the first of Elul – It is known as Rosh Hashanah LaBehemot – new year for the cows. This is actually one of four new years throughout the year, and while historically this was an equivalent of tax day, as you portioned out your flock for tithing, in modern context, Jewish animal protection advocates and environmental educators have used this day to raise awareness of the mitzvah of tsar baalei chayim, the source texts informing Jewish ethical relationships with domesticated animals. Even if you don’t have pets, we can all use this day to mark the beginning of our reflection inward, by looking outward.
3 & 4) There are two daily rituals for Elul: The first is that we recite Psalm 27 every day from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Yom Kippur. While we will offer it together as a congregation on Shabbat, I want to encourage you to study it on your own. And if you’re so inclined, I highly recommend the book “Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year” by Rabbi Debra Robbins which offers readings, commentary, and daily spiritual guidance for journaling and meditating on this Psalm. Or, if you’re like me and would prefer to read a book but let’s be real who has time for that with everything going on in life, there’s also an app where you can listen to musical settings, and guided meditations.
The other daily ritual of Elul is hearing the sound of the shofar. We read in our Machzor, our High Holiday prayer book, “Tiku bachodesh shofar – “Sound the shofar at the new moon” which we could also interpret as “Sound the shofar for a month.” Tradition tells us the Shofar is blown every day during Elul as a reminder of the Golden Calf. After Moses ascended Sinai to get the second set of tablets, people blew the shofar in the camp as a reminder to not stray again. The sound of the shofar is also meant to inspire confidence: just as God forgave the Israelites for the Golden Calf, so too will God forgive us. And as this ritual is a custom, rather than a commandment, there is no blessing that accompanies sounding the shofar.
5) This may be a new ritual for you – Create a mix tape or playlist for Elul. As Rabbi Alex Kress teaches: I have difficulty getting into a calm, reflective mood during Elul. I have tried for a few years now to heed the advice of my rabbis to read Days of Awe during Elul to do something for myself. And each time I attempt it, I fail. It’s hard to set the mood for a few minutes each day. Jazz helps me get into a reflective space. And, as brass and woodwind instruments play prominent roles in the High Holy Days, I thought Jazz songs that highlighted those instruments would set a relaxing yet relevant mood. For this particular ritual, the readings revolve around the Shofar blasts and a few about other instruments. The ritual is simple: Each day during the month of Elul, listen to a Jazz song that highlights brass and woodwind instruments while reading and reflecting on the Shofar in Days of Awe. And if you’d like Rabbi Kress’ playlist, shoot me an email and I’m happy to pass it along.
6) Saturday August 28th, I hope you’ll join us, in person or virtually, for S’lichot. The S’lichot service includes Havdalah, prayers and music reflecting the themes of repentance and forgiveness. We will perform the meaningful ritual of changing our Torah covers to the white covers we use during the High Holy Days. And we will hear the sound of the shofar. Additionally this year, we will begin our evening with a special concert, “The music of High Holy Days from the Cutting Room Floor,” which will feature melodies from yesteryear, and other pieces that wouldn’t otherwise fit into our services.
7) Lastly, but most importantly, is the primary ritual of Elul – heshbon hanefesh, soul searching. There is a thought that the world was created on Rosh Hashanah, but there is another view which says the world was created on the 25th day of Elul. That is the day on which heaven and earth were created. Six days later, Adam, the human, was created. In other words, Rosh Hashanah does not celebrate the beginning of creation, but the creation of humanity.
To help us reflect on our own humanity, Rabbi Lenore Bohm offers these questions for Elul. If you answer them truthfully, you will know a great deal about who you are, where you have been in this last year and what you would like to become:
- What was your greatest achievement in this last year?
- What was your greatest disappointment in this last year?
- What in this last year brought you the most joy? the most regret?
- Where would you like to be five years from now?
- If you had all the money you needed, would you still work at your present job?
- Who do you admire the most and why?
- Who did you fight with this last year?
- Who do you wish you could make up with in this new year?