Elul: A Time To Be Hollow

The Hebrew month of Elul begins on Aug. 30. This is the last of the summer months in the Hebrew calendar, and it is the beginning of the season of teshuvah, or return. One custom of Elul is to blow a shofar, a ram's horn, every day to awaken the listeners to the voice of the sacred.

On the first of Elul, Aug. 30, the shofar will blow to announce that it is forty days until Yom Kippur: time to repent! Time to return to the circle of life, however far away from it you have been. The cycle of air in the lungs calls us back to our bodies, our souls. From now on, the shofar will blow every day until Rosh haShanah, to call the new year to mind. Autumn, the season of inner change, is almost upon us. Not far from where I write, a few leaves are turning yellow in the park. Teachers are returning to school. Rabbis are back from vacation. Temperatures are returning to bearable. I have seen flocks of geese in the sky. The subtle shift is all around.

The Jewish tradition as in many traditions, the seasons are linked with the four elements. One way of reading Jewish texts leads to the conclusion that each season has an inner and an outer element. Late summer and early autumn is the time of air within earth. The outer element is earth, for we are gathering in all that we have harvested in the year. The inner element is air, for this is the time, even as we fill our baskets, to empty ourselves, to make space for the new.

Air within earth is the shofar, its bony, earthly outside containing breath and sound. Air within earth is Torah; words that rise off of parchment to become alive as we recite and reinterpret them. Air within earth is the drum: sound rising from a hollowed-out tree, a goat skin, a ceramic bowl. Air within earth is the cry of the coyote in the far-off hills: the first of Elul is the new year of animals, when we celebrate our connection with other animate beings. Air within earth is us: vessels of skin and bone with oxygen flowing through us to keep us alive.

In Elul we experience the wonder of all that is hollow. Hollowness is what we seek now. As the Divine long ago made Herself hollow in order to create a space for the world, we become hollow to see what we will create in the space we make. We do tzimtzum, self-contraction, in memory of the first moment of making.

A midrash tells that the letters of Elul stand for the words “Ani leDodi veDodi Li” (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.) While Passover, with its freshness, is the time of romance between Israel and the Divine, Elul is a time of mature love, with each partner bringing flaws, memories, and blessings to a long-standing relationship. The “emptying” of self in Elul is not an attempt to rid ourselves of our egos or to become utterly self-sacrificial; it is an attempt to put aside our rigidly held perspectives for a time in order to simply listen: to one another, to the world, to the sacred as we understand the sacred. Through listening, we hope not to erase ourselves but to add to our perspectives, to widen our vision, to become aware of what the beloved needs and how important that is to us. We also hope to feel heard and loved for who we are. From that place, we are able to enter the new year, where we and the beloved together will co-create a new world.

Put your hand to the ground and feel the vibrations as a truck passes or a friend walks by. Hear the rustling of leaves in the wind. Air within earth is motion. Elul is a time to move.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.

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