Tomorrow is the first morning of Elul (the month starts tonight at sundown).
Elul is a month of preparation, self-reflection, and spiritual discipline leading up to Rosh HaShanah (sundown, Sept. 18, 2009).
The most noticeable custom of Elul is that a shofar is blown each morning after the morning prayers at the synagogue. The shofar is, of course, the primary custom of Rosh HaShanah. Hearing its sound is a spiritual lesson.
The shofar sound takes us back to Sinai, from which God spoke in thunder and in a trumpet blast:
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. . . . And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. -Exod. 19:16, 19.
It is the sound of freedom blown every fiftieth Yom Kippur:
Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. -Lev 25:9-10.
It is the sound of renewal and regathering to be blown at the end of the age:
And in that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. -Isa. 27:13.
It is mentioned several times in the New Testament in the context of Israel’s regathering and the resurrection of the faithful:
. . . he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. -Matt. 24:31.
The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Messiah will rise. -1 Thess. 4:16.
Hearing the shofar every morning during Elul is a daily reminder, leading up to the High Holidays, that God calls to us with a covenant of life and will call to us with a fulfillment of life if we adhere to him as King.
Ascending Sinai Again
There is a tradition, not found in the Bible, that the day Moses went up Mount Sinai for a second time was on the first day of Elul. He was there for forty days and came down with the second set of tablets. The day he came down was Yom Kippur, since Yom Kippur is forty days after the first of Elul.
The tradition has meaning, regardless of what we may think about its literal accuracy.
Elul is a preparation for repentance and asking for a new beginning with God. In this tradition, Elul is when Moses began ascending to obtain from God a second chance at the covenant with God for all Israel.
Elul is that time of year when we begin ascending Sinai again. Having lived too much of my life without following the cycles of Jewish life, I now find the annual season of repentance and renewal of these days to be necessary. I don’t know how I lived without them before.
So we ascend Sinai for forty days, praying each morning and hearing the shofar. If you cannot pray with a minyan, pray in your home. If you cannot hear the shofar in a minyan, hear one in your home. If you cannot blow a shofar, you may find a way to hear one (perhaps by searching for the sound online).
Elul and Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are a spiritual discipline. Like taking steps up a sharp incline into the cloud and fire, they are an effort with a definite reward at the end. Confess and repent and be glad. Life is waiting.