‘Who shall live and who shall die, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy….’
This famous poem Unetaneh Tokef (author unknown) that we read on the High Holy Days describes how our lives hang in the balance on Rosh Hashana – the New Year. For on that day, G-d will judge us, and based on our actions and spiritual level, He will assign our lot for the coming year.
And therefore, since the formation of the Jewish nation, the month of Elul has been designated as the month of teshuva – of repentance. In this month preceding the new year, we assess ourselves, our actions, our relationships with G-d and with others, and we repent for our wrongdoings over the year.
Indeed, the Zohar Hakadosh – the holy Zohar, written by the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, tells us that in the month of Elul, G-d wraps Himself in His tallit and prays for us.
This is a beautiful thought indeed, but which grave peril are we in that we are in such need of G-d’s prayers? For the vast majority of us, next year we most likely will not die, nor will our fortunes collapse. Life will continue as usual and our spiritual connection to G-d will remain the same. If we begin another year just like the one that is fading out, then that will also be okay.
But in assuming that, we forget something. As humans, we are constantly growing. We are continuously learning, evolving, breaking barriers, becoming habituated and adapting; unfailing travelers along the path that we carve out for ourselves. And if that path is not bringing us closer to G-d, then it is by definition taking us further from Him. For if you look at any living organism, you will realize that the opposite of growth is not non-growth: it’s death. As the lyrics from the song ‘Dear Future Me’ go:
‘If I met you now, would I be proud / Of who you have come to be / Would I even recognize you and / Would you remember me.’
Step by step, mile by mile, we can tread along a path which takes us so far from our original selves and our closeness to G-d that we no longer recognize the person we used to be. Our bottomless potential remains unfulfilled; our souls dead.
Yet from beyond the crevice, the call of the shofar reaches out to us. It calls to us, ‘Uru yeshenim mishnaschem’ – ‘Awaken slumberers from your sleep.’ This haunting cry we hear in the month of Elul shocks us awake, reaches inside us to stir our conscience, which sadly no longer cries out.
And help is at hand. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi tells us that in the month of Elul, the King is in the field. Instead of remaining shuttered in His palace with His faithful ones, He is circulating amongst us spiritual peasants. In this holy and powerful month, G-d Himself comes to us. And all it takes for us to repent, particularly in this month of closeness to G-d, is just one small step towards Him in the field.
The famed Rabbi Israel of Rhyzin was once approached by a man who asked him how to do teshuva. ‘How did you know how to sin?’ The Rabbi asked him. ‘I acted, and then I realized that I had sinned,’ the remorseful sinner replied. ‘Well then,’ the Rabbi answered, ‘The same applies with teshuva. Repent and the rest will follow.’ Truly, all it takes is a change of heart, and we will find our way back to G-d, to the vestigial purity that the month of Elul has the power to bring.
This time, when the King returns to His palace at the end of the month, let us return with Him. Then the cry of the shofar will become the triumphant trumpets of His coronation, and we will merit to a Kingdom where the entire world acknowledges G-d’s kingship. This year, we will do it. Because G-d is praying for us. And perhaps it’s time that we started to pray for ourselves.