Shortly, it will be Rosh Chodesh Elul (August 18th and 19th), the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This means that there is one month and counting to Rosh Hashanah (Sunday evening, September 16th). Many people might ask, “So, what?” or might think, “Thanks for the reminder to buy a brisket!” However, the answer to “So, what?” is that we have one month to prepare for Rosh Hashanah … and Yom Kippur. Why would one want to prepare for Rosh Hashanah? Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment when the Almighty decides “Life or death, sickness or health, poverty or wealth.” Does it make sense to prepare for a day of judgment?
Good question. Actually, for most Christians, the only “Jewish holiday” most of us are aware of is Passover. The rest of the Jewish religious calendar is something of a mystery to us and therefore has no particular impact.
Except for those of us who are married to a Jewish spouse or have some other reason to be aware of the annual “lifecycle” of Jewish religious observance and faith.
Also, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are rather moot to most Christians because we were all “saved” when we became believers and confessed Christ. We were all forgiven of our sins and never once looked back or considered our past sinful lives.
More’s the pity.
But why would I say that? Shouldn’t a Christian celebrate and even revel in the fact that, from God’s point of view, our sins are as far away from us as “the east is from the west?” (Psalm 103:12)
Yes and no.
Please don’t get me wrong. Salvation from our former lives as slaves to our own personal wants and desires and reveling in our isolation from God is a tremendous thing and the cornerstone upon which our faith is built. But I sometimes think we Christians gain a little too much mileage from our salvation. I think the result is that we think too little of our sins, at least some of us, and don’t consider that even though we are disciples of Christ and sons and daughters of the Most High God, we’re not perfect.
Far from it.
What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” –Romans 3:9-12 (ESV)
OK, so we’re saved but not perfect. We have no righteousness of our own and we depend on the righteousness of Jesus in order to be reconciled with God. But what does that have to do with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
The Jewish religious calendar is replete with times of preparation. Jews prepare themselves for their formal meeting times with God. Jews prepare for Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and of course, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But Jews formally meet with God every week on Shabbat and twice daily during formal prayer. And Jews prepare for each event, regardless of its scope and frequency.
What do Christians prepare for? The formality and august, immense, majesty of the Days of Awe seem to be without comparison. I’m not even sure if Christians approach Easter with the same solemn effort of preparation and anticipation (but it’s been a long time since I attended a church).
But maybe we should (after all, Easter comes only once a year). Maybe we should do something to remind ourselves of the price that Jesus paid so that the rest of us; the rest of the world could be redeemed. Maybe we should spend some time taking stock of ourselves, making an inventory of our spiritual lives, and determining where we have failed God in the various areas of our walk of faith.
This can include quiet introspection and prayer, but let’s have a look at what else Rabbi Packouz suggests (all this and more is at his Shabbat Shalom Weekly commentary):
- Take a spiritual accounting. Each day take at least 5 minutes to review your last year — a) your behavior with family, friends, associates and people you’ve interacted with b) your level of mitzvah observance.
- Attend a class or classes at a synagogue, Aish center, a yeshiva on how to prepare. Read articles on Aish.com and listen to world-class speakers on AishAudio.com.
- Study the Machzor (Rosh Hashanah prayer book) to know the order of the service and the meaning of the words and prayers. You can buy a copy of the The Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf (possibly available at your local Jewish bookstore or at Amazon.com — about 26 left).
- Make sure that you have given enough tzedakah (charity) and have paid your pledges (One is supposed to give 10% of his net income). It says in the Machzor that three things break an evil decree — Teshuva (repentance), Tefilla (prayer) and Tzedakah (charity). Why not maximize your chance for a good decree?
- Think of (at least) one person you have wronged or feel badly towards — and correct the situation.
- Make a list of your goals for yourself and your family — what you want to work towards and pray for.
- Limit your pleasures — the amount of television, movies, music, food — do something different so that you take this preparation time seriously.
- Do an extra act of kindness — who needs your help? To whom can you make a difference?
- Read a book on character development — anything written by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin would be great!
- Ask a friend to tell you what you need to improve. A real friend will tell you … but in a nice way!
Many of these suggestions probably will seem strange or a poor fit for most Christians. But just look at the level of detail and organization that’s being suggested for Jews as they prepare for the single most holy time in their religious year. Imagine if we in the church were to go through such efforts in order to prepare for our own meeting with God.
I know that Christians and Jews differ on a fundamental level in how we see our service to God. For many Christians, service to God operates in an internal realm and is made up of faith, belief, and prayer. For most religious Jews, although those internal states are present, the main focus is behavioral, not conceptual. Giving to charity in preparation for a meeting with God is totally appropriate. So is taking a religious class, reading an inspirational book, studying relevant sections of the Torah, and reconciling with a friend from whom they have become estranged.
The month of Elul is an opportunity for Jews to review their lives and particularly their failings, and to generate efforts to make amends, to repair relationships, to turn away from sins, and to anticipate the future. In a month, Jews all over the world will approach the throne of God with fear, trembling, and rejoicing. Even on the Day of Judgment; on Yom Kippur, we can learn to dance with God, embracing His Awesome Holiness as both judge and teacher, knowing that we have prepared ourselves for the day of judgment and the day of forgiveness.
Did I say “we?”
The Days of Awe aren’t generally considered appropriate for Christians, but I don’t think it would actually hurt for us to accept Elul as a month of opportunity. Why can’t we use this time to prepare our hearts as well? Couldn’t just spending a little time learning about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur benefit us? Might we not learn to feel just a tad bit more compassion for Jewish people if we learned how they see the God of Abraham and anticipate the Messiah?
We all fail. We all have shortcomings, even the best of us. We can either let that stand or we can do something about it. We can either maintain a “status quo” relationship with God or we can challenge ourselves to draw closer to Him. But that means we’ll have to go through the humiliating and painful process of making a detailed examination of who we are and what we have done to wrong God and to wrong other human beings. We will have to commit ourselves to fixing those damaged and broken relationships, as long as it is within our power to do so. (Romans 12:18)
The month of Elul is the month of reckoning. In the material world, if a businessman is to conduct his affairs properly and with great profit, he must periodically take an accounting and correct any deficiencies… Likewise in the spiritual avoda of serving G-d. Throughout the year all Israel are occupied with Torah, Mitzvot and (developing and expressing) good traits. The month of Elul is the month of reckoning, when every Jew, each commensurate with his abilities, whether scholar or businessman, must make an accurate accounting in his soul of everything that occurred in the course of the year. Each must know the good qualities in his service of G-d and strengthen them; he must also be aware of the deficiencies in himself and in his service, and correct these. Through this excellent preparation, one merits a good and sweet year, materially and spiritually.
Shabbat, Menachem Av 27, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan
Failure is wasted if you return only to the place from where you fell. If your plans fail, think bigger, aim higher.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Exploiting a Setback”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Many Christians believe that devout Jews approach the Days of Awe only with fear of judgment and the almost panicky desire to avoid punishment by “doing things,” to appease an angry God. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, acknowledging failures, confessing sins, and making amends is certainly very humbling and one should not approach an all-powerful God with a casual attitude, but (and my Jewish wife explained this part to me) this is also a wonderful opportunity. This is a wonderful opportunity for Jews to pick up what they’ve put off all year-long, to make their lives and the lives of others better, to improve their relationships, and to almost literally watch God punching the “reset” button on Jewish lives, making everything fresh and new.
While Christians (Jews, too) can do all these things at any time during the year, as human beings we tend to avoid difficult events and tasks. As I said before, the month of Elul is an opportunity to stop being lazy, to get into gear, and to make the effort to be better people that we’ve put off for so long. If this sounds like a terrific opportunity for Jewish people, why shouldn’t a few of us non-Jewish religious people take advantage of it, too?