"Prepare the holy throne" (Zohar).
Holiness requires preparation. Our chief task is not to create it, but rather to become a receptacle for holiness, which comes about according to the manner of the preparation.
Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. As the preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, which immediately follows it, Elul is marked by a number of special customs and traditions (see below).
Elul is also the month of soul-accounting.
Elul is also the month of soul-accounting. A businessman occasionally needs to calculate an overall profit-and-loss statement, as well as a detailed ledger. We too need to conduct an annual audit of the state of our spiritual "business". The entire year we are involved in accruing profit: serving G‑d through Torah-study, mitzvah-observance, prayer and good deeds. In the month of Elul, we make a general reckoning of all we have done throughout the year.
Further, the best possible time for this soul-accounting is the month of Elul, for then G‑d's Thirteen Attributes of Mercy shine. This revelation may be compared to a king who emerges from his palace and goes out to the field in full view of his subjects. Only then is it possible to engage appropriately in spiritual introspection without the danger of sinking into hopelessness and despair. For, after all, the King is with him in the field - He has our benefit in mind.
A pre-requisite for a proper soul accounting is total acceptance of and self-subordination to the heavenly yoke. This self-subordination can produce a generous "growth", just as a seed sown in the ground and covered sprouts a yield far greater than itself.
Although engaging in such spiritual labor can be difficult, making a sincere, all-out effort helps to generate the necessary inner strength to make our actual, practical service conform with Divine expectations.
Some Laws and Customs
HEAR THE SHOFAR.
Beginning with the first day of Elul, until (but not including) the morning before Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to blow the shofar (ram's horn) after the week-day morning prayer. The call of the shofar stirs the heart. Its daily blasts proclaim: "Awaken, you slumberers! Examine your actions and repent."
SAY EXTRA PSALMS.
From the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul until and including Hoshanna Rabba, we recite twice daily Psalm 27. This custom is based on the Midrashic comment, "the L-rd is my light…" on Rosh Hashanah, "…my salvation…" on Yom Kippur, "…He will hide me in His tent" on Sukkot. Chassidim and Sephardim include it in the Morning and Afternoon prayers; the Lithuanian custom is to say it during the Morning and Evening prayers.
Charity…casts a mantle of protection not only over the giver but over the whole Jewish people…
The Sephardic tradition is to begin reciting selichot immediately after Rosh Chodesh Elul. The Ashkenazi custom is to recite selichot beginning with the Saturday night of the week in which Rosh Hashanah falls, provided that four days are left before Rosh Hashanah. Therefore, if Rosh Hashanah falls either on Monday or Tuesday of the week, the recitation of selichot is begun the Saturday night of the week preceding.
INCREASE IN GIVING CHARITY.
During Elul, charity is given liberally, since the merit of charity is a shield against evil decrees and prolongs life. It casts a mantle of protection not only over the giver but over the whole Jewish people. When a person transcends his natural instinct and gives when not beholden, G‑d in turn grants him more than he would otherwise be worthy of receiving.
RETURN IN PENITENCE.
The fundamentals of repentance are threefold: forsaking the sin one has committed, regret and confession. Forsaking of sin consists of abandoning the sin in both practice and thought, coupled with a firm resolution not to repeat it. Regret is the understanding that separating from G‑d is evil and bitter, and the intense awareness that there is a price for transgression. Confession must be expressed orally: "I have sinned, I have done such and such; I regret my actions and feel ashamed of them, and will never again revert to them."
[based on Book of Our Heritage, s.v. Elul. ]
Divine service requires thorough self-knowledge…
Repentance requires regret of past and positive resolution for the future, yet the first step is repairing and properly organizing the present, so that it is good and correct in all aspects of action, speech and thought. Only then, when the present is as it is supposed to be, can one do the work necessary to compensate for lackings or undesirable elements of the past, and to create guidelines and disciplines for the future.
The month of Elul is propitious for self-stocktaking, and for repentance in the three "garments" of the soul - thought, speech and action. Divine service requires thorough self-knowledge. Just as ignoring our faults can be crippling, so can being oblivious to our strengths. One must know oneself well: both one's abilities and talents as well as one's deficiencies and weaknesses.
[translated and adapted from the Introduction to Pokeach Ivrim]
MAY YOU AND YOURS BE INSCRIBED AND SEALED
FOR A GOOD AND SWEET YEAR !