Preparing for the High Holy Days
The Fellowship | August 9, 2021
What Is the Month of Elul?
The High Holy Days are the most widely observed Jewish holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending ten days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. However, the month preceding the High Holy Days, known as Elul in Hebrew, is equally important for observant Jews.
It is a time of preparing for the High Holy Days, involving intense reflection and soul-searching. During this time, Jews around the world prepare their hearts using three biblical principles, known as the Three Pillars: repentance, prayer, and charity.
Jews also set aside more time for Bible study, prayer, and cultivating their relationship with God during this month. Many take stock of the past year and ask important questions, such as “what bad habits are holding me back from who I want to be?” and “What do I need to remove from my life because it it holding me back spiritually?’
Each day during the month of Elul, the shofar, the ritual trumpet mentioned in the Bible, is sounded, acting as an alarm clock. Its purpose is to wake the people from their spiritual slumber that they have fallen into during the year so that they will become more aware of where they are spiritually and what changes may be needed.
The month of Elul is the time for preparing for the High Holy Days and laying the groundwork for real and lasting time. Just as many people reflect on the year that is past and resolve to do better in the year to come on the secular New Year, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time for change. In fact, Jews believe that during the High Holy Days, they have the most power to transform themselves and channel their abilities and resources to serve God than at any other time during the year.
Watch these three videos from Fellowship President and CEO Yael Eckstein as she explains the three spiritual pillars practiced during the month of Elul.
Getting Right with God
The first of the pillars in preparing for the High Holy Days is repentance, which is, simply, “getting right with God.”
There’s so much happening in our modern world that constantly distracts us from God and His love; as a result, we often lose our way. Repentance is about taking a moment to examine our hearts and see the places in our lives where God needs to be invited back in.
Interestingly, there is no Hebrew equivalent for the word “sin.” The closest to it is the word “chet,” but what that word literally means is “a miss.” When someone aims an arrow at a target, but fails to hit it, it is called a chet. This word implies that that the shooter missed the mark.
Another Hebrew word used to denote wrongdoing is “aveira,” which literally means “a cross over.” This word indicates that a line was crossed. It suggests that there is a proper path and that the perpetrator, knowingly or mistakenly, went off track.
These nuances are profound. They emphasize the idea that while we may miss the mark or veer off the path of righteousness, we can correct our error and return. With time and practice, we can get closer to hitting our target and staying on track. Our job is to “get right with God,” to align our intentions and aspirations to His will. Getting things right will come with time, so long as we keep trying and improving.
With this understanding in mind, we can also appreciate the Hebrew word for repentance, “teshuvah.” The root of the word teshuvah is shuv, which in Hebrew means “return.”
In the Book of Joel we are directed, “Return (Shuvu) to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (2:13). To repent is to return to God and to return to our true selves. When we have missed the mark or crossed the line, the act of repentance is a return to the right path and the right direction.
Communing with God
The second pillar in preparing for the High Holy Days is prayer, communing with God.
Jewish prayer is made up of three components: Praise, thankfulness, and requests. Yet, these elements are not intended to change God’s mind regarding what we want in our lives. Rather, they are meant to change our character and our perspective on life. When we praise God, we are humbled before Him. When we thank God, we are grateful for His many blessings.
When we ask God for the things that we need, we are forced to take a good look at the things that are truly important to us. When we ask God for what we want, we appreciate that He is the ultimate provider. When we talk to God about our lives, we become closer to Him.
Prayer is the foundation of our relationship with God. Through prayer we develop our love for God and experience His love for us. As in any relationship, we need to make our relationship with God a priority, dedicating time and putting in the effort to nurture our connection. The entire purpose of prayer is to develop and deepen our relationship with our Creator.
Remember, God does not “need” our prayers. He already knows what we want and what we need. God does not need our compliments or our thank yous. What God wants is our hearts. He says, “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways” (Proverbs 23:26). This is the time to renew our relationship with God, to give Him our hearts in prayer, and to step into the New Year together.
Giving Back to God
The third pillar of preparing for the High Holy Days is charity, giving back to God.
In Hebrew, the word for charity is tzedakah. It is comprised of two Hebrew words: tzedek (justice), and kah, a name of God. Together, these words describe charity as “the justice of God,” and as “righteous giving.”
Giving to the needy is not only an act of mercy, it is an act of righteousness, something that we must do as servants of God – not only because we want to, but also because it is the right thing to do. When we give tzedakah, we testify that everything in the world belongs to God. If we have been blessed, it is so we might bless others. God says, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine” (Haggai 2:8). As the Bible tells us, nothing is really ours in the first place.
Moreover, when we give to others from what we have, we demonstrate great faith. We trust that God will sustain us according to His promise that “Those who give to the poor will lack nothing” (Proverbs 28:27).
In addition, God declares that when we give tzedakah, not only will He pay us back, He will increase us. “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house,” God says. He promises, “Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Malachi 3:10).
When we give tzedakah, we quite literally “put our money where our mouth is.” We take the faith that is in our heart, and the faith that we speak with our mouths, and turn it into action.
Finally, we focus on charitable giving during the High Holiday season because the poor and needy are God’s children. As we turn to our Father in Heaven for all of our needs, we cannot turn away from our brothers and sisters on earth who desperately need our help.
When you get right with God, it creates a thankful heart for all He’s done. And a thankful heart is a generous heart: you want to spread God’s love to others.