Friday, August 21, 2020 /1 Elul, 5780
Parashat Shof’tim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
What if Moses hadn’t climbed Mt. Sinai a second time? What if the new moon came, and he stood on the precipice of the mountain, unable to propel himself forward?
Our tradition upholds Shavuot as one of our most important holidays. It was the day on which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments in all their glory. It was a day filled with sacred covenants between the Jewish people and God. Shavuot is foundational to our very identity. I believe that one day that is every bit as significant though it comes without the fanfare. That day is today, Rosh Chodesh Elul – the first day of the Hebrew month called Elul.
After Moses received the commandments, his job did not end there. He needed to bring them to the people. The problem was that they weren’t quite patient enough. Forty days was too long for them to be without their spiritual guide, so they resorted to worshiping the golden calf. They broke their bonds of commitment before they had truly begun. And Moses, after 40 days alone on the mountain, was forced to shatter the sacred tablets he had sacrificed so much to receive.
Moses begged God to give the people another chance and not give up on them as a lost cause. He asked God to curb anger and turn to forgiveness, mercy, and love. God agreed that yes, they would have a second chance if Moses embarked on the same harrowing journey once more.
It was undoubtedly a big ask. For forty days, he was to live on Mt. Sinai, alone with his thoughts. If he fell, no one would be there to catch him. If wild beasts attacked, he would need to fend for himself. He was to be alone in the deafening blackness of night, alone to worry if this time, his effort was worth it—if this time, the people would be loyal and faithful.
Moses could have said no. He could have given up. But 40 days after Moses shattered the tablets, he set out again on the 1st of Elul. He searched within himself for the courage, the perseverance, and the faith that this time would be different.
Many people believe that the High Holy Days begin on Rosh Hashanah, but our tradition gifts us with a month to get ready. Just as Moses prepared himself to climb the sacred mountain, so too do we prepare for the work ahead. Are we the people we aspire to be? How do we wish to improve this coming year? To whom should we apologize? What resentment and pain are we ready to let go? How can we further sanctify that which is most important in our lives?
This journey is not for the faint of heart. It requires honesty, humility, and integrity, and it comes with the most precious rewards. Forty days after Moses climbed the mountain, he came down on Yom Kippur to find a people better prepared to enter into a sacred covenant and form a society based on compassion, justice, understanding, and love.
It is my prayer that through honest reflection, the month of Elul can prepare us—even in these challenging times—to begin a year filled with purpose, sacred connections, and a myriad of blessings.
Rabbi Cassi Kail