On the Shabbat before Elul... there was a change in the air; one smelled already the Elul-scent, a teshuvah-wind was blowing

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn

To keep body and soul together, the human being needs air, water, food, clothing, shelter—in that order. Without air, G‑d forbid, he would expire in a matter of minutes. He may survive a few days without water, a few weeks without food. The need for clothing and shelter are less immediately apparent, but without them man would ultimately succumb to an environment often hostile to his life and health.

Not incidentally, this order also describes the relative accessibility of these resources. Shelter is the most toilsome (and expensive) of human needs to acquire. Clothing less so, food yet less so, water even cheaper and more available. Finally, air, the most crucial resource of them all, is the most bountiful and the most effortless to attain.

Thus, the idioms “a change in the air,” “Elul-scent,” and “teshuvah-wind” in the above quote from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak are not mere poetic figures of speech, but also express a truth about the month of Elul and the spirit of teshuvah that pervades it. Teshuvah, the endeavor to cut through life’s accumulated debris of failings and inequities and touch base with the untarnished purity at the core of one’s soul, is a year-long endeavor for the Jew. But in the month of Elul, we enter into an atmosphere of teshuvah.

In Elul, teshuvah is no longer a matter of cataclysmic “moments of truth” or something to be extracted from the depths of the prayerbook. It is as plentiful and accessible as air: we need only breath deeply to draw it into our lungs and send it coursing through our veins. And with Elul comes the realization that, like air, teshuvah is our most crucial resource, our very breath of spiritual life.