OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

Repentance reimagined

Serious doesn’t have to mean sad.

A Jewish man blows a shofar horn in Meron in northern Israel, on Dec. 1, 2021. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
A Jewish man blows a shofar horn in Meron in northern Israel, on Dec. 1, 2021. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

Time always flies, but somehow during this time of year it seems to fly faster than ever. Can you believe it’s only 10 days until Rosh Hashanah? We are deep into the Hebrew month of Elul, which is traditionally dedicated to spiritual preparation before the Days of Judgment on Rosh Hashanah. In Sephardic communities, selichot, penitential prayers, are recited for the entire month. Ashkenazi communities will begin selichot services this coming Saturday night, one week before the new year, as a final run-up to the Yamim Noraim, which means not just High Holy Days, but Days of Awe. 

During Elul, all communities sound the shofar daily and recite extra psalms to get us into the spirit of repentance. The piercing call of the shofar evokes a cry and a krechtz (a deep sigh) within us. This is a time of cheshbon hanefesh, honest soul searching, and for making our personal spiritual inventory.

This month awakens us to self-reflection and spiritual stocktaking and is a time for repentance as we endeavor to clean up our personal act in time for the heavenly court case in which our very future will hang in the balance.

Elul is permeated with earnestness and a profound awareness of our spiritual shortcomings. We ask God for forgiveness so that we may enter Rosh Hashanah innocent and blessed. There is clearly a heaviness to this time of year. In most religious communities, one can actually sense it.

Yet over 200 years ago, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), celebrated author of the Tanya and founder of the Chabad movement, had a somewhat different take on Elul. He explained Elul as a time when “the king is in the field.”

Now, kings don’t sit on their throne all day. There are occasions when they take a trip through the countryside to see their land and their people. At such times, the king is much more approachable than when he is in his royal palace. When the king is in the field, one doesn’t need an appointment to see him. He comes to the common folk on their own turf. He’ll meet the simple workmen in the fields as they are, dressed in their soiled overalls. They certainly are not wearing suits and ties as they would when visiting the palace.

He greets them all warmly and with a smiling countenance. Anyone, ordinary farmers and workmen alike, can approach the king at this time and he makes himself accessible. There’s little or no protocol. No fear or intimidation. The king is pleased to meet and greet his people and his deep love for them shines through.

Indeed, the well-known verse from the Song of Songs whose initials spell “Elul,” ani l’dodi v’dodi li—“I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me”—reflects the perspective of this pivotal month. It is not a time for fear or trepidation. Rather, it is a season in which the loving relationship between us and our heavenly king is pronounced and tangible. God is a loving father who wants the best for His children. He’s not sitting on a cloud throwing darts at us. He really loves us. 

But isn’t Elul a time for soul searching and repentance? Yes, it is. But repentance need not necessarily be associated with fear and a depressed spirit. Repentance is a mitzvah like all mitzvahs that should be performed with joy. We should indeed take stock of our spiritual standing. We should be fully aware of our flaws and failings and sincerely committed to improving ourselves. But when we know that God is our beloved, it infuses our repentance with hope, confidence and positivity.  We’re no longer running away from a powerful, punishing, and angry God. Rather, we are running to a loving, caring and compassionate father who we know will embrace us and accept our sincere contrition.

The very fact that the powerful king is prepared to come down to the simple workers in the trenches and greet them with love and affection humbles us. That the great and mighty monarch is not above reaching out to the common folk on their level speaks volumes of his love for his people. And that evokes a reciprocal love from us to him.

How refreshingly different. How encouraging and inspiring.

I think the seeming conflict between Elul as a time for earnest repentance and the love and joy reflected by the “king in the field” parable can be understood from a phrase in the book of Psalms, Chapter Two: “Serve God with awe and rejoice while trembling.”

How can one possibly rejoice while trembling? This appears to be a contradiction, but it is not. Trembling and feeling reverence for God as we do on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur should not be done in a spirit of melancholy. It is possible and desirable for us to “rejoice while trembling.” We should be serious, somber and earnest during these Days of Awe. But at the very same time, we should feel the joy of coming closer and bonding with our loving Father in Heaven.

Is there a tension here? Undoubtedly. Is this tension manageable? Equally so. That we are about to face the Days of Judgment makes us tremble. That the Judge is our own loving father makes us rejoice.

Let us tremble and let us rejoice. And let us all be granted a shana tovah: A beautiful New Year filled with all the Almighty’s abundant blessings. 

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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