The new moon of Elul is approaching, the month of wakefulness. Every morning the shofar calls, ‘Awake, you slumberers; rouse yourselves, all you who are asleep’ (Maimonides). For soon all life will pass before God, in judgment tempered by love.
But the new moon of Elul is not merely the herald of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year par excellence. According to the majority view in the Mishnah, it is also a distinct new year in its own right:
The first of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. (Mishnah: Rosh Hashanah 1:1)
Something of the kind must have been going on at the farm next to where we stayed last week for five wonderful days on the Isle of Mull (maybe it’s because the farmer almost certainly wasn’t Jewish that he got the date slightly wrong). Most mornings only a few highland cattle were in the yard. But on this particular day there were tens of them, cows and calves, with shovings and mooings, while the farmers with their crooks looked about as successful in trying to direct them as secondary-school teachers on a challenging day. No, it wasn’t an entirely bucolic scene; in the loud and frequent lowings were the indisputable tones of fear. The abattoir was just a dozen miles down the road.
The truth is that this is all too close to what the first of Elul originally was, the date on which all calves born in that year were counted and every tenth delivered to the Temple to await its turn to be sacrificed.
That was two thousand years ago. In recent times the first of Elul has been re-invented as The New Year for Animals, in exactly the same way as Tu Bishevat was re-created as The New Year for Trees. (See Hazon.org)
It is far from insignificant that this is the very date when the shofar first calls to us to account for our lives before God, ourselves, each other, and nature itself. The shofar is fashioned from the horn of an animal. It has always sounded in my spirit as the cry of all life, of the animals, forest, mountains, rivers, rain and mists; as a plea for life from the depths of the heart of all living being.
It’s not just because I love animals, because I find companionship and consolation in the presence of those animals who have been humankind’s partners for hundreds of generations. It’s also because I cannot bear the thought of the cruelty with which we habitually treat them, the disregard, the wilful ignorance, the contempt for their suffering. It’s also because I am terrified that we have spread so many poisons in the very elements of air, soil and water, and so trivially and thoughtlessly scattered the detritus of our carelessness and self-regard, that we will kill the birds, fish and bees, the invisible insects and the great wild animals. It’s because I fear, too, that only in the eleven-and-a-halfth hour will we truly understand how deeply interconnected we are, that our physical, moral and spiritual wellbeing is interdependent with all life. It is for all these reasons that I believe that a day demarcated in the calendar for honouring and respecting animal life is so important.
But a sole and single day is insufficient. The most urgent issue for humanity in our time is the rebalancing of our relationship with all life, the reconsideration of how we consume, travel and waste. For certain, there are sacrifices to be made. But the gains are greater: a deeper awakening to wonder, respect, awe and kinship; a renewed integrity and wholeness to our moral and spiritual being; the knowledge that what we bequeath to our children’s generation will not be a wasteland but somewhere beautiful, nourishing and inspiring.
I am horrified by the behaviour of my own species. I cannot say I am not guilty. But I want and intend to do all I can to make atonement with nature, and in so doing, with God.