Dear B’nai Shalom Families, Members, and Friends:
At the most recent gathering of my weekly Shiur (Shabbat afternoon class) during Seudah Shlisheet (the traditional Third meal, Shabbat afternoon), we engaged in a lively, interesting, and informative conversation focused on the new Hebrew month of Elul.
As with EVERY start of Elul, the month is ushered in with a 2-day Rosh Chodesh, a traditional semi-holiday celebration, replete with special prayers and a recognition of the day(s) as a new and refreshing beginning, one in which, we as Jews, are afforded once again, the opportunity for pardon and forgiveness.
With the start of Elul, we see (perhaps with some trepidation!) the quick approach of Rosh Hashanah and the full impact of the “High Holy Days” upon us, as always, seeming to approach in a faster, quicker fashion than we can ever imagine! And with the start of Elul, Jews worldwide begin thinking about and preparing for the upcoming High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is part and parcel of the substantive and anticipatory getting ready for these holidays.
When we speak of preparing for the “High Holidays,” it is meant to be an expression of something more than cooking our meals, buying new clothes, assuring our seats in the synagogue, and dusting off our holiday prayer books. It is intended to be a rendering of our hearts, souls, and minds to a position of increased holiness and intentionality to receive the holidays with a greater sense of purpose, solemnity, and commitment.
In viewing the month of Elul, we immediately see that Elul has no more holidays, festivals, or fast days than the Hebrew month of Cheshvan so, one might ask, why is it that we make such a big deal over the month of Cheshvan having no special qualities about it and Elul is never cited for having no special days within it?
The truth is, while there are no holidays, festivals, or fast days in Elul, this month has a very serious and important component to it. As we prepare for the most inspiring and awe-filled holidays of the entire calendar, there are rituals and symbols we employ to help us get ready and put us in the right frame of mind to receive the holidays.
Each morning in the month of Elul, with the exception of the four shabbatot (the four Sabbaths found in the month) and the last day of the month, we hear four blasts of the shofar at the morning service to touch our hearts, stir our souls and move our minds to teshuvah, (repentance) for our misdeeds.
We Ashkenazic Jews begin reciting the prayers of “Selichot,” “forgiveness,” beginning with the week before Rosh Hashanah – in a stirring, dramatic (near) midnight prayer service — to further motivate and stir us towards real contrition for that which we did wrong in the year gone by. Sephardic Jews, by the way, begin this tradition at the very beginning of the month of Elul!
At each Ma’ariv (evening) and Shacharit (morning) service, we add the prayer: “L’Dovid, Hashem Ori V’yishi,” (Psalm 27) to our prayer routine, a liturgical text offering which is meant to inspire and further move us towards Teshuvah.
Having begun reciting the extra prayer, “L’Dovid,” (Psalm 27) with the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul and continuing through the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, (up to and NOT including the holiday of Simchat Torah), it is well worth examining a portion of this selection for further explanation. When we add this prayer, according to the Ashkenazic custom, to our daily morning and evening prayer services, we may not be cognizant of a conflict presented by the fourth verse of this psalm. We are told in that pronouncement that “…there is ONE thing I request from the Lord; that I be permitted to dwell in the ‘House of the Lord’ all the days of my life to experience the pleasantness of the Lord, and to visit his sanctuary.”
Clearly there are TWO requests asked of the Almighty when we declare that we want to “dwell in the G-d’s house AND we want to visit his sanctuary.” Not only are we contradicting ourselves by requesting TWO favors of the Lord though we say there is only ONE thing we are asking but the two submissions appear to be inconsistent with each other. Either we want to live in the House of the Lord OR we are satisfied simply visiting his sanctuary. How do we reconcile these two problems?
There is a beautiful explanation that manages to solve both difficulties with one answer. We understand the statement to be humbly asking the Holy One, blessed be He, to permit us to become permanent members of the House of the Lord, which entails our experiencing familiarity and becoming accustomed to being a regular resident within the confines of G-d’s inner abode. On the other hand, we learn that we desire to bring upon ourselves the excitement and novelty that comes with the newness of being a visitor in a special, hallowed place.
Therefore, we would be, simultaneously — established, customary dwellers within G-d’s holy place while, at the same time, feeling the ecstasy of entering that haven as if doing it with the freshness and sparkle of one who enters therein in his inaugural visit.
It is therefore our hope and prayer that we use this time in the month of Elul and during the Ten Days of Repentance to become familiar with all that is entailed in being fully acquainted with the inner workings of G-d’s sheltering presence WHILE AT THE SAME time internalizing the unique attributes, features, and qualities of such a heavenly venture.
May G-d hear our prayers and answer them for us in the manner we wish, hope, want, need, and desire.
Wishing you all a Shana Tova, a year filled with good health, happiness, blessing, and success,
Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Dvorin