Elul: Month of Return and Renewal

The month of Elul, which begins August 22 this year, inaugurates a 40-day period of spiritual renewal and return (Teshuvah) culminating with Yom Kippur, September 29–30.

Kiddush Levana, the Blessing of the New Moon, is customarily recited on the Shabbat after the New Moon has appeared. “If possible, it should be said at the end of Shabbat, under the open sky, and in the presence of a minyan.” The full Blessing of the New Moon appears in most siddurim, and includes the custom of looking at the moon and reciting Psalm 8:4–5:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which You established—
what is man, that You are mindful of him?
And the son of man, that You care for him?

This is followed by a blessing:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe who by His word created the heavens, and by His breath all their host. . . .  To the moon He said that is should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those He carried from the womb [Israel], for they are destined to be renewed like it, and to praise their Creator for the sake of His glorious majesty. Blessed are You, Lord, who renews the months.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks comments, “The moon, endlessly reborn after seeming to decline, is a symbol of the Jewish people who have seemed at times to face eclipse, yet they too have recovered and given light at dark times.” (All siddur references are from the Koren Siddur [Jerusalem, 2009].) Rosh Hashanah, of course, also falls on the New Moon and also speaks of rebirth, both of all Israel—the Jewish community as a whole—and of each individual who returns to God during this season. As Yeshua-followers we’re to seek repentance and renewal continually (Matt. 5:6, 1 Jn 1:9–2:2), and “although Teshuvah is good at all times, the month of Elul is choicest for Teshuvah, which is more acceptable during Elul than the rest of the year, that month having been a month of God’s good will ever since we were chosen as his people” (S. Y. Agnon, Days of Awe).

Accordingly, the forty day period beginning with the first of Elul is a fitting time to review our deeds and mend our ways as the Ruach gives us insight. It’s also time to renew and upgrade our spiritual practice, as an aspect of Teshuvah, not just turning away from sin and wrongdoing, but turning back to God and reconnecting with his presence. Many have the custom of reading through the Psalms as part of their daily spiritual practice through Elul, with special emphasis on Psalm 27, which opens:

Adonai is my light and my salvation:
whom should I fear?
Adonai is the stronghold of my life:
whom should I dread?

My light in the psalm reminds us of Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of creation, which began with God’s utterance, “Let there be light.” My salvation evokes Yom Kippur, when atonement is provided, saving us from the penalty of sin. For followers of Messiah Yeshua, both “light” and “salvation” speak above all of him, Adonai among us as light and salvation. May we turn to him wholeheartedly during this season of return!

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