It was the beginning of the school year of 2020-2021. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose talks I loved, started a large WhatsApp/ digital chat group sending every day of the month of Elul a message of inspiration. The fact that the message would arrive as a personal voice note or text and was recorded in that way gave it a very personal touch, which is how I found myself crying on the streets of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Due to the difference of time between the UK and the US, I would receive and listen to the messages walking on my way to school. What about those messages was so haunting? It is what haunts us about the Elul Shofar that was haunting me, leading me to talk down Park and Lexington Avenues with tears in my eyes. It was the recognition that something was out of place and that better options were possible. It was that soft voice of Rabbi Sacks’s message, echoing God’s call: “return to me, so that I can return to you.
The tale has it that in the old days in Lithuania, as the congregation would gather in synagogue on Shabbat and announce the new Jewish month and the month would be Elul, a tremble would go through the room. So great was the fear and reverence from the day of Rosh Hashana that some would even faint. The month of Elul indeed does mark the arrival of Rosh Hashana, a day on which the entire world is judged. Still, it also begins the process of Teshuva, commonly translated as repentance, but also stemming from the Hebrew word “Shuv—return.” Elul is a time to return to where we belong. In many ways, the month of Elul and the High Holidays are the norm, while the rest of the year is a time we drift away from that norm.
The month of Elul triggers a slew of customs of preparation for the Ten Days of Repentance—Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. Sephardic Jews begin the traditional Selichot (supplications prayers) on the first day of Elul. It is also customary to begin blowing the Shofar in synagogue on the first day of Elul; it reminds us to begin our wake-up process. Another important custom of the month of Elul is to recite Psalm 27—Le’david Hashem Ori Ve’Yishei. This beautiful Psalm captures the essence of the month of Elul, which is, in fact, the essence of Judaism as Rabbi Sacks would define it. “Judaism is closing the gap between what is and what ought to be.” In the month of Elul, we reflect on whom we would like to be.
In this beautiful Psalm, King David says:
“Of David. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened?”
So many of the mix-ups we have in life come from not knowing what direction to take, what purpose we might have, or where we might be heading. Kind David’s outlook on this can be compared to soldiers using battlefield illumination. Sometimes the military might use the dark of night to their own advantage as the Japanese army did in the Pacific during World War Two. Yet other times, the military needs to dispell the dark in order to win or to search for someone. For this, they use nowadays a photoflash bomb which light the area up with the amount of light equivalent to that of millions of candles. Suddenly, the area shines like day. That is how King David saw God in his life. “Hashem Ori,” God is my light. King David was able to see clearly through every challenge and situation, inspired by God’s presence in his life.
Sometimes, having light in the dark can scare us; we can see things we did not expect. We can be frightened by the existence of dangers we did not know about. Thus kind David says God is not only his light but also his salvation—Yish’ee.
King David is so confident in that light and salvation that he goes on to say:
“When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me, they stumbled and fell. If a camp encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; if a war should rise up against me, in this, I trust.”
God’s presence in his own life leaves David inspired and confident in the face of a hostile world and many enemies. Yet when it comes to his internal and spiritual world, David is less confident:
“One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple every morning. That He will hide me in His tabernacle on the day of calamity; He will conceal me in the secrecy of His tent; He will lift me up on a rock. And now, my head will be raised over my enemies around me, and I will sacrifice in His tent sacrifices with joyous song; I will sing and chant praise to the Lord. Hearken, O Lord, to my voice [which] I call out, and be gracious to me and answer me. On Your behalf, my heart says, “Seek My presence.” Your presence, O Lord, I will seek.”
While facing external enemies, King David’s confidence in God is certain and unwavering. Yet when it comes to his relationship with God, David is hopeful and prayerful, not believing he has all he wants in his pockets. Closeness is something to yearn for, to desire, and to hope for, not something we can take for granted. This is very much in line with the spirit of the month of Elul. As the rabbis point out, the month of Elul is also an acronym for the famous verse from Solomon’s Song of Songs (6:3) “Ani Le’Dodi Ve’Dodi Li— I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me.” The month of Elul is a time of spiritual closeness to God, and a mystically intimidate time between God and His people. King David’s request is that even when he may not have walked into God’s tent deliberately, that God makes his dwelling there. That is the essence of the month of Elul. It is the seeking of God’s presence, knowing that we belong in a better spiritual space than we are now.
And so, walking the streets of the Upper East Side, seeing so many people rushing to work, shop, and immersed in the morning hustle, I hear King David’s whisper, “On Your behalf, my heart says, “Seek My presence.” Your presence, O Lord, I will seek.”. From Rabbi Sacks to King David, to the Almighty Himself, there is a voice calling to us, reminding us there is more than the here in now in our lives. There is more to aspire to; there is more to hope for. As we live through the every day of the month of Elul, we recite Psalm 27 of Le’David, to remind ourselves of this transcendent spirit of the month of Elul that sees beyond the here and now. Thus, in many ways, this spirit of Elul is not only a preparation for Rosh Hashana but something that takes a life of its own. Tragically, due to his sudden passing, I will not be able to hear Rabbi Sacks’s gentle voice reminding me of a higher purpose the month of Elul inspires. Yet, while walking down Park Avenue, I will hear the echoes of the Shofar, the spirit of his voice, and the spirit of so many Jewish generations who woke up in the dark of night during this month, to pursue penitence and repentance before dawn’s break, inspired by the nature of this month.