Back in 2007, at just about this exact time of year, a priest in the Netherlands city of Tilburg was fined the equivalent of several thousand dollars for ringing his church’s bells early each morning. Local residents, it seemed, were not amused.
That very week, though, shuls around the world were sounding an early morning alarm of their own, as they will be doing soon enough this year. No complaints were reported in Jewish communities then, or are expected to be registered this year, about Elul’s daily tekias shofar.
The Rambam famously described the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call — bearing the unspoken but urgent message “Uru yisheinim mishinaschem” — “Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber.” The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the “meaningless distractions of the temporal world” we occupy.
No doubt, the shofar sounds we hear throughout Elul carry that message no less, calling on us to refocus on what alone is meaningful in life: serving the Boreh Olam.
Elul. As an old Eastern European Yiddish saying goes, the observation that, in Elul, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.
The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Yemei Hadin. And, in fact, the weeks before Rosh Hashanah are infused with a certain seriousness, even nervousness, born of a sharpened cognizance of the fact that the world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us who are not perfectly righteous — that would be all of us — rightly feel.
Sleeping through a physical alarm clock is always a temptation, and a danger. And even if the sound registers, we are all too easily drawn to hit the snooze button on the spiritual timepiece, busy as we are with all the “important” issues and diversions that take over our lives.
Sometimes, though, some of us wake up even before our alarm clocks go off. It’s nice to get a sort of head start on full consciousness, so that we’re not terribly shocked when the beeping intrudes upon our sleep, insisting against all reason that the night is already over.
It may still be Av when you read these words, but there’s nothing wrong — and perhaps, in these particularly unsettled and challenging days, everything right — with getting a head start on Elul, with beginning to wake ourselves up even before Rosh Chodesh. Just as Elul’s tekios are there to remind us of Tishrei, it’s ideal to discern the ethereal clock’s ticking during the month prior.
Hamodia’s Rabbi Hershel Steinberg recently related to me something the Pnei Menachem, zt”l, told him in the name of his father, the Imrei Emes, zt”l. The Gemara in Brachos (61a) quotes Rabi Yochanan as stating that it is better for a man to walk “behind a lion than behind a woman.” The Imrei Emes perceived a deeper meaning beyond the straightforward one. “It is better to begin doing teshuvah during the month of Av, whose mazal is a lion (Leo),” he said, “than to wait until Elul, whose mazal is a woman (Virgo).”
At a family simchah last week in a shul hall, some of the celebrants held a minyan for Maariv. While I was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, I felt a tug on my pants leg. I lifted one of my closed eyelids slightly to see that it wasn’t a snake or scorpion but rather one of my (utterly adorable, needless to say) grandchildren, a little blue-eyed girl of three. She wasn’t in any danger or distress; she just wanted my attention. I tried to keep it, though, on my tefillah. There would be ample time to reassure her of my love for her after davening.
Before she gave up her quest, though, and decided her cousins were more fun than I was being, she gave it one last try and I heard her little voice implore: “Zaidy! Wake up, Zaidy!”
I had to pause a moment at so delightful an “einikel moment.”
Now, however, thinking about Elul, even with Rosh Chodesh still a few days off, I wonder if there might not have been a more serious, if unintended, message for me in her words.