Elul: A Time of Grace

Sephardim start saying
selichos from Rosh Chodesh Elul. Ashkenazim don’t start until almost the last
week of Elul. Since Elul is a time of mercy, when G-d is especially receptive to
our prayers, why don’t the Ashkenazim take advantage of the opportunity and
start saying selichos, like the Sephardim, from Rosh Chodesh? The Sephardim say
the exact same selichos every day for forty days. Ashkenazim start at the end of
the month and say different selichos every day.

Every community’s customs express its neshama. Just as
individual Jews have different neshamas, groups of Jews have different neshamas.
They all complement each other. Together, they produce the rich character and
range of spiritual resources which belong to the Jewish People.

One of the must fundamental differences between Jewish
communities, as between individual Jews, is in the way they use their minds.
Some people know things initially through their feelings, and then think about
what they already feel. Others start off by applying cold reason and then,
afterwards, respond emotionally to what they have discovered. In Jewish
communities which emphasize the learning of Kabbalah–the Sephardim and the
Chasidim—emotional contact with the inner dimension of Torah tends to precede
rational analysis. In Jewish communities which emphasize the learning of Gemara
and halachah—e.g., the Lithuanian community—rational understanding tends to
precede emotional response. Now, the emotional-intuitive response to Torah is
much quicker than reason. The rational Lithuanian can take quite a while putting
things in order before he has any emotions. Also, the emotional-intuitive type
has a remarkable ability to intensify his feelings by repetition. With each
repetition they intensify and reveal new mysteries. The more intellectual type
needs variety. He needs grist for his intellectual mill—a new image, new data,
a new perspective. So to answer our question: The Sephardim say selichos from
Rosh Chodesh because they respond immediately to the special qualities of the
month of Elul. Ashkenazim, who tend to work rationally from the outside in, take
much longer to experience the special qualities of Elul that evoke the
recitation of selichos. They need to spend the first part of Elul thinking about
what the month of Elul means so that, when it comes time to say selichos, they
are intellectually prepared to feel and experience what they are saying. And the
Sephardim, who have a strong emotional-intuitive appreciation of the selichos,
can say the same ones over and over again without ever exhausting them. But the
Ashkenazim, who respond emotionally to what they are saying only after an
intellectual, analytical process, need a constant flow of new impressions to
feed the restless activity of their minds.

The month of Elul has three special features. First of all,
it’s the end of the year, and “All’s well that ends well.” Chazal said
it in slightly different words: “Everything goes after how you finish.” Elul
is also thirty days before Rosh Hashanah. Thirty days before every Yom Tov we
begin to prepare for it. So Elul is the time to prepare for the beginning of the
year, and beginnings are very important. Besides this, Elul is also the
beginning of a forty day period of grace. During this period, G-d’s love and
compassion is greater than it is during the rest of the year. He goes out of His
way to be close to us during these forty days because these are the forty days
when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai for the third time to get the second
tablets of the Ten Commandments. The first time he went up ended in disaster:
the tablets were broken after the Jews committed the sin of worshipping the
Golden Calf. Moshe’s second forty days were spent praying that the Jewish
People shouldn’t be destroyed. The last forty days G-d resolved to give us the
Torah again so that we could be as close to Him as we had been before the Golden
Calf. During this period, G-d gets closer and closer until, on the last day, on
Yom Kippur, He is as close as can be. Every year we relive this cycle. Every
year culminates in a period of forty days of grace beginning on Rosh Chodesh
Elul in which G-d and the Jewish People get closer and closer.

Just because it finishes the year, the month of Elul has a
special importance. Finishing is a value in itself. This is illustrated by the
custom of celebrating when we complete a tractate of the Gemara. Chazal tell us
that a mitzvah is associated with the person who completes it. If two people do
a mitzvah, one starting it and the other completing it, the one who completes it
gets the credit. For until a thing is completed, it is not whole. It does not
really exist except as an assembly of parts which will spring together into one
— into a whole — when it is completed. It’s not yet a mitzvah. It’s not
yet a year. So it’s the end that makes the year, as it is the end that makes
the mitzvah. From the perspective of the end, everything takes its proper place,
everything acquires its just proportion. And that sense of proportion is just
what we need as we examine the year in preparation for the coming Day of

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