The task of heshbon hanefesh (accounting for the soul) that Jews are implored to do during the High Holy Days is too large to begin just on Erev Rosh Hashannah and so, the month of Elul is traditionally a time where we begin the work and prepare our minds and bodies for our yearly soul cleanse. Customarily the Shofar is blown every morning to awaken the senses, reminding us of this extra daily task and Psalm 27 is added to the daily liturgy, a psalm that begs for guidance and support, that God not abandon us through this difficult process. That month of Elul began on the 9th of August, giving us plenty of time to prepare ourselves for the month ahead.
This yearly cleaning out of the soul culminates with Yom Kippur, a day where we withdraw ourselves from the world of the living and refrain from normal day to day activity including eating, washing and working. We give space for our minds to reflect to give us the strength and motivation to be judged and be ready start afresh for the New Year ahead. If we are building up to the final stage of withdrawal, maybe we begin the process in the month of Elul at the other end of the spectrum by truly engaging with our day to day lives. Not just going through the motions but taking stock of our interactions, the places we go, the things we write, the people we see, each and everything we do in the daily run of life. Taking the time to be present and engage with how our movements and actions affect us and those around us. Being able to reconnect with people again and go places after nearly eighteen months of the world being turned upside down gives us another opportunity to take stock of our lives. What relationships flourished, which need repair, what did we miss, what are we learning, what feels safe, what feels like we do not want to return to it. Elul is a time for taking action rather than withdrawal, a time to tie up loose ends, make those connections you keep putting off, apologise to those who you may have hurt, break bad habits, channel your anger into action and give yourself a fresh start.
The modern world can often feel nonstop. With work days and weeks getting ever longer, social media and mobile phones keeping people always switched on and political unrest feeding fear, uncertainty and anger. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. The month of Elul affords us that time to step back and take note, even see where we may want to throw ourselves in. The Maharal of Prague said that during the month of Elul before eating or sleeping one must look into their soul and search their deeds for what they may confess this year and Mateh Moshe, a rabbi who wrote halacha in the 16th century, said that during the month of Elul people should exclude themselves for an hour a day to scrutinize their actions.
Be it by listening to the Shofar sound every day, reciting psalm 27, excluding yourself for an hour a day, making that phone call you keep meaning to make, writing that letter, donating to that charity, going out to protest, choosing to engage with those things that give you energy and stepping back from those that give you pain, find the thing that can help you this Elul to prepare yourself for the fresh start of the New Year. And remember, while all this soul searching can only be done as each of us as individuals, we are held together and supported in a community of people joining us in the task and when we join together on Rosh Hashannah there, we can continue the work together.
Rabbi Anna Posner