The holy month of Elul has begun, the sixth month in the Hebrew calendar. There is a rabbinic allusion that the month was named from the initial letters of “Ani le dodi v’dodi li” (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”), describing the relationship between G-d and His people. In the Aggadah, we read that Elul has special significance because of Moses’ 40-day stay on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:28), which was calculated to have begun on the first of Elul and ended on the 10th of Tishrei (Yom Kippur).
Every weekday morning, the shofar is sounded and Psalm 27 recited. Sephardim have already begun saying Selichot, but Ashkenazim recite this only in the last days of the month. The word selichah means forgiveness – it is a plea for forgiveness for sins and, as we approach the time when we know that we will be judged, we practise a kind of spiritual stocktaking. We look inward, trying to assess what happened to last year’s dreams/goals, asking pardon for wrongs committed and hoping, with repentance, charity and prayers, to be written into the Book of Life for another year.
Rav Nachman of Bratslav expressed it beautifully: “Every word of your prayer is like a rose which you pick from its bush. You continue until you have formed a bouquet of blessings, until you have pleated a wreath of glory for the Lord.”
Prayer takes on special meaning in Elul, as we move toward Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the birth of the world. Then, we will recite the special prayer called Unetenah Tokef (“Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day…”) when we are reminded of our mortality. The translation for part of it reads: “Humanity’s origin is dust, and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered pot, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust on the wind, a dream soon forgotten…. But You are the Ruler, the everlasting G-d.” Legend has it that this prayer was written some 10 centuries ago by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. Ordered to convert to Christianity by the local bishop, Rabbi Amnon refused. His limbs were amputated and, as his mutilated body lay before the ark as he was dying, he said these words, which are also part of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
When mystics pray, they believe there is an ascent of the soul to upper worlds. Prayers of thanksgiving and praise are deemed worthier than petitionary prayers (when we are asking for things), because they are selfless. Some people believe that the highest form of worship is silence. The Bible tells us that Abraham was the first to utter a true prayer – for his fellow man.
In these times, when we are at war, agonizing over our losses and the many families who have lost loved ones, we in Israel need to have faith more than ever. We pray for all Jews to have a good, safe year. We share a common destiny – Jews in Israel and abroad – and it is this shared destiny that binds us together, no matter how different our ethnic and cultural boundaries may be.
I memorized the following poem when I was a schoolgirl. I never knew the author, and doubt that he was Jewish, but I think it is appropriate now and all the year: “I shall pass through this world but once / Any good therefore that I can do / Or any kindness I can show / To any human being / Let me do it now / Let me not defer it or neglect it / For I shall not pass this way again.”