It is that time of year, with the cycle of time spinning so fast, when summer passes and we come upon the Jewish New Year of 5780.
What are we meant to do in Elul, the last month of the Jewish year? This is a good moment to review the traditional motifs that mark a sacred time in our lives. Let me share some thoughts that will be expounded more deeply during the solemn Yamim Nora’im which follow.
Teshuvah: There is no greater moral and spiritual urgency in this penitential season than the power of teshuvah, “repentance” but literally “return” or “response”. We are frail, prone to hurt others by word or deed, even those we love. Through teshuvah God enables us to redeem ourselves by returning to our true selves, to each other and to our Creator.
Judaism believes at its core that we are not destined to wrongdoing, that society as a whole can change for the better. Teshuvah is more important than ever in a society that increasingly tells us we are doomed by history. We see celebrities and politicians destroyed by some decades-old deed or statement. With the power of social media, nothing escapes the public domain.
We live in a very judgmental society, with no escape for anyone, present or past. Whole societies and historical ﬁgures are targeted – Cecil Rhodes with less than righteous views on race, Winston Churchill’s old-fashioned attitude to imperialism and colonialism or, from America, the 18th-century slave-owning Thomas Jeﬀerson. There are problems in seeking comfort from great leaders and thinkers of the past.
Our Torah teaches that all our Bible heroes and sages had the capacity to sin. But they also had the ability to change and to grow. That was the greatness of Jacob, whose life began with deception but ended with blessing; of Joseph, who abandoned his Jewish background for Egyptian culture, yet did teshuvah and returned to God and his family when his brothers came back to Egypt; of Moses whose temper stopped him from entering Eretz Yisrael but whose leadership brought him to receive the Tablets at Sinai; of David who eﬀectively murdered the husband of his love, Batsheva, yet found redemption as the greatest king of Israel.
Selichah: The second immensely powerful motif at this time of year is selichah, forgiveness. As we seek to improve ourselves, aware of our capacity to do wrong, Jewish tradition tells us to recognise that same trait in others. Both Torah and rabbinic tradition instruct us to seek forgiveness from and for others – and even forgive God for making us and His creation less than perfect!
This is the time to think of relationships with family and friends that need repair, the power of selichah. The daily shofar blowing during Elul urges us to come closer to each other and make peace. When we say “Shanah tovah”, “Have a good year”, are we aware that the root meaning of shanah, the Hebrew word for year, is “change”? Can we ﬁnd our teshuvah and realise the better part of ourselves? Do we have the capacity to forgive others, to release us from grudges and enmity?
May this year, 5780, allow us to truly hear the sound of the shofar, to reach up to the heavens with our prayers to ﬁnd the blessings of teshuvah and selichah. Life is short and uncertain but we should recognise its sanctity and preciousness and embrace it. May this New Year be a year of blessing, health, life, goodness and shalom for all of you and your loved ones.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler