Rabbi Ora on Elul

Written by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

This year, the Hebrew month of Elul begins September 1 — a nice coinciding of the secular and Jewish calendars. I think of Elul as a kind of pumping-the-brakes on the freewheeling expansiveness of summer; even though it’s usually still warm outside, Elul is a whispered reminder: Fall is coming. Slow down. Get a little quieter. And begin turning inwards. 

Why? Because there is work to be done.

It’s tradition to dedicate the 29 days of Elul to reflection, study, and preparation for the coming Days of Awe. Elul challenges us to use each day to re-connect with our values and attune to the yearning of our souls.

Conceptually, the idea is noble, but acting on it is a bit more challenging. Here are a few resources to help you get started: 

  • Learn more about Elul from Rabbi Yael Ridberg at Reconstructing Judaism.
  • Psalm 27 (“Achat Sha’alti”) is traditionally recited every morning in Elul. Here’s Rabbi Brant Rosen’s interpretation of Psalm 27 .
  • Listen to a special episode from the Judaism Unbound podcast, Unbounding Elul.
  • Here’s a simple calendar that helps you set a single intention for Elul and track it throughout the month.
  • Thinking ahead? Sign up now to receive a daily email prompt for reflection during the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
  • Is your favorite part of the High Holy Days the music? Here are 2 new niggunim we’ll be using this year – you can get a head start on learning them by clicking the links below:

Another Translation of Psalm 27

full moonWe are midway through Elul (check out the full moon at our BBQ tomorrow August 30). Below is a third translation of Psalm 27, traditionally recited each morning of Elul in preparation for the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe. You can find the first two translations I posted here and here. (Next week I’ll post a fourth.) In her inaugural leading of Kabbalat Shabbat services last night as our visiting rabbi, Rabbi Alana mentioned the psalms/tehillim that are part of the Friday night service, which started me off thinking about how much of our liturgy is drawn from the Psalms. According to this source,  “seventy-four of the hundred and fifty Psalms are incorporated bodily in the Siddur.” The Reconstructionist siddur uses many interpretive translations of the Psalms. The interpretation (can it be called a translation?) of Psalm 27 below, by Rabbi Patti Haskel, is the most colloquial I’ve found. I love it that she can translate the ponderous beseeching of the psalm into these light, easily relatable words. You can find this poem on Ritualwell.org (a wonderful resource for many things) here.

Psalm 27/Poem by Rabbi Patti Haskel

Good morning, God, happy Elul.
This day, one thing do I ask of you, God,
One thing do I seek:
To dwell in your house
All the days of my life.

… and while I dwell with you
Perhaps a few more things I might request:
Good health is at the top of my list—
For me, my family, my loved ones,
While we’re at it how about everyone, everywhere.

And perhaps food:
A healthy nosh for all who are hungry.
Quench all hunger and thirst with your love.
We do hunger for more than food and drink, so
Please quench other needs as well.

Okay, how ‘bout safety.
Safety from earthquakes, hurricanes,
Safety from one another.
Safety from all that frightens us
Safety to rest in your care.

And laughter.
Please give us much fun, silliness
to giggle at, many many smiles.
Smiles as we watch children investigate their worlds,
Smiles as we explore the lives of our elders.

God, let me behold your graciousness
Today… each day of Elul… each day
Of this year, and next, and then the next,
While I visit your temple
And immerse in your love.

2nd Translation of Psalm 27 for Elul

Elul, a month of spiritual preparation for the Yamim Noraim/Days of Awe. Here is another interpretive translation of Psalm 27, which is traditional to recite daily during Elul. I found this translation, by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, on Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s blog, the Velveteen Rabbi. You can access the original blog post here.

Psalm 27, as translated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Yah! You are my light.
You are my savior.
Whom need I dread?
Yah, with you as my strong protector who can make me panic?
When hateful bullies gang up on me, wanting to harass me, to oppress and terrorize me
They are the ones who stumble and fall.
Even if a gang surrounds me my heart is not weakened.
If a battle is joined around me my trust in You is firm.
Only one thing do I ask of You, Yah:
Just this alone do I seek, I want to be at home with you, Yah,
All the days of my life.
I want to delight in seeing You.
Seeing You when I come to visit You in Your temple.

You hide me in your sukkah on a foul day.
You conceal me unseen in Your tent.
You also raise me beyond anyone’s reach
And now, as You have held my head high despite the presence of my powerful foes
I prepare to celebrate and thrill, singing and making music to You, Yah!
Listen, Yah, to the sound of my cry
And, being kind, answer me!
My heart has said, I turn to seek you.
Your presence is what I beg for
Don’t hide Your face from me.
Don’t just put me down, You who have been my helper.
Don’t abandon me, don’t forsake me, God my support.
Though my father and my mother have left me
You, Yah, will hold me securely.
Please teach me Your way.
Teach me Your way and guide me on the straight path.
Discourage those who defame me
Because false witnesses stood up against me belching out violence.
Don’t let me become the victim of my foes.
I wouldn’t have survived
If I hadn’t hoped that I would see, yet,
Your goodness, God, fully alive on earth.
So I tell you, my friends: you too hope to Yah! Be sturdy!
And make strong your heart. And most of all, keep hoping to Yah.

Psalm 27 for Elul

Hand painted Yemenite Shofar

Hand painted Yemenite Shofar

Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul, tonight will be the first of day of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah. Last night Rabbi Strassfeld and Rabbi Levitt offered us some meaningful words about using the month of Elul to prepare for the Yamim Noaim/Days of Awe.  The way I understood their messages, we ask so much of ourselves during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, facing ourselves, making teshuvah/change, we need another month to prepare ourselves.

According to one rabbi, “sometime around the year 1745 Ashkenazic Jews began to recite Psalm 27 morning and evening from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah.” Perhaps some of us already practice this. Perhaps others will find it comforting and meaningful. Each week in the month of Elul, I will post a different translation of Psalm 27. The Hebrew with traditional translation is here. The first translation is by Rabbi Brant Rosen and you can find the blog where he first published it here.

Psalm 27: you are my light and my hope

you are my light and my hope
why should i fear?
you are my life and my strength
so why do i tremble?

when i contemplate surrender
to my dread of the unknown,
i hold tight to you
and your strength gives me strength.

i only ask one thing of you,
just this one thing:
that i may be welcome in your house
all the days of my life,
to dwell in your innermost place
in safety beneath
the softness of your wings.

be my shelter when
i am wracked by hardship and disquiet,
offer me sanctuary and from there
i will sing hymns to the darkness
with openness and love

do you hear my song?
do you hear me when i cry
to you?
do not turn away –
i seek you endlessly,
i turn constantly toward your light.

in my darkest moments
of this i am sure:
i will never be alone,
yes, even if my father and mother
abandoned me, you will be there
to gather me up

guide me in your ways,
lead me down the paths
of wholeness and peace,
remind me that no matter
how far i may stray
there is always a road
to return.

though i don’t always see it
i will ever trust in your goodness
right here
right now
in the land of the living.

hold on to your hope
and be strong.
the time of our return
will soon arrive.