Thursday, August 24, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Rosh Chodesh Elul

כתיבה וחתימה טובה
As of writing this-time in Los Angeles (though it is dark when I press the Submit Button), it is still the 29th day of the month of Menachem Av, the penultimate day of the month and also Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul (Av has 30 days). A very important event in Jewish history happened today. Less famous than trip number one and trip number three, this marked the end of Moses second consecutive 40-day trip to Heaven, the first ending the 17th of Tammuz, the third on the 10th of Tishri, Yom Kippur. It was today on the 29th of Av that Moses received the promise from God that the people would be forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf on the 16th and 17th of Tammuz. I believe it is also the day that the Thirteen Attributes were revealed to Moses as well as the Glory of God (where God passed before Moses and Moses saw God's back), though it could have been on Yom Kippur that the latter events happened.

That being said, we now enter the most intense part of the year, Elul, the Chodesh HaRachamim, the month of mercy and the month of repentance. More changes are assigned to the daily services in this month than any other. The Shofar is sounded every morning of the month besides Shabbat and the eve of Rosh Hashannah, An additional service, Selichot, a penitential service, is recited daily, beginning on the first of the month by Sephardic Jews and the Saturday night before Rosh Hashannah (or if Rosh Hashannah begins on a Monday or Tuesday, two Saturday nights before) and is continued daily, besides the Sabbath and the Two Days of Rosh Hashannah until and including Yom Kippur, recited at what some would ironically consider "ungodly hours". It so happens that this year Rosh Hashannah falls on Shabbat, the same day of the week that it would have fallen during the creation story. Selichot begins this year for my fellow Ashkenazic Jews on Yom Rishon (as it always does), the 25th of Elul, which matches up to the very first day of Creation; anyway, enough on that tangent. A penitential psalm, #27 to be precise, is added to the conclusion of all Morning and Evening services until the Hoshannah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. You even have to change the letterhead; very pious Jews will add "Ketivah V'Chatimah Tovah", loosely "may you be written and sealed for good" to the top of letters, referring to their wishes for a positive verdict in the Book of Life.

Elul has the astrological sign of Virgo, the virgin. We begin to be clad in virgin white and the Kittel is worn during the first night of Selichot. Fair Israel is trying to return to a state of innocence and purity, which are quintessential in the virgin. Elul has been used as an acronym, אלול could stand for אני לדודי ודודי לי, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine", a direct quote from The Song of Songs and a central quote in the Jewish Wedding ceremony. Our fates are intertwined, and all of the confessions we do during this season are done in the plural. אשמנו, בגדנו... על חטא שחטאנו ... אבינו מלכנו חטאנו... All of these have the נו ending (not in the impatient Israeli nu?! but in the verb-ending) "WE have sinned" the Vidui confession, in the form of Ashamnu, Al Chet, and even Avinu Malkeinu are exclusively first person Plural. Though we may not have all committed these particular sins, all of Israel is responsible for one another. A further Elul acronym along these lines is איש לראהו ומתנות לאביונים, coming from the Scroll of Esther, "[gifts] of a man to his fellow and and gifts to the poor", implying not only responsibility for the people we know and consider friends and collegues, but also those who are destitute, to help them in this all-important time of year.

We also need to realize that we need each other and we seek out forgiveness from our fellows. As the Song of Songs is also an allegory for the relationship between Israel and God, the month is also an opportunity for us to get closer to God. During selichot we invoke the Thirteen Attributes of God which, according to their context in the Torah, are to be recited in times of great distress when God's assistance is needed.

I had always also seen the month of Elul as the beginning of God's annual Coronation that takes place on Rosh Hashannah, the King begins to ascend to his Throne of Mercy to sit in Judgment. The beginning of this month is perfectly synced to the Torah portion Shoftim (which I will comment on soon) where first mention is made of a Jewish King. In a number of places in our prayers, we will shortly change certain names of God, such as El (a generic name of God), to Melech (which means king). Interestingly, and as I commented at the Synagogue last week, both were originally names of Canaanite deities. El and Melech (later revocalized to Molech, containing the vowels of Boshet, shameful thing).

I can't end it on that kind of a note (though I was tempted to). The ימים נוראים, the Days of Awe are arguably (WTF^^?!) my favorite time of year. The many many melodies we use during this season are those which I obsess over (and fill my iPod) year round. Though the extras get annoying at times (especially losing precious homework and sleep time by doing nightly selichot) it is entirely worth it. The daily blasts of the shofar serve as a reminder today of the Awesomeness of the Season, just as the daily shofar blasts beginning on Rosh Chodesh Elul in the Desert reminded the Israelites that Moses had ascended to heaven for the third time to get our sins atoned. The blast served as a reminder that Moses and God have not abandoned us, remember that we are approaching the days that our fate is decided and that we need to work on improving ourselves. As my great grandfather wrote, "Give heed to the sound of the shofar!"

Chodesh Tov and Ketiva V'Chatima Tova. May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for Good.

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