Elul: A Special Month in the Hebrew Calendar

One of my most precious possessions is a copy of the Talmudic tractate Kiddushin printed in Munich in 1946 on presses once used for Nazi propaganda. A Talmud printed on an erstwhile Nazi printing press is a powerful symbol of our privilege to use our time, our talent and our material resources to help replant vibrant, progressive Jewish learning and living in the places where the Nazis tried to destroy them.

In this volume (page 40B) we find one of the most uplifting of rabbinic teachings whose message is particularly appropriate during the last month of the year, the month of Elul: Each of us should see ourselves as half innocent and half guilty, as though our good deeds and our bad deeds completely balance one another. If we then commit one good deed, we tip the scales in our favor!

What a marvelous metaphor! How wonderful a place would our world become if each of us went through life committed to making our next deed a good one.

My late and beloved Ulpan teacher in Israel, Sarah Rothbard, used to say, “It is not just a gift for Jews that we created a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the forty-day period (starting at the beginning of the month of Elul) leading up to it. It is a gift for all humanity.

Assigning a numerical value to each Hebrew letter our Sages deduced that the word, Elul (Aleph, one. Lamed, thirty, Vov, 6 and Lamed, again, thirty) has the same numerical value, sixty-seven as the Hebrew word binah (Bet, two, Yod, ten, Nun, fifty and Hay, five) which means, “understanding.” Elul, then, becomes a special month to seek self-understanding.

We each have talents and abilities, and our goal—particularly during this special month–is to ask ourselves, “What particular talents and abilities do I posses? How can I use them to benefit others?

In the middle of the month of Elul my wife Vickie and I will travel to Germany as we did last year. There we will spend the Days of Awe (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and two months thereafter speaking and teaching in synagogues, churches and German schools. I will also offer two seminars at our seminary, the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin.

We go with the hope that we may spread knowledge, understanding and appreciation of Jewish ideals and thought in a place that once tried to extirpate the practices, the wisdom and, indeed, the very gene pool of our people.

 Like my prized Talmud tractate I was born in 1946. I hope our presence in Germany will represent the message that the Munich Talmud conveys. In a place which once was ravaged by hatred and destruction, may we testify to the vitality and relevance of Jewish life and thought.

When I was younger, I dreamed of doing more grandiose things, but I was not given the talent to cure cancer or bring about peace in the world. But I can help Jews and non-Jews understand and appreciate the meaning of the Torah’s lessons and the wisdom of our Jewish heritage. By using these talents productively I hope to tip the balance scales in my favor as I enter the New Year and contribute in a small way to making the world a better place.

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