Rabbi Wein.com The Voice of Jewish History

Rabbi Wein’s Weekly Blog
 Printer Friendly


In Eastern Europe as well as in other European, Balkan and Middle Eastern Jewish communities, the advent of the month of Elul was greeted with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Both feelings were engendered by the fact that Elul immediately precedes Tishrei, the month that combines judgment and joyful holiday celebrations.

Because of the awesome aspect of judgment associated with Tishrei, there was a Jewish folk saying that when Elul arrived even the fish in the rivers began to tremble. Even though we still pay lip service to this concept of trepidation in our generations as well, the deep emotional angst that the month of Elul once generated in the Jewish world has pretty much disappeared today.
The pressures of modern life, the never ending struggle for financial security and well-being and the constant information bombardment that gives us no peace or respite, all combine to dull the impact of Elul on our thoughts and emotions. In a certain respect, Elul has lost its uniqueness; it is like any other month of the year and the fish in our rivers no longer tremble at its arrival. One of the myriad casualties and victims is the month of Elul. And we are poorer spiritually because of this.
We perforce arrive at the days of awe and judgment unprepared, not really in the proper mood and mindset, unexcited and almost indifferent as to the process of judgment itself. The life force that once permeated these months of the year has slowly ebbed away.
I know that at my advanced years I am now given to nostalgia. King Solomon in Kohelet warns us of the dangers of nostalgia. He cautions us that we should never say that the good old days were always good. That only leads to pessimistic view of today and a sense of frustrated defeatism. The old world was far from perfect. The secularization of much of the Jewish world took place in Europe in the nineteenth century. Yet there was an atmosphere that existed that touched even the hardened leftist Jews of that time. Everyone was aware that Elul had arrived and that Tishrei was not far behind.
Maybe the fish stopped trembling but they were aware that the temperature of the water was different, higher and more turbulent. I remember the roar of prayer and tears, the sounds that accompanied the services of Selichot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In our time the roar has become a muted silence.
Concentration in prayer is not to be measured in the volume of sound that accompanies it. And it may very well be that more is accomplished with truly devotional silent, private prayer than with shouts and tears. But I for one long to hear that roar of beseeching prayer uttered from the throats of ordinary hard working Jews asking to be judged favorably on the days of Heavenly judgment.  
Elul is the month of the year set aside for personal introspection and self-evaluation. This is not an easy process because it is emotionally and mentally taxing. We do not always like what we see when looking at our inner mirror. But if Elul teaches us anything it is that honesty is always the best policy. And that begins not with honesty towards others, which is a given in Jewish life, but with honesty with one’s own self.
Judaism is built on the foundation that one is forbidden to fool others and that includes the prohibition against fooling one’s own self. Elul is the time that such a light needs be shone on our inner self, to view our true motives and ultimate goals in this earthly bound existence of ours.
If we are unable to make the fish tremble any longer, we need to retain the ability to really and truly know ourselves and, in that process, discover knowledge of our Creator and to connect to eternity even in this world. Psychology has confirmed the ancient Jewish wisdom that the key to holiness and sanctity in life is the ability to know one’s self. And Elul has retained that quality of being the month of introspection and self- evaluation. We should not squander this opportunity. For after Elul arrives, the days of Tishrei bring the time of judgment. Knowing one’s self is the best defense in the court of Heaven.  
Shabbat shalom
Berel Wein


Subscribe to our blog via email or RSS to get more posts like this one.

Posted in:
Faigie Gilbert