A note from Dr. Erin Smith, the CSHB Director: At the time I hit “publish” on this blog, Israel and Hamas have been at war for 5 days. This blog engages with Elul, a month with significant symbolism in the Jewish calendar, a calendar that Jesus was raised under. Christians and mental health professionals can learn a lot from the wisdom offered in the framing of Elul. Thus, the goal of engaging the Jewish calendar is not meant to be political, but reflective. I would encourage all readers to evaluate the content and reflect on what that means for them as individuals, including what a proper response to the sudden outbreak of violence in Southern Israel and Gaza entails.
It’s that time of year again: Schools are starting up, we are anticipating cooler weather, and perhaps looking forward to the various holiday celebrations this season holds. Some of us are well rested, having enjoyed summer vacations and are full of expectations for the coming year. Others may be filled with dread at the thought of a fast-approaching end of year, the hustle and bustle of holidays, etc,.
Whatever side of the scale that you are on, have you ever found yourself needing a reset? A time where you can make everything, I mean everything, stop so you can catch your breath, look around, and start over?
The noise of constant stimulation has become so much a part of our lives, we don’t even realize how internally diffused and depleted we may have become, how even the good things have sapped our energies and stolen our attention, together with more easily recognized trivial and worthless things. And more importantly how hard we work to break any silence we may encounter.
Even though my work in counseling involves helping people reset, I think GD, in HIS great wisdom, has included in the yearly calendar a natural space for us to formally reset on an annual basis, to enter that silent and holy place that we sometimes work so hard to avoid and to come before HIM again. That time of year is called Elul.
Elul is the 12th and final month in the Jewish calendar. It usually falls right around September. But even though this time of year has just passed, we still have much to learn from it. The month of Elul is a month that connects the past year with the coming year. And though each month of the Jewish calendar radiates with a distinct quality, Elul is a time when we are to reflect on where we stand and where we should be going. It is a season in which to reflect, repent, repair, but most of all deepen our relationship with GD.
One central focus during Elul is Teshuvah or repentance. Jews are encouraged to reflect on their actions over the past year, both towards oneself and others, and ultimately toward GD. The practice of Teshuva involves first knowing before WHOM we stand. The 14th chapter of Hosea, read at this time of year, challenges us to return to the LORD our GOD Himself as not simply the center, but the entire horizon of our attention. (Rabbi Stuart Dauermann). Through Hosea, our GOD challenges us to be “those who live in his shadow” (v. 7). And realizing that we stand before a HOLY GD the need for forgiveness is very real.
But authentic repentance is more than a one-time event. It is a way of life. Teshuvah is one of the great gifts GD gives each of us, the ability to turn back to HIM and seek healing for our brokenness. (Proverbs 28:13) We are used to imagining repentance as a form of surrender, a confession of weakness. And it is. But we also need to see it as a source of empowerment, a return to our only true and sufficient center––the luxuriant juniper, the fruitful vine––the LORD our God.
“I am like a luxuriant juniper; From Me comes your fruit”
(Hosea 14. v. 8)
Jesus said it this way:
“I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who remains
in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me
you can do nothing” (John 15:5)
The result of living this way is incredible empowerment and fruitfulness!
Another significant aspect of Elul is preparing oneself for seeking forgiveness from others. It is customary to engage in acts of kindness or tzedakah, expressing a desire to make amends and demonstrate genuine change. Jewish tradition teaches that true repentance can only be achieved when one actively works towards rectifying past actions.
As both seekers and givers of pardon, we are to turn to those we have wronged, acknowledge our sins and the pain we have caused. We are to search our memories, our souls, to find what we did wrong during the past year, and to make them right. And in one sense, this is the first step as we are instructed to “be reconciled (first) to (y)our brother, making good on things that were done badly” (Matthew 5:23-24)
We are commanded to be willing to let go of any resentment we feel towards those who have committed offenses against us. Only then can we turn to GD and ask for forgiveness. I think those two steps: being forgiven and forgiving, are simultaneous. This is even found in Yom Kippur liturgy:
“And for all these, GD of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.”
Although rooted in ancient Jewish tradition, the themes of Elul hold great relevance to us today. In our fast-paced world filled with distractions and constant busyness, taking dedicated time for self-reflection allows us to pause, reset, and reconnect with our values and priorities. It encourages us to evaluate our relationships, actions, and impact on the world around us. Elul can be a wonderful time of divine closeness, a time to do what our spirit yearns for: introspection, soul searching, personal stock-taking (known in Hebrew as cheshbon hanefesh — literally “an accounting of the soul” (Rav DovBer Pinson).
With this focus, we should take this time to search our souls, to recall and find people we have wronged, family, friends, to give up the grudges, and to forgive people for their wrongdoing. And most of all to return to a place of shalom (peace). Elul serves as a powerful reminder that personal transformation requires conscious effort and commitment.
As we navigate life’s challenges together, the significance of Elul remains as relevant today as it was centuries ago – urging us all towards introspection, repentance, forgiveness-seeking behavior – ultimately fostering personal growth and a deeper connection with GOD.
May your name be written in the Lambs Book of Life!
La Shana Tova!
Rabbi Stuart Dauermann: Shulchan Shelanu from Interfaithfulness
Rabbi DovBer Pinson: Sha’ar HaBitachon
John 15:5: I am the vine, you are the branches. The one who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for apart from ME you can do nothing. Tree of Life Version
Isaiah 55:6: Seek Adonai while He may be found, call on Him while He is near. Tree of Life Version
Hosea 14:7: His tender shoots will spread out. His beauty will be like an olive tree and his fragrance will be like Lebanon. Tree of Life Version
Matthew 5:23-24: Therefore, if you are presenting your offering upon the altar, and there remember that our brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.
For further reading: 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holy Days. Shimon Jacobson (Kiyum Pr., First Edition (January 1, 2008)