First we hear the Shofar Blown: Tekiah, Shevarim, Teru’ah, Tekiah Ge’Dolah
It is customary to hear the shofar blown the whole month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. And I have a story from the Ba’al Shem Tov to share about how this can bring us closer to God.
A King had two beloved children.* The King wanted his children to learn about the world, so he sent them off to a far-off country, supplied with a lot of silver and gold. Far away from home, his child squandered (wasted) all the money until there was none left. In distress, the young person resolved to go home and after much difficulty, managed to arrive at the gate of the courtyard to the palace.
But, in the passage of time, the young person had forgotten the language of the country, and was unable to speak to the guards. They were in utter despair and began to cry out in a loud voice, and the King, who recognized the voice of his child, went out and brought them into the house, with kisses and hugs.
This is an image of God as both father and king, like we sing on the High Holy Days, Aveinu Malkeinu, Our Father/Our King. And Jesus also prayed to God as Father, or even Daddy – Abba. And we are that young person. As we live our life, we forget what we came here for. So we blow the shofar, a cry from deep within, expressing regret for the past and determination for the future. The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that this cry elicits G‑d’s mercies, and God forgives us. This is one way we can become closer to God during the month of Elul.
There is also a teaching that in the month of Elul, God is walking the fields. This also is a very accessible image of God; a very approachable image of God. And if we add up the days of the month of Elul, plus the ten days of awe spanning Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur, we come up with the number 40. This is the number of years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. And Jesus spent 40 days fasting and praying in the desert also. A few centuries later, the Desert Fathers and Mothers left the city to go live in the desert. Henri Nouwen says “The flight to the desert was the way to escape a tempting conformity to the world”. (The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence, p.4), And Elul offers us a space in time to do the same thing. We can watch less T.V. during this month. Be on Facebook less. Stop diverting ourselves and instead go inward to meet an even closer understanding of God. The God within. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb translates the Shechina, the indwelling presence of God as “She Who Dwells Within,” an apt translation. And Brother Steindl-Rast speaks of the “Mary Within.” But this indwelling presence can also be our conscience, or our ‘wise elder.”
In any event, Elul calls us to look within, to notice where we did not meet our highest goals, to forgive ourselves for being human and therefore to also forgive others and realign ourselves with our highest selves.
*slightly tweaked for more inclusivity