As the month of “Divine Mercy and Forgiveness,” Elul is a most opportune time for teshuvah (“return” to G-d), prayer, charity, and increased Ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew) in the quest for self-improvement and coming closer to G-d. Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi likens the month of Elul to a time when “the king is in the field” and, in contrast to when he is in the royal palace, “everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him, and he receives them all with a cheerful countenance and shows a smiling face to them all.”
Elul Observances in a Nutshell
Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you. –Pirkei Avot 1:3
My wife refers to the month of Elul and the High Holidays as an opportunity to “hit the reset button”. So many undesirable things seem to pile up in our lives over a twelve month period that Elul is a good opportunity to make a serious evaluation of who we are, what we’ve been doing, and if we have been behaving as the sort of person we are, or want to be.
I find it interesting that during Elul, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi considers the King to be walking among His subjects. It reminds me of another King under somewhat similar circumstances:
“I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here
alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s
minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.”
-Henry V – Act 4, Scene 1
by William Shakespeare
While our King is readily apparent to us, like the case of King Henry, this was not always so. Shakespeare’s Henry disguised himself as a commoner and walked among this troops on the eve of battle, encouraging them. For many people today, our own King is among us but walks “anonymously”. He is not recognized in his “disguise” and he is seen instead to be a false Messiah, a false Prophet, and even a fictional character in a book of myths. Among the Jews, even today, we can think of him like Joseph, who in the guise of the Egyptian viceroy Zaphenath-Paneah was not recognized by his own brothers until such a time as when Joseph chose to reveal himself:
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. –Genesis 45:1-3
Yet there will be a time when the King will return in power and all will know his name:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of King and Lord of Lords. –Revelation 19:11-16
I said previously that the vast majority of Christians see no particular significance in Elul or the approach of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, since as we are taught, Christ paid the price for our sins once and for all. Still, if you’re human, you know there’s a difference between the price being paid and our living perfectly sinless lives in the wake of being “saved”. There is no one who is above bowing to the King and begging His forgiveness for the wrongs we have done and continue to do.
It is true that our King is “closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24) and He is always accessible through prayer, but there will be a time when we are judged for what we have done and what we have failed to do in His Name. Elul is an annual opportunity to review who we are and what we need to do to be better servants of our Master and better sons and daughters of our Father. “Rabban Gamliel would say: Assume for yourself a master” (Pirkei Avot 1:16) and we have done so. Now it is time to heed our Master’s wishes.
Although it would be easy to misunderstand the events commemorated in Elul and the High Holidays themselves as terribly grim and fearful, it is actually a time of great joy and wonder. The King is among us. He desires that we draw near to Him. He wants none to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and to that end, he calls to each of us, especially now. Though, as Peter says, the Lord is not slow “but is patient toward you”, he is also merciful enough to build “reminders” into his calendar for us. Elul is one of the markers along the road cautioning us and encouraging us.
During Elul, observant Jews add Psalm 27 to their daily prayers and the first verse should tell us why:
The LORD is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid? –Psalm 27:1
Indeed, with the King walking among us, who should make us afraid?
During Elul, Jews often greet each other and bless each other by saying “Ketivah vachatimah tovah” which basically means “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
May it ever be so for this year and always.