In the secular world, it is August. The days are hot and humid, and everyone seems to be making the most of the last few weeks of summer – swimming, grilling, heading for the shore or the mountains. If you’re driving to New York City, you can even get a parking spot!
In the Jewish calendar there is a different rhythm. With Rosh Hashanah falling on Labor Day this year, August coincides with the Hebrew month of Elul. Many liberal Jews have lost the connection to Elul as a period of spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe, but it can be a powerful tool in examining our lives.
A tradition during Elul is to blow the shofar daily. It’s human nature to get into a routine and not pay too much attention to our lives and what is going on around us. The sound of the shofar is meant to get us out of our complacency. The shofar yells: Wake up! Pay attention!
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In the Jewish calendar, Elul also coincides with the weekly Torah portions of Deuteronomy. This part of the Torah includes the words tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice, you will pursue. I have always been struck by the choice of the word tirdof. It is an order that reminds us that it is not enough to wait to see if an opportunity presents itself to behave righteously. We are required to actively pursue justice; we must seek opportunities to create a more just world.
Over the years, I have tried many practices to make sense of Elul: writing in a journal, reciting Psalm 27, giving tzedakah every day. One year, I looked every day for a little treat to share on Facebook. This year during Elul, I have chosen to explore ways to more fully align my life and behavior with my values. If I say I value justice and equality, if I say I value protecting the environment, if I say I value kindness and compassion, do my actions and behavior reflect these values? And, of course, for me and for all of us, the answer is “not completely. Not always.”
We are human and none of us are perfect, and often we participate in things that go against our values without even realizing it. During Elul, I wanted to try to be more thoughtful in my choices.
A small example: I was sweeping our porch and realized that we needed a new doormat. I was about to order one from Amazon which is my default. It’s easy; it contains all my information; I don’t pay the shipping costs; and orders arrive the next day. Lately, I joked that Amazon would end up having a chip in our brain, and as soon as we even think we want something, it will arrive at our doorstep.
But it is Elul. The shofar calls me to be careful. Instead, I did a quick internet search for some fair trade doormats. I ended up ordering one made by people who get a fair wage using recycled flip flops. Of course, it costs more than those from Amazon, but buying cheap products from companies that exploit the people who produce them and also contribute to the degradation of our environment is not in line with my professed values.
During Elul, my husband and I also signed up for a residential compost collection service. Since we moved to New Jersey we don’t have a garden anymore and it bothered me to put all our food waste in the trash. Now there are people who will collect our waste and turn it into compost to feed the earth. Again, this service comes at a cost, but if we value protecting our beautiful planet for future generations, we may need to reconsider how we spend our money.
There are other things to consider when I hear the call of the shofar. We are working to move to a socially responsible bank and credit card that invests in clean energy and underserved communities. It is impractical to change our automated payments, but if I want to live my life according to my values, how can I justify supporting financial institutions that engage in unfair lending practices or invest in fossil fuels and weapons?
When I mentioned to a friend that I was working to align my life with my values, she said that she valued kindness and compassion, but that she didn’t always behave that way. She wants to be more generous and kinder to the people she meets. His words reminded me that one step I can take is to stop sharing my frustrations with customer service reps.
These are just a few examples. I know it’s a lifelong project to be more intentional to live my life in accordance with my values. But Elul is a good time to start. During Elul, the sound of the shofar calls us to wake up – to pursue justice more vigorously, to treat people more fairly and with more compassion, to protect the natural world. The sound of the shofar brings us out of our complacency.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Beth Hatikvah congregation, affiliated with the Reconstructionists, in Summit. She is now Chair of the Summit Interfaith Council and a founding member of the Council’s Anti-Racism Committee.