I dreamed last night that I was in the Hebrew school classroom at my synagogue, sitting with three students at the table where a pair of tall candles burned in crystal candlesticks. "Does anyone know why these are lit?" I asked. They hazarded a few theories, though none were correct. I explained that the candles were there because it was Rosh Hodesh -- the beginning of a new lunar month -- and that this meant we were beginning the month of Elul, the month leading up to the Days of Awe.
I've never heard of burning a candle all day on Rosh Hodesh; I think my brain made that one up. But that it's a new lunar month is true even in the waking world. This year, the month of Elul overlaps with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (Ramadan mubarak to my Muslim friends and readers!) Both of our communities will spend the waxing and waning of this moon praying and doing our best to align ourselves with (our understanding of) God and to make sure our lives are headed in the right direction.
The name "Elul" can be read as an acrostic for the phrase ani l'dodi v'dodi li, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." (That's from Song of Songs. The line works simultaneously as a description of love between people, and also as an assertion of relationship with God, the cosmic Beloved.) Elul is a month for wandering in the fields with our Beloved, as the lovers do in the Song of Songs. Maybe that means a literal wandering outdoors, after the practice of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, who made a habit of walking outside and talking aloud with God. Maybe it's an internal process of prayer and meditation. Maybe it's both.
Rosh Hodesh Elul fell during my first week at Elat Chayyim, back in 2002, and I was struck by how our practices shifted once we acknowledged the turning of the new moon. Suddenly at every opportunity people were singing a folk-music setting of two lines from psalm 27 (the psalm traditionally recited at this time of year.) We began wrapping up morning prayer in the red yurt with the sound of the shofar, meant to awaken the soul from slumber. The teachers began offering teachings about teshuvah, "repentance" or more literally "return:" the process of re/turning ourselves, reorienting ourselves so that we're facing in the right direction again. It gave me a sense for how attentiveness to the Jewish calendar can shape daily life, if one is open to it.
Between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur there are forty days, and the rabbis found significance in the number. (I write about this every year; forgive me if you've heard this before.) The flood lasted for forty days. Moshe spent forty days atop Sinai receiving the Torah from God. (In the Christian understanding, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert.) In the early rabbinic imagination, forty was understood as the number of weeks between conception and childbirth. So forty represents something growing from inception to fruition. If Elul and the Ten Days of Teshuvah which follow are our season for walking in the fields with the divine Beloved, what exactly are we tending? What do we hope to harvest forty days from now on Yom Kippur, the day when tradition says the gates between us and God are all opened?
What I like about all of this is that the Days of Awe don't arise out of nowhere. They're not random blips on the calendar, great looming mountains on an otherwise flat horizon. We're supposed to be aware that they're coming. As this month's moon grows and shrinks, we have the chance to get ready. To consider what's working well in our lives, and where we could be doing better. How's your relationship with your body: are you caring for it the way you want to be? What are the currents and undercurrents in your emotional life and your relationships with others? Are you thinking about the big issues that matter to you, and telling the important stories you want to tell? Where are you at spiritually, and where would you like to be?
This year offers me a new challenge in relating to all of this: I have my first High Holiday pulpit! (It's for Yom Kippur only; I'll be serving a college Jewish community in Florida.) I'm incredibly excited, though it also means that part of me responds to the realization that Yom Kippur is only forty days away with some anxiety. It would be easy to let that anxiety grow until it crowds everything else out. I'm doing my best to see this, too, as an opportunity for spiritual growth. Every time I catch myself sinking into overwhelm, I try to notice what's happening, without judgment or criticism, and to reorient myself in gratitude and awareness. The existential leap of teshuvah, turning myself in the right direction again and again and again.
In honor of Elul and Ramadan, a poem by Rumi. The last three stanzas are my favorite part of the poem. May this month bring blessings!
Love has taken away my practices
and filled me with poetry.
I tried to keep quietly repeating,
No strength but yours,
but I couldn't.
I had to clap and sing.
I used to be respectable and chaste and stable,
but who can stand in this strong wind
and remember those things?
A mountain keeps an echo deep inside itself.
That's how I hold your voice.
I am scrap wood thrown in your fire,
and quickly reduced to smoke.
I saw you and became empty.
This emptiness, mor ebeautiful than existence,
it obliterates existence, and yet when it comes,
existence thrives and creates more existence!
The sky is blue. The world is a blind man
squatting on the road.
But whoever sees your emptiness
sees beyond blue and beyond the blind man.
A great soul hides like Muhammad, or Jesus,
moving through a crowd in a city
where no one knows him.
To praise is to praise
how one surrenders
to the emptiness.
To praise the sun is to praise your own eyes.
Praise, the ocean. What we say, a little ship.
So the sea-journey goes on, and who knows where!
Just to be held by the ocean is the best luck
we could have. It's a total waking up!
Why should we grieve that we've been sleeping?
It doesn't matter how long we've been unconscious.
We're groggy, but let the guilt go.
Feel the motions of tenderness
around you, the buoyancy.
-- Rumi, transl. Coleman Barks