It’s hard to believe Elul begins early next week. Even though this is one of those years where the High Holy Days do fall early (Erev Rosh HaShanah is September 6th), noting our amazement at the seemingly sudden onset of the New Year is still a classic Jewish trope. In other words, when have the High Holy Days not fallen early? When has the arrival of Elul – that precious and perilous month where we begin the work of teshuvah – not felt like it was coming too soon? 

On Rosh Hodesh Elul there’s something in me that always says, I’m not ready. And I think in some ultimate sense, we never feel ready. Our sages knew this. The month of Elul comes to directly address and challenge this existential sense we have of not being ready. Yes, Rosh Hodesh Elul flushes us from our hiding places that we’ve become accustomed to in this particular year, at this particular moment. But there’s more: Elul asks us to look at this default stance we have of not being ready. Why is this so, year after year? How might it be different?

Elul always comes suddenly.

I think of its onset like these recent rainstorms we’ve had here in Upstate New York, where the water comes down so fast that it floods the gutters, jumps the sewer grates, and seems to overcome any effort to channel it. And that’s how it is: when Elul comes and asks us to bring a new light of awareness to our relationships and how we have become habituated to moving through the world, where do we begin? It can feel like too much. The rainwater threatens to overwhelm every ritual or device we have constructed. 

In Mussar we speak about a third way to be in response to the suffering of the world. The first way is the reaction where we just go to sleep. The pain is too much; we can’t possibly address it, so we shut it out. The second way is to take it all on our shoulders, to see ourselves as the fixer. Under the spell of this approach, we get burnt out and overwhelmed. And we often unwittingly cause even more suffering because of our egoic confusion. The third way is to strive to be ever wakeful, to ever deepen in terms of our personal responsibility, but to know that we share this responsibility with all beings. To discover that when we turn towards our own responsibility, that the innate goodness of the universe will be wind at our backs.

So Elul comes and we begin to do what we can. With intention and compassion, we practice not ducking. And sometimes afterwards we can reflect, as the poet Robin Gow writes,

somewhere in all of this i managed

to drive across the whole unknown ocean — the one

without a name that shows up only when it downpours.

Hodesh Tov, and may it be a fruitful Elul,

Rabbi Joshua Boettiger, CCM Associate Rosh Yeshiva