"When Elul Comes Calling" OR "How To Do Elul"
There’s a Jewish saying that’s especially suitable for this time of year. In the 19th century, Rebbe Nachman, founder of Breslov Chassidut, taught: “If you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair.”
Every year, the time period we’re in now, from after Tisha B’Av until Tishrei, seems to pass in the blink of an eye. It’s summer, summer, summer and then, suddenly, it’s practically Rosh Hashana.
But before Rosh Hashana, we have Elul.
The Hebrew month of Elul begins this year on September 1. Elul is an entire month we are given to prepare ourselves for the High Holiday season.
There’s brisket to buy and cook in Elul, of course. And apples and honey and wine.
In addition to preparing for the yom tov meals, there is also the inside work. And now is the perfect opportunity to begin. So besides thinking about your brisket, I’d like to suggest another way in which you can be better prepared for Rosh Hashana this year.
The rabbis divide the 613 mitzvot into different categories. One such division is into positive commandments – things you should do (like pray), and negative commandments - things you should refrain from doing (like committing adultery).
Another way to divide the mitzvot is into three categories, depending on who else is involved in your action. In Hebrew, these are called mitzvot bein adam le-chavero, mitzvot bein adam le-Makom and mitzvot being adam le-atzmo.
What does this mean?
Mitzvot bein adam le-chavero are the interpersonal commandments that regulate society. They include things like not stealing, not gossiping, giving charity and treating others with decency and respect.
Mitzvot bein adam le-Makom are the commandments between ourselves and God. They include things like having kavannah (focused concentration during prayer), Torah study and reciting blessings.
Mitzvot bein adam le-atzmo are the commandments between ourselves and, well… ourselves. These generally refer to the thought processes that lead to personal character development.
These three categories of mitzvot provide an easy-to-grasp system for thinking about what aspects of our lives we want to improve during this coming Elul.
Take three index cards. Or open a Word document with three headings. Or make a list in Google Keep. Or write three text messages to send to yourself. The point is to spend some time thinking about each of these areas and where you’d like to improve over the coming year.
Start with bein adam le-chavero, the interpersonal commandments. In what specific way or ways would you like to improve your relationships with others? Perhaps you’d like to be more forgiving and not hold grudges. Perhaps you’d like to be more honest with your partner or a friend about how you’d like to see that relationship improve. Perhaps you’d like to write fewer harsh comments on strangers' Facebook posts.
Anything that will improve your relationships with others can be listed under the category of bein adam le-chavero.
Next, think about bein adam le-Makom. How would you like to improve your relationship with God? Perhaps you’d like to attend synagogue at least one Shabbat a month. Perhaps you’d like review the weekly Torah portion. Perhaps you’d like to light a yahrtzeit candle on the Hebrew or English anniversary of the death of a loved one and give $18 to tzedakah in their memory.
Anything that has the potential to improve your awareness of, and thus your relationship with, God goes in this category.
Finally, bein adam le-atzmo. How would you like to improve your character over the next year? Perhaps you’d like to learn to stay calm when challenged by someone at work. Perhaps you’d like to be less judgmental about people who are very different from you. Perhaps you’d like to increase your general level of gratitude and awareness of the blessings in your life.
Anything that has the potential to improve the quality of your character goes in this category.
The Hebrew month of Elul is 29 days long. Of course, we can work on ourselves any time of year. But Elul is the perfect, 29-day opportunity to identify specific areas where we’d like to do better, for others, for God and for ourselves.
Spend some time this month identifying a few aspects of your habitual thoughts and behaviors you’d like to upgrade.
May you be blessed to make progress that leads to genuine improvement.
And may your Rosh Hashana apples be sweet and your brisket be moist and savory!
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If a Jewish family suffers the loss of a family member right before Rosh Hashanah, is it appropriate to wish them L'Shana Tova? See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
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