Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Turning Again: The Month of Elul

Last Wednesday, while we were driving to Susanville, the moon was new and the Jewish month of Elul was beginning. At the height of the summer, from the waning of the moon of Tammuz and into the waxing of the moon of Av, we hear three haftarah readings of condemnation. From the great prophets, we hear that we have turned away from the Torah of our ancestors, following after false gods--wealth, power, complacency, destruction of the land, zealotry--all of these and more, idolatries that are every bit as tempting now as then.
But after the fast of the ninth of Av, we began the seven Shabbatot of Consolation, during which the haftarot are read that invite us to return, to begin again to follow the Torah of our people, to renew our hearts. The first of the haftarot of Consolation is taken from the beautiful words of the second Isaiah on Shabbat Nachamu (Comfort):

"Comfort, comfort my people,
Says your G-d.
Speak gently to Jerusalem,
And say to her
That her term of service is over...
I will restore your judges as of old,
And your counselors as of yore;
And ever after, you shall be called
City of Righteousness, Faithful City."
Isaiah 40: 1-2,26
Aside: Being a singer, I cannot help but recall the wonderful and beautiful melodies from Handel whenever I hear this haftarah. Though when in the city youth choirs, I sang them in the winter, I recall them now in the summer--and it seems right to me, because the heat of summer will be followed by the harvest of fall.
The month of Elul, is the last month of the Hebrew year when counted from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah. (We mark four New Years in the Hebrew calendar: the new year for counting years from the birth of the world, in fall, the new year for trees, in late winter, the new year for months--at the beginning of the month of spring, and the new year for counting animals' age, in summer). The month of Elul is the month leading up to the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe and Yom Din, the Day of Judgement. During this time before the harvest of the land, we consider the harvest of our spiritual work over the year. It is time to turn inward amidst the busy-ness of our lives and prepare our hearts for the celebration of Rosh HaShanah, the 'birthday of the world,' and for the solemn day of judgement and forgiveness, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. These are the High Holy Days, the season of holiness, when we make a separation between what we are and what we want to become. Although these are the Days of Awe, when Israel meets in solemn assembly with her G-d, this is not a time of despair. Rather, during the month of Elul, Jews practice the art of Cheshbon ha-Nefesh--the repair of the soul. We recognize that we are human--made from the humus of the earth--and as such, we are flawed and fallible. And yet within us we carry the pure soul given to us by the Creator. The art of repairing the soul means that we eschew (I love that word!) the idolatry of pretending we are perfect in order to recognize who we really are. Knowing who we really are is the beginning of finding out who it is that the Eternal created us to be.
The word for repentence in Hebrew is T'shuvah, which means to turn. The word for sin in Hebrew is Chet, which means to aim badly. The assumption is that a person is aiming for the good, but that habits and challenges obscure our vision and so we have imperfect aim. T'shuvah is the practice of taking notice of what is obscuring our aim so that we can come closer to the target. It is a practice of learning from our mistakes, rising up when we fall down, beginning again.
During the month of Elul, the Shofar (ram's horn) is sounded every week day in the synagogue. Or it can be blown at home. Some people even listen to it on the internet. It is a call of warning: "The work before us is great, the taskmaster is exacting and the day draws on towards evening..."
Selichot, prayers of repentence are said every evening (except on Shabbat) and psalms of repentence and reliance on G-d are whispered.
The word Elul in Hebrew is an anagram for the phrase "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li" which means, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." The Eternal is the bridegroom of Israel, and during Elul, Israel prepares with trepidation, excitement and love, like a bride does to come to the marriage canopy.
In the secular calendar, the beginning of fall is full of new beginnings after the summer fallow. School years begin, transitions are made, and they are all full of busy-ness. Those of us who span two cultures, also must find time amidst the busy-ness to hear the call of the bridegroom to the bride:
"Return, O Israel, to Adonai your G-d...
Take words with you
And return to Adonai...
Generously, I will take them back in love...
I will be to Israel like the dew..."
Hosea 14:2-3,5-6
And the bride will say to the bridegroom:
"Forgive all guilt and accept what is good.
Instead of bulls we shall pay the offerings of our lips.
Assyria shall not save us...
Never again shall we call our handiwork our god,
For in You alone shall orphans find pity."
Hosea 14:3a - 4
The month of Elul has come. Time to turn again. Time to turn inward. Time of trepidation, reflection, compassion and love. A time to remember who we really are.


Jo said...

This post was so interesting. Thank you for sharing so much. :)

momof3feistykids said...

I love learning more about your faith. Thank you for sharing all this.

"following after false gods--wealth, power, complacency, destruction of the land, zealotry..."

If only everyone in today's world could have a moment of clarity about their devotion to these false gods!

Melora said...

Great post! I love your description of T'shuvah. Our priest describes sin in the same way you do, as "missing the mark." Travis and I are studying Genesis now, and I find this description of sin to be so much more useful and compelling than the idea that sin is just the bad things we do. Judaism has so many beautiful, meaningful celebrations and traditions -- I had no idea! (I mean this in a good way. My father's family is Jewish, and I never heard of any but the major holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, Purim, Hanukkah, and Passover. The Episcopal church celebrates more "seasons" than many Protestant churches, but not nearly as many as Judaism, I don't think.)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Jo--thanks! It's good to know that people enjoy learning about my faith as much as I enjoy learning about theirs! :)
Momof3--Halvai to your wish! May it be so! I only wish that I was more aware of my idolatry when I am in the midst of it. It is my dear husband who points it out to me and I am not always happy to hear it! LOL!
Melora--it is true that Judaism has a lot of holidays and commemorations. There is only one Jewish month that has no holiday other than Shabbat. But I think Catholicism, with all of the Saint's Days even has us beat.