Elul is that month, the final one on the Jewish calendar, the one whose job is to remind us that nothing ever stays the same.
Our lives are an open book right now, splayed out on God’s heavenly table. He’s making an accounting, jotting things down, figuring out what to do with us in the year to come. Life or death. Sickness or health. Love or loneliness. It will all come down to how we pray and atone during the upcoming Days of Awe – the holy period bookended by Rosh Hashana, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Elul, then, is the prelude. It’s a time of awakening, of practice and preparation, asking us to roll up our cuffs and wade into the waters of repentance. The moment the month of Elul comes to an end, our moment of reckoning begins.
Everything we know shifts now, as often occurs when things end or begin. It happens either suddenly, like a drop of the sand floor as we move farther out into the ocean, or so subtly the new fault lines remain invisible to the human eye, revealing themselves to us only later. It happens. We cannot stave it off, even if we shut our ears to the sound of the shofar that cries out each Elul morning.
The shofar stir us to a mood of thoughtfulness and personal accounting. If we listen carefully, its cries rouse us from spiritual slumber, pointing out what we have neglected in others, ourselves, and the world around us. We become alert to where we are empty, eager to replace longing with spirituality and love. The sound of the shofar flips over the calendar page to a new year, but it also rotates our thoughts – first, to reflect on where we have come from, and then again, to plan how we’ll straighten the bend in the road ahead.
Sometimes, a piece of us gets lost in the Elul shift and we are left to mourn what once was. Other times, the change opens a window, letting in the air we need to breathe. It renews us, raising our eyes to things we have long ignored. We take new comfort in the well-known, like in the familiar rooms of an old house or the beauty in a great-aunt’s tarnished heirloom silver. We refresh our relationships as well, letting them grow around the bumps of real life that feed the strongest of loves.
After all, there is nothing else we can do. Time travels forward whether we give it a wide berth or not, turning life like the pages of a book, writing more of our story. And it will carry on in that fashion — morphing, shrinking, growing, filling in, rounding out, surprising us with plot twists and turns, cliffhangers, questions without answers, endings that lift our spirits, prologues that break our hearts. The next chapter may be what we prayed for last year, or precisely what we prayed would never come to pass.
Even love changes there in that fresh ink. It is in the shifting — in the drops that splatter on the pages, in the smudges as much as the words themselves — that we see the strength of our bonds — between husband and wife, between parents and children, among friends and within communities.
With each new Elul, our love of God has a chance to shift, too, to become a deep, tenacious, old kind of love. As I age, I’m expecting less and embracing more, looking for the everyday kindnesses in our relationship — that my eyes open each morning, that birds chirp outside the kitchen window — rather than the big, passionate bursts of lightning and thunder and the splitting of seas. I am also listening more carefully to the wisdom in the call of the shofar. And I am finding it easier to accept that He may be everything, but He does not owe me anything. When I fail to get an answer, I no longer think He is ignoring me. It’s just that His answer is “no” or “not now.”
Elul does this, reminding us that there are no guarantees, that the only sure thing in our physical world is the inevitability of change. If we let it, the newness can soften us, smoothing us down at the corners. It can help draw us closer to God, to find new meaning between the lines of the story our time here on earth continues to write, or we can allow it to cut us down at the edges instead. I suspect most of us will find our truth somewhere in the middle, in that precarious place between love and fear. Meanwhile, I will pray that good awaits all of us as Elul turns us a new page.
Merri Ukraincik is a writer, blogger, artist, wife, and mother who talks to G-d all the time. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Hevria, Kveller, and elsewhere. She is the author of I Live. Send Help., a history of the Joint Distribution Committee. Find her on her personal website.