Tonight begins Elul, the season of repentance preceding the high holidays. Many Jews not otherwise observant listen to Rosh HaShana’s shofar blasts, and seek atonement through Yom Kippur’s fasting and prayer. Far fewer take advantage of Elul’s schematic for preparing for them.
Elul traditions include–
- Listening to shofar blast daily, except on Shabbat and the day before Rosh HaShana.
- Reciting psalms, and in particular the daily or twice-daily recitation of Psalm 27 including the verse beginning Achat Sha’alti – “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”
- Tshuva – understanding and regretting our sins, speaking them aloud and resolving not to repeat them
- Heshbon Hanefesh, “accounting of the soul”–intense reflection on ourselves and relationships with others and the world.
- Seeking atonement for sins we committed against fellow humans–for which God cannot grant atonement on Yom Kippur
- Increased tzedakah
- Communal late-night recitation of selichot – prayers of repentance
Without putting in the work Elul requires of us, our high “holy” day practice can default to shallow pleasantries. “Have a meaningful fast,” we say blithely. “I’m sorry for anything I’ve done to you in the past year,” we quip on social media. These are the Yamin Nora’im, “Days of Awe,” but in high holiday services, “awe” lies beyond dozens of modern roadblocks–the pomp of expensive tickets and conspicuous bimah honors, catching up with old friends in the lobby bleeding over into gossiping through the Al Chet, business announcements and inevitable solicitation of financial contributions contrived to conform to yom tov practice. While these realities of mainstream U.S. non-Orthodox Jewish holiday practice in the U.S., it effectively permits us to gloss over the gravity of the gruesome deaths we chant about over and over again–burning, drowning, stab wounds–that God watermarks “draft” on Rosh Hashanah and PDFs to the file on Yom Kippur.
If you have never observed Elul, the residual glow of yesterday’s natural and spiritual wonder is a perfect place to start. The recent political landscape insinuates that faith and science is a zero-sum game, but yesterday’s eclipse reminds us that we need not reject evolution or climate change to suspend our egos. Reflexive defense of science is–lamentably–necessary during these bizarre times, but we must resist conflating the concepts of holiness and science-denialism. Presence in the “Path of Totality”–a fully scientific term yet reminiscent of a spiritual realm–compelled even the most skeptical to subordinate ourselves to a higher power, regardless of what that might mean to each of us.
For a little over two minutes yesterday, science and God were one at Ramah Darom in Clayton Georgia. We averted our eyes in respect to the sun’s blinding rays until the complete overlap of celestial bodies breathed a deep silver silence over us. Mere specks on a softball field smelling of barbeque, we cast aside our kitschy plastic eyewear in an audible gasp, raising our heads to gaze for a moment into the eye of God, a gleaming aura of bright white surrounding one dilated pupil in an infinite indigo iris; the eye’s return stare penetrated our souls, turning us to shimmery statues as time stood still.
This account is true despite other, contradictory truths of this moment. Although entranced, my husband and I spent a chunk of the totality shushing our three-year-old desperately as she whined “I want to go HOOOOME.” Hardly immobilized, I rushed over to the stroller where younger child slept, yanking him from his reverie with wild gestures toward the sky to ensure his (somewhat) alert attendance despite knowing he would not remember it. “Do you see it?” I demanded, and he nodded sleepily and immediately returned to hia slumber. Anxiety invaded my mind at the end, wondering when looking up would be dangerous again. I have a vague memory of disappointment that the mundane persisted at all, as children ran around relatively unmoved. I marveled not only at the strangeness, but at the lack thereof. Still, that Divine Eye remains, and grows, in my consciousness as time passes.
Thus our natural world has brought us to the cusp of Elul in a state of awe, empowering us to transcend our universe’s dualities that may otherwise paralyze or enslave us. Sun and moon; light and darkness; yin and yang; science and God (whatever your understanding of God); yetzer hara (inclination toward evil, which can be understood as human ego) and yetzer hatov (inclination toward goodness, or soul).
May we have a meaningful Elul, and a meaningful fast, and give God reason to inscribe us in the Book of Life this year.