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Elul alchemy

I wasn’t ready for it. I opened Facebook and began reading a friend’s status that appeared on my screen: “As I do every Fall, I double checked the emergency box in my car today . . . “ I couldn’t continue reading. Fall? It’s still August. Let’s not rush summer away too fast, let’s take it till its very last moment.

But the truth is, end of summer is such an interesting mash-up of seasons. It’s the glory of the last days of summer: juicy ripe fruits, languid outdoor nights, the sea.

Yet, it’s Elul, too.

A subtle yet perceptible shift in atmosphere takes place.

Even without that famous Lithuanian yeshiva tradition on the first of the month of Elul, that famous klap on the lectern by the dean of the yeshiva, an accompanying call of “Elul” escaping his lips, this one word enfolding within it as much of a jolt as the pierce of a bell.

Even without the verbal Elul prompt to arouse the masses to repentance, there truly is a shift in the air.

One day, there’s an ever subtle change in the brightness of summer daylight, a certain autumn fragrance, and you just know: Elul has arrived.

In case you missed these more subtle signs from nature, though, the rhythmic Sephardic selichot usher in Elul with so much visceral inspiration and musical prayers of repentance, leaving no doubt: it’s Elul!

I’m always caught off guard. I never feel quite ready for it.

Perhaps that’s the whole point.

But it’s not just the temperatures that shift during this time. The content of our words. The volume of our speech. The songs we start listening to.

They all change and soften.

So much hard build-up accumulates throughout each year.

To be sure, there are endless blessings to be grateful for.

But so many disappointments and failures and worries accumulate, too.

Elul comes and we start making peace between the gap in our dreams and the reality in front of us.

Elul arrives, and somehow the distance that develops between us, between us and G-d, seems to shrink a bit.

Like the gentle end of a day, when we might put a child, or a day, to sleep, we do it with softness and kindness — we tuck the day in with a lullaby.

The day peaks with its intensity, and then just like that, twilight comes, and time to sing a lullaby or two.

In a sense Elul is that gentle twilight of each year’s end. We sing this time of year away . . . with selichot, with niggunim, with prayers . . . our annual Jewish lullaby. It’s a way of laying the year to rest. Just as each night turns into a hope for a wonderful new tomorrow, with new intentions, opportunities and hopes, we turn to the approaching new year, with the renewed sentiments for a wonderful new tomorrow in the form of an extended calendar year.

How do we straddle this transitional time from end of year to new beginnings? With change, repair, repentance: teshuva.

We increase our good deeds and make an effort to mend broken and breached fences in our lives.

For 40 days we add a psalm unique to the rhythm of this time of year, L’David Hashem ori ve-yish’i.

According to the tradition of Kelm Musar from the 19th century, its founder “Elder of Kelm,” Rabbi Simcha Zisl Ziev (1824-1898), could not enter Elul in preparation for Rosh Hashanah without a particular teaching. In fact, this centerpiece Elul teaching was pasted to the door of his Musar House.

As far as he was concerned, don’t bother entering his Musar House without coming in armed with this teaching as a foundation to all the ensuing emotional and spiritual work.

The message in the sign on the door was, “ve-ahavta le-re’acha kamocha, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It didn’t suffice with these three Hebrew word. It labored to provide textual and philosophical reasoning (beyond the scope of this column) as to why entering Rosh Hashanah without this kindness, this caring, this unity, amounted to a total failure to grasp the essence of the Kingship or Malchuyot dimension of Rosh Hashanah.

So while Kelm Musar was known for its intensified Elul concentration on ethics, down to accounting for every moment on the clock of every day of the month, it turns out that the foundational criteria of this service was none other than a basic mindful kindness and unity in community.

You literally couldn’t walk through the door of the famous Elder of Kelm’s Kelm Musar House without this reminder, this motif of the month of Elul.

Like I said, you never quite feel ready to walk through that Elul-Fall door, when it catches you off guard.

But here it is.

With that piercing klap: ELUL!!

A month to be paved with a mindful Musar-like kindness.

Replete with the prayerful cadences of a year’s worth of melting twilights transmuted into whispering melodious lullabies; only instead of a farewell to a day, it’s a slow bidding farewell to a year, hoping, looking with one eye onto a hopefully renewed, healthy, better tomorrow.

It’s that time again. It’s Elul alchemy.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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