In the secular world, it’s August. The days are hot and humid, and everyone seems to be making the most of the last weeks of summer – swimming, grilling, heading to the shore or the mountains. If you drive into New York City, you can even get a parking spot!
In the Jewish calendar, there’s a different rhythm. With Rosh Hashanah falling on Labor Day this year, the month of August coincides with the Hebrew month of Elul. Many liberal Jews have lost a connection with Elul as a time of spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe, but it can be a powerful tool for examining our lives.
One tradition during Elul is to blow the shofar every day. It’s human nature to get into a routine and not pay too much attention to our lives and what’s going on around us. The sound of the shofar is meant to rouse us out of our complacency. The shofar calls out: Wake up! Pay attention!
In the Jewish calendar, Elul also coincides with the weekly Torah portions from Deuteronomy. This part of Torah includes the words tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice, you shall pursue. I have always been struck by the choice of the word tirdof. It is a command that reminds us it is not enough to wait around to see if an opportunity turns up to behave justly. We are required to actively chase after justice; we must seek out opportunities to create a more just world.
Over the years, I have tried many practices to make Elul meaningful: writing in a journal, reciting psalm 27, giving tzedakah each day. One year, I searched for a small delight every day to share on Facebook. This year during Elul, I have chosen to examine ways that I can align my life and my behavior more fully 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 those 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 is perfect, and often we take part in things that go against our values without even realizing it. During Elul I wanted to try to be more deliberate in my choices.
One small example: I was sweeping our porch and realized we needed a new door mat. I was about to order one from Amazon, which is my default. It’s easy; it has all my information; I don’t pay for shipping; and orders arrive the next day. Lately, I have been joking that eventually Amazon will have a chip in our brains, and as soon as we even think we want something, it will arrive at our door.
But it is Elul. The shofar is calling me to pay attention. Instead, I did a quick internet search for fair-trade doormats. I ended up ordering one made by people who are paid a fair wage using recycled flip-flops. Of course, it cost more than the ones on Amazon, but purchasing inexpensive goods from companies that exploit the people who produce them and also contribute to the degradation of our environment does not align with my professed values.
During Elul, my husband and I have also signed up for a residential composting pick-up service. Since we moved to New Jersey we have not had a yard, and it has bothered me to put all our food waste into the trash. Now, there are people who will collect our waste and turn it into compost to nourish the earth. Again, there is a cost for this service, 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 on switching to a socially responsible bank and credit card that invests in clean energy and underserved communities. It is inconvenient to switch our automated payments, but if I wish 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 am working on aligning my life with my values, she said she values kindness and compassion but doesn’t always behave that way. She wants to be more generous and kinder to the people she encounters. Her words reminded me that I one step I could take is to stop taking out my frustrations on customer service representatives.
These are just a few examples. I know this is a lifelong project to be more intentional about living 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 shakes us out of our complacency.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.