Sunday will bring the new moon of Elul, the month of preparation before the New Year. Playing with the Hebrew letters, as the rabbis often liked to do, they saw in the name Elul an acronym for Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li, ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.’
Elul is the month of relationships, of drawing close to our inner self, each other, the world and God. It is the month of teshuvah, return.
This is both a simple and a complex, an easy and a difficult, journey. The simplicity is that it’s motivated by love: I want to be the person I most deeply am, to feel near to the people I care about, to be true to my essential values, to be considerate, compassionate, generous and attentive to the world. I don’t want to live from the weary, distracted periphery of myself, but from the centre of my being.
Therefore, Elul is the month of wakefulness. ‘Come awake,’ it calls to us. Life is full of opportunity: there is good in the world that needs to be done; there is beauty in the world which we have to nurture and cherish.
Elul is like the knocking on the door in the middle of the night in The Song of Songs. When she hears it, the beloved says, ‘I am asleep but my heart is awake.’ Somewhere inside us our heart, too, is awake, waiting for us to shake off our weariness and follow what is loving and kind. That knocking on the door, the rabbis say, is God calling out to us.
But the journey is also difficult. In returning to our relationships with ourselves, each other and the world, we also have to confront what we, and others, have done wrong. Therefore, Teshuvah, though ultimately motivated by love, is also about rigorous integrity and truth.
The awareness that the world is full of injury is, today, inescapable. Some hurts are personal; there are very few close relationships in which we don’t on occasion misunderstand each other, lose patience, get angry and behave selfishly. These are matters for our private conscience; apology and the determination to do better are an essential part of teshuvah.
But other sores are public and concern us all as part of society and the human community: the searing inequalities which leave many with daily decision about which meal to forgo in order to feed the children; the damage we’ve done and continue to do to nature and the hurts we inflict on the fellow creatures with whom we share our planet; the obscene cruelties of war; the unthinkable injustices of suffering. Facing these realities, social, economic and environmental, must also be part of our collective teshuvah.
Therefore, we need to summon the powers of not only of love but also of truth to guide us on our journey. To many these are both expressed in the cry of the shofar, which we blow every morning during Elul. Though, as he acknowledges, its resonance penetrates deeper than language, Maimonides puts words to the shofar’s call:
Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep and you slumberers from your slumber. Remember your creator, you who forget the truth in the vanities of time.
I believe the shofar expresses joy, the wonder of the natural world, the appeal to its mysteries and depths, the awe with which it humbles us. But at the same time it is also the raw, un-honed, unvarnished demand for truth: Who are you? What are you? What are you doing with your life and with the world?
To these realities and opportunities the month of Elul summons us.