Getting Ready for the High Holy Days
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This coming Shabbat is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul. As you probably know, Elul is the last month of the Hebrew calendar, and it is considered a month of preparation for the High Holy Days.
How can we get properly ready for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur? There are many customs that help in this regard. First, we include the reading of Psalm 27 after the morning and evening services. Psalm 27 is an appropriate reading for this time of the year as it has some references to the festivals of the month of Tishrei.
During the month of Elul we are encouraged to examine our actions during the past year and to ask for forgiveness from the people whom we have hurt or offended. Besides, many people also go to the cemetery, to visit the graves of their loved ones. These visits also help us to enter into the mood of the Holy Days.
We also add an additional religious service every day in the early morning, called Slichot, forgivenesses. The Sefardic custom is to pray Slichot during the whole month of Elul, while the Ashkenazi custom is to pray it from the Sunday prior to Rosh Hashana (or the Sunday before that, if Rosh Hashana begins on Monday or Tuesday, like this year).
Perhaps the most famous custom is to blow the Shofar after the morning service, every day of the month of Elul, with the exceptions of Shabbat (when it is forbidden). We do not blow shofar on the day before Rosh Hashana; we stop in order to separate between the voluntary shofar-blowing of Elul and the Torah obligation of Rosh Hashana. This year we will begin to sound the Shofar this coming Sunday, September 1st (yes, 1st of Elul and 1st of September!). Please join us for the service at 9 am and hear the Shofar right after it!
The reason the shofar is blown during the month of Elul is to arouse people to repent. The nature of the shofar is to raise people’s awareness and to instill awe. As the prophet Amos declares, “Can a shofar be blown in the city and the people not tremble?” (Amos 3:6).
There is a connection between this week’s parasha and the sounding of the Shofar. The mitzvah related to the Shofar is to hear it, to listen to its voice. Besides the mitzvah, we hope that the sound of the Shofar awakens us, that it helps us to realize what changes we should make in our lives. On the other hand, Re’eh, the name of this week’s parasha, means “see”. “See, this day I put before you blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26).
Therefore, this week we need to see and to listen! At the beginning of the month of Elul, when we need to begin to prepare ourselves for the High Holidays, we are commanded to open our eyes and our ears. You could ask, is it not enough to just see well? Is it not enough to just listen well? I believe there are some of us who see better than listen. There are others who listen better than see. Some of us are moved by the sound of the Shofar, while others are moved when they see with their own eyes the many blessings they enjoy.
We are all different, but we all have to get ready for the great Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Our tradition provides different ways to prepare for the new year, so we can choose those that are more appropriate or appealing to us. Listen, see… whatever you do best!