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Evonne Marzouk
The Goal is to Bring Light into the World

As we Turn Toward Elul, Let’s Find Our Strengths

Arise, arise, wear your strength, Zion. Isaiah 52:1
Arise, arise, wear your strength, Zion. Isaiah 52:1

This coming week is the reading of Parshat Shoftim, the first parsha of the month of Elul. It is a month, of course, associated with teshuva (return) in preparation for the upcoming holidays. So it seems fitting that the parsha begins:

“Judges and officers shall you appoint for yourselves in all your cities…” (Deut. 16:18)

Some[1] have interpreted this idea of “judges and officers” as instruction to start evaluating ourselves and our own actions, thus the relationship between parshat Shoftim, the month of Elul and the act of Teshuva.

Though we focus more on the 50 day process of growth while “counting the Omer” between Pesach and Shavuot, we also have a transformative process that takes place as summer transitions to fall. After the Three Weeks, concluding with the grief-filled day of Tisha b’Av, a seven-week period of healing brings us through the month of Elul and to Rosh Hashanah. Through this process, we find our way from the saddest day in the Jewish calendar to the happiest – Simchat Torah – in as few as 73 days.

The journey is expressed by our readings of the seven Haftorot of consolation.  The haftorah of Parshat Shoftim, which is read at the beginning of the month of Elul, is the fourth of the seven Haftorot and serves as a turning point within them, as we will see.

The Haftorot of consolation are not read in chronological order based on the text. Instead, the commentary of Tosafot on the Talmud explains that “the way about these consolations is that they become finer as they continue.”  Siddur Rashi expands on this, explaining that the comfort of these Haftorot happens gradually, to deepen our sense of consolation over time.

The Haftorah of Va’etchanan, the first of the 7 Haftorot, begins “Comfort, comfort my people, says your G-d” (Isaiah 40:1) – but most of this prophecy is actually ascribed to kol koreh bamidbar, a voice calling in the wilderness (ibid. 40:3) – not a sign of intimate closeness with Hashem. The next two Haftorot similarly express distance from Hashem, especially in their first lines.

It is only as we transition into Elul that the comfort in these Haftorot comes from Hashem Himself, by beginning “I, only I, am He who comforts you” (ibid. 51:12). In the later Haftorot, Hashem’s blessings become clearer and broader, until the 7th and final Haftorah of Nitzavim begins “I will rejoice intensely with Hashem” (ibid. 61:10), showing the depth of closeness achieved by the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

During the first few weeks of this time of consolation – the last few weeks of the month of Av – nothing specific is asked of us. But with the deepening of consolation in the Haftorah of Shoftim and the beginning of the month of Elul, there is a shift. Hashem’s increasing closeness inspires us to show our desire to be worthy of that closeness.  As the parsha indicates, we judge ourselves, focusing on improving on the mistakes we’ve made in the past year.

During this time, we can achieve much by our efforts to quiet our own egos and temptations, bring more kindness into our lives and families and communities, and generate more compassion for the people we love.  Given that the commandment of bal tashchit (prohibiting needless destruction and waste, see Deut. 20:19) is in this parsha, we may also hear a call to make less wasteful choices, for example by using fewer disposable products, wasting less food, and buying energy efficient appliances.

But sometimes, one reason we haven’t done as well as we’d like is because we haven’t been honest with ourselves about our own power, potential, and capacity to make a meaningful difference in what is important to us. We haven’t acknowledged our strengths, and how we can build upon them to fulfill our purpose more authentically in our own lives. That, too, can be a way of becoming closer with Hashem during this special time of year.

For some of us, it’s not always easy to focus on our strengths. But this coming month of Elul can be that time for us.  While the Torah portion of Shoftim may urge us to judge ourselves, its Haftorah calls, “arise, arise, wear your strength, Zion.” (ibid. 52:1) We might see this as a call not only to take an accounting of our sins, but also an accounting of our gifts.

This Elul, perhaps we can assess not only where we’ve failed in the past year, but also where our successes can be built upon toward greater connection and contribution – for ourselves, our families and the world. If we bring those gifts meaningfully into Rosh Hashanah, it can indeed be a good and sweet new year.  Shana tova v’metuka.

[1] See for example, https://aish.com/48938577/.

About the Author
Evonne Marzouk is an inspirational public speaker and author of the Jewish novel The Prophetess. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Jewish News Syndicate, The Wisdom Daily, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, RitualWell and many other publications. She recently co-authored a chapter on The Heroine's Journey in the book Jewish Fantasy Worldwide (2023) and offers a free printable Heroine's Journal on her website (evonnemarzouk.com) to empower all women to live their greatest dreams. She previously founded the Torah-based environmental organization Canfei Nesharim and co-edited the book Uplifting People and Planet: Eighteen Essential Jewish Lessons on the Environment. Follow her on IG/FB: @heroinewhisperer
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