As we prepare for the month of Elul and the approaching Yamim Nora'im/Days of Awe, we grapple with a perpetual paradox that has troubled Sages and Rabbis throughout history. Each year, we go through the process of repentance, regret our past sins, and make resolutions to do better. Yet, despite our sincere efforts, we often find ourselves falling short of our past aspirations. The frustration over our recurrent failures can lead to feelings of despair. How can we overcome this cycle and ensure greater success in the coming year?
During the month of Elul, we engage in a ritual of listening to the shofar every day as a symbolic call to repentance. Although blowing the shofar is halachically mandated only on Rosh Hashanah, the custom of sounding it throughout Elul has become widespread to stir our hearts towards repentance. However, a question arises as to why we refrain from blowing the shofar on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the very day leading into the High Holy Days.
To gain some insight into this question and the purpose of Elul, we turn to Tehilim 27, which we recite daily during this month. In this psalm, King David appears to be making two separate requests: to dwell in the house of Hashem and to visit His Sanctuary. However, upon closer examination, we understand that David is actually making one overarching request with a necessary corollary. As a king responsible for many matters of state, David seeks to have a constant awareness of Hashem's presence and maintain an unbroken relationship with Him, irrespective of his surroundings or duties.
Understanding the historical significance of Elul adds depth to the meaning of this month. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai three times, with the third ascent on Rosh Chodesh Elul representing a plea for full forgiveness and renewed intimacy with Hashem after the incident of the Golden Calf. The second set of tablets, hewed by Moshe's hand but written by Hashem, symbolizes humanity's preparation for an authentic relationship with the Divine. Elul becomes a time to prepare ourselves, like those tablets, to receive Hashem's presence into our hearts and our lives.
Throughout Elul, the shofar serves as a potent reminder of the Sinai experience. Its sound symbolizes the awakening of our souls and the recreation of the scene of receiving the Torah. Nevertheless, the process of teshuvah and repentance does not culminate on Rosh Hashanah; it reaches its peak on Yom Kippur when we receive the second set of tablets, signifying the complete repair of our relationship with Hashem.
Taking action is paramount during this time of spiritual awakening and inspiration. The word "shofar" shares its root with "leshaper" (to improve), emphasizing the importance of using the shofar's message to motivate self-improvement. We are encouraged to make small changes and take proactive steps toward refining our character traits. Even dedicating just five minutes to improvement can bring about profound transformations, creating a gateway for greater change.
Elul represents a period of personal growth and renewal. It marks the completion of a year-long spiral of teshuvah, where we can reflect on our progress and commitment to change throughout the year. As the month comes to an end, we shift our focus to the latter part of Tehilim 27, seeking not just to dwell in Hashem's house but also to visit. This means rekindling our relationship with Hashem, even if we experienced setbacks during the year.
This month of repentance provides us with an opportunity to end the year on a positive note. The shofar serves as a reminder of our commitments from the previous Rosh Hashanah, allowing us to reignite our dedication and realign ourselves with Hashem's divine path. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we must strive to strengthen our relationship with Hashem and continue our journey of self-improvement. Elul reminds us of the loving relationship we can have with Hashem, represented by the name of the month itself, and motivates us to work towards becoming better versions of ourselves.