In the Jewish calendar, it’s as if we have two birthdays each year. One is on Rosh Hashanah, as we say in the prayers of that day: “Today is the birthday of the world.” The other is on Passover, as Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) says concerning that day: “And it is known that on the Seder night was the conception, and on the seventh night of Passover was the birth.”

These two birthdays mark different milestones, so it is important to understand what their difference might be.

Yet even deciding where to start the discussion is confusing. Each exists because of the otherLike the M. C. Escher painting of the two hands, each penciling the other one into existence, that’s exactly how the two halves of the year fit together. Their interdependency is total. Each exists because of the other, and it’s impossible to decide which is really first. Every time I start to choose a starting point, I feel like I’m entering into the middle of a story—like I missed the first half of the show.

And the Torah doesn’t help to sort this out. Rather, the opposite. It calls the month of Passover, Nissan, the first month; yet it calls the month of Rosh Hashanah, Tishrei, the start of the new year.

From pondering the larger pattern of things, one thing is clear, and that is that the months from Passover through the month of Elul seem to be more focused on our collective development, on building, strengthening and stretching our vessel of shared destiny called the mystical body of Israel. In this half of the year the emphasis is on nation-building, and the work is to integrate our individual talents into the larger community of Israel. Arizal calls these months the feminine half of the year, tikkun nukva.

Conversely, in the months from Tishrei through Adar (the month of Purim), our work is more individually focused. Our primary responsibility at this time is to clean and develop the particular spark of soul that is under our charge, that we live with, that is raised or lowered by how hard we work on ourselves—or our lack thereof. We could say that Passover is our shared birthday, and Rosh Hashanah is more the birthday of each one of our individual souls. On Rosh Hashanah, each one passes under the staff and is judged on his or her own merits.

Now the challenge is for the collective vessel to be able to encourage and accommodate the individual growth of its constituent parts. They are two separate evolutionary fronts that are interrelated, but also independent. The collective vessel of the people of Israel is an organism unto itself, that has its own life path and journey from birth to maturity—which is basically the 3,500-year history of our people from Egypt to our final redemption. And similarly, the individual constituents of that collective entity—its cells, each one of us—has our own individual destiny and path of life development. They have to work together. And if they move out of sync, shattering occurs.

  1. On one hand, if the collective vessel gets so strong that it begins to strangle the growth of its individual cells, shattering will occur.
  2. On the other hand, if our individual development starts to undermine our sense of collective identity, again shattering occurs. And that is basically the flaw of causeless hatred, where our self-absorption blinds us to the truth that we are really all cells in a larger collective body called the nation of Israel.

And so we arrive at Tisha B’Av, where our collective vessel shatters, our Temples are destroyed, our nation is conquered. The primary front of growth is on the individual levelWe are scattered to the winds. We fall apart and break down, and this initiates the second half of the year, which is the phase of each of us doing our own inner work and taking responsibility for our own self-development. It’s not that we’re not also working as a team during these months from Tishrei to Adar, it’s just that the primary front of growth is on the individual level.

And that brings us to the month of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, which serves as a transition from one phase to the next, from the collective to the personal. In Elul, we regroup by reflecting on the lessons bequeathed by the previous year. From the first of Elul, the shofar blows and rouses us to this work, which has two parts, according to Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh:

  1. The first is making closure on the previous year, both in thought and deed. It’s about looking back and reflecting on what went right and what went wrong. How did I contribute to its success? What was my role in its failure? What can I do to fix it? What needs to change, and what’s just fine the way it is? This backward-focused work also includes a more practical dimension of resolving conflicts, returning borrowed objects, paying off debts, making neglected apologies. That’s one part of the work . . . tying up loose ends and sorting through the harvest of the previous year, leaving the bad behind and extracting the good.
  2. And then, with all that under our belt, we need to now look forward and articulate our visions, prayers, hopes and resolutions for the coming new year.

These become the guiding questions that direct our Elul efforts. Given what I learned from the previous year, particularly from its school of hard knocks, how do I act more wisely this coming year? How do I make my wisdom rule over action? How do I make it true for me, so that someone would look at my life and say: “You did everything with wisdom.” And the labor of thinking this question through, and formulating it in words and writing down concrete visions and formulating resolutions, is an action in itself, and it is the primary work of Elul. This is the leading action and deed that will hopefully affect and uplift and guide all the infinite myriad of actions and deeds of the coming year, so that they are coordinated and build upon each other to create a year of joyful forward motion.

Elul begins the turning toward the second half of the year, where self-actualization is our priority. How do I act more wisely this coming year?As opposed to the other half of the year which is focused on boundary setting, this is the self-preserving voice in the personality. It has the holy task of assuring self-actualization and self-development. Its job is to make sure that we have the necessary time, space and resources to actualize the full potential of our souls. Each perspective is essential, and each also has its rectified and unrectified expressions.

The constant demand for self-sacrifice can become abusive, and even end up sabotaging the holy task of self-development.

The other side can become so self-absorbed that it loses all capacity to give and share and compromise, thus crippling its ability to function in healthy relationships or participate in communal life.

So, how do we begin? What does the work entail? As explained, there is a twofold task: making closure and creating vision.

And so, says Rabbi Tzadok, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of G‑d’s vision of blissful perfection, both for us collectively and for each one of us individually. And each year at that time, G‑d creates a new vision of the highest that is possible for us this coming year.

The work of Elul, says Rabbi Tzadok, is to pay special attention to the yearnings and fears that arise at this time, and weave them into a prayer vision for the coming year that is verbalized as prayer. It should not only express our longings, says Rabbi Tzadok, but should also include the positive counterparts to our fears. He says that especially during Elul, G‑d may communicate what he wants us to pray for by causing a fear to awaken inside us, which becomes a clue that He wants us to pray for the positive antidote of that fear. For example, a fear of financial collapse would signal that G‑d wants us to pray specifically for a prosperous year. A fear of illness means that G‑d wants us to pray specifically for a healthy year, etc.

And this is really the work of Elul: to create a list of prayers and resolutions that reflect our specific hopes for ourselves, our loved ones and our holy people this coming year. And the more thoughtful the vision, the more likely that it will accurately reflect G‑d’s vision for us, and the more powerful it will be.

So I want to bless us, as individuals and as a community, that we open our hearts and our minds to G‑d’s communications to us this Elul. That we catch His hints, and turn them into holy prayers that pierce the firmaments and sweeten the strict judgments at their root. May the combined power of our prayers and visions transform our lives in ways that are only good. And may they create a vessel of vision and yearning that is big enough and strong enough to embrace our individual and collective destinies, and to pull redemption into the world now.