Rosh Hodesh Elul
Parshat Re’eh – 30 Menachem Av 5776 – 2 September 2016
(This talk is also linked to the website of Congregation P’nai Tikvah.)
Rosh means head. Hodesh means month. Rosh Hodesh Elul is the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul when we enter into our preparations for Rosh Hashanah.
As we know, Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year, but literally, Rosh Hashanah means head of the year. The word “head” implies leadership. We speak about someone going to the head of the class, or being head of a company or project. There is a custom among Sephardi Jews to cook the head of a fish, or other kosher animal, and to place the head on a plate and place the plate on our Rosh Hashanah table. During Rosh Hashanah lunch or dinner, Sephardi Jews point to the roasted head and say, “shenih’yeh l’rosh v’lo l’zanav,” “may we be like a head and not a tail.”
May the coming new year be a time when we all feel as though we are at the head of our own personal agenda, our own personal to-do list, and our own personal opportunities.
Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, a day of listening to the blowing of the shofar. Many Jewish communities also have a tradition of blowing the shofar on weekdays during the month of Elul. On Rosh Hashanah, we listen to the sounds of shofar over and over, whereas during the month of Elul, we hear just one sounding of the shofar each weekday. The sounding of the shofar during the month of Elul reminds us to wake ourselves up to a more vibrant life, a life in which we feel joy and sorrow more intensely and acutely. The shofar also calls us to begin the process of repenting for our mistakes, and to get in touch with what we want and need for ourselves and our loved ones.
If you prefer to wait for Rosh Hashanah before beginning that process, by all means please do. If you want to get a jump start by beginning in the month of Elul, now is the time to start.
Here is an example: Let’s say that I am a person who drinks too much coffee. The month of Elul might be a good time to find a healthy and delicious alternative so I can reduce my coffee intake while enjoying something in its place. If I want to get more exercise, the month of Elul is a good time to find ways to change my schedule so either I have more time to exercise, or I have more time to argue with myself about whether I’m going to exercise.
The month of Elul is not only a time to change our behavior, it is also a time to develop an attitude of gratitude for the blessings in our lives.
There will be a link on the P’nai Tikvah website where you can click to listen to the blowing of the shofar during the entire month of Elul. There will also be a link to Psalm 27 which is traditionally read every day from Rosh Hodesh Elul, through Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, and all the way to the end of Sukkot.
Psalm 27 begins with these words, “The L-o-r-d is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The L-o-r-d is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?” Later, it says, “One thing do I desire, and that is, to dwell in the house of G-o-d all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of G-o-d, and to inquire in G-o-d’s temple.”
There is a Jewish saying that whenever we have two Jews, we have three opinions. The G-o-d language in Psalm 27 is best understood in the context of divinity beyond deities. For those who do not believe in a being called G-o-d, Psalm 27 may be understood as an opportunity to experience courage from overwhelm, and to touch upon the longing to live in better times and in a better way.
To support our diversity of understandings about G-o-d and G-o-d language, I have included a translation of Psalm 27 that includes the G-o-d language that is found in the Hebrew, and I have also included an alternative translation that adjusts the deity language to render it less dualistic and anthropomorphic.
If you want to adopt the practice of reading Psalm 27 every day from Elul through the end of Sukkot, get a copy of the Hebrew or find a translation that speaks to you, make several copies and leave them around where you will run into them. Leave one near your bed, another on your desk, and another copy on the refrigerator or wherever you might run into it. Read it twice a day or once a day or every other day or once in a while.
Common sense dictates that we not read while we are doing things that require our full attention, and Psalm 27 is no exception; always be safe when performing religious practices.
May this new month of Elul be extraordinary for each and every one of us, regardless of whether we listen to shofar and regardless of whether we read Psalm 27. As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, may our capacities for forgiveness increase to the point where we can forgive ourselves and those around us so we can start afresh and get a new lease on life. Keyn yehi ratzon. So may it be. Amen. Shabbat shalom.