When I was in Jewish day school (all hellish thirteen years) I came to expect that in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah one of our teachers would remind us that the letters in the Hebrew word Elul (Aleph, lamed, vav, lamed) were the first letters in the phrase Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). I can see why for some people that might be really meaningful, but I find that particular line to be the very nadir of inspiration. I’ve seen it printed on approximately 352 wedding invitations. It’s a cliché, and a boring one at that.
But my senior year of high school, the principal mentioned in passing that you can also say the letters in Elul stand for Ish l’re’ehu u’matanot l’evyonim, (Esther 9:22) “sending gifts to one another, and presents to the poor.” His point–and it was a wise one to make to teenagers–was that we should give up using Elul as a time to think about MeMeMeMeMe. We were in high school, so we were pretty much thinking about ourselves all the time anyway. Instead, Elul should be about actually doing things. Regardless of what your year was like, whether you were good or bad, selfish or a doormat, busy or idle, you should spend the month of Elul focusing on helping others. This includes your friends, and other people in your immediate community who need help getting basic things like food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.
I heard that way back in 2001, but I find myself thinking back to it every year. Because the truth is, I do have a tendency to spend Elul navelgazing. In theory it’s in order to make myself a better person, and figure out ways to improve the way I comport myself and interact with others. But in practice, it ends up being a guiltfest, followed by a lengthy and complex system of making excuses for myself. And that’s not helpful to me, or anyone else.
Yes, it’s important to try to figure out where you went wrong in the past year and fix it. But maybe it’s just as important to get over yourself and sign up for the tzedakah committee at your synagogue. It’s just as important to sign up to take a few shifts at a homeless shelter. It’s just as important to look at your finances and figure out how you can create a new budget that actually allows you to give ten percent of your salary to charities that help people with their most basic needs. It’s just as important to go visit a friend who is sick, or sit down and listen to a neighbor who is going through a rough time. But you have to actually do something.
Because here’s the rub: If I follow my own rule here, and I let go of my desire to spend Elul mired in deep thoughts about bettering myself, and instead I just get out there and help people, maybe I will end up being a little less glib with people, and a little slower to anger when I encounter obstacles. But if I don’t achieve those personal goals, I will still have staffed a homeless shelter, signed up to be a red cross volunteer, and given some money to a local food bank. And that’s pretty good, as self-improvement goes.