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The Month of Elul: Trepidation and Joy

During the month of Elul, Ashkenazic custom is to blow shofar each morning after Shacharis, and to recite the chapter of Tehillim beginning, ” לדוד ה’ אורי וישעי- By David, Hashem is my light and my salvation,” twice each day.

These two customs were chosen to prepare us for the days of judgment to come.  What is their significance, and how do they relate to one another?

Shofar blowing awakens our hearts with awe and trembling to the immense seriousness of the occasion, lest we let these holy and precious days of preparation slip by us, and arrive unprepared for the day of judgment. ” אם יתקע שופר בעיר ועם לא יחרדו Can the shofar be blown in the city, and the nation not tremble?”[1], the Prophet Amos asked.

The long shofar blast rouses us from the slumber of our mindless routines, awakening us to rethink and redirect our lives towards our higher goals and aspirations.  The series of broken sounds is meant to recall cries of anguish.  The Shlah writes that they resemble the moaning cries of the sick, or the heart-wrenching sobs of those who mourn over the dead, to remind us of the end of our lives, which draws nearer with every passing day.  It is no wonder then that the Prophet asked, “Can the shofar be blown in the city and the nation not tremble?”

Lest fear and grief clutch our hearts and render us unable to meet our responsibilities, a second custom was instituted to recite the chapter of Tehillim, “Hashem is my light and my salvation,” in which we remind ourselves that Hashem is ever present to assist us in our attempts to better ourselves and draw close to Him.  If we commit ourselves to doing our best, we have nothing to fear, as the chapter of Tehillim continues, ” אם תחנה עלי מחנה לא ירא לבי אם תקום עלי מלחמה בזאת אני בוטח – Even if an army encamps against me, my heart will not fear.  Even if a war rises up against me, I shall trust in this.”

Our Sages interpret the word זאת (“this”) as a reference to the verse, ” זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל – This is the Torah of a man who dies in a tent,” from which we learn that the Torah can only be mastered by those who “kill” themselves in the tents of Torah study.  When we toil in Torah with all our hearts and souls, we can trust in Hashem’s miraculous protection, and need not fear anything in the world.

[1] Amos 3:6

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