Rosh Chodesh Elul, the instinct for joy – and a great short video on blowing the shofar

Thursday, August 20, 2020 | 30 Av 5780 | Rosh Chodesh Elul


Dear All,

Today is my grandma’s 17th yahrtzeit. Tomorrow, the first of Elul, would have been my father’s 88th birthday.

To be honest, we didn’t realize that this was Dad’s birthday until after he died.
But in my grandma’s case, her yahrtzeit has always been significant to me. This is because of the fascinating construction of Rosh Chodesh Elul. It’s a two-day new moon – today and tomorrow – but today is the last day of Av, and tomorrow, which is the second day of Rosh Chodesh, is the first day of Elul. And so tomorrow is the day we start to blow shofar.
To me, my grandma’s yahrtzeit comes to remind me, as it were – tomorrow it begins…

And by “it” I mean this whole period, from now through to the end of Simchat Torah, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as the twin apex points, in the middle. “It” is a shorthand for “teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah” – teshuvah, striving to return to our best selves; tefillah, something about looking both within and beyond, for guidance and with gratitude; and tzedakah, not just in the broader sense of doing justly but in this case in the narrower sense too, of specifically giving money to make the world a better place.

From Hazon, right now, and in this spirit, four things.

First – here’s a video about blowing shofar. Rabbi Felicia Sol at B’nai Jeshurun asked us if we would do something about shofar. We were happy to – and we’re happy now to share this far and wide. It’s short and serious and fun. We hope that, whoever you are, it will genuinely offer fresh insight and perspective in the multiple different ways we can and should relate to blowing the shofar.

Second – if the shmita year is, as it were, the shabbat of years, then this new year kicks off a year which is in a certain kind of way, “Friday” – the year before the shmita. To honor that, together with Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, Dr. Jeremy Benstein, and a bunch of friends, we’re offering a weekly reflection on the parsha in relation to shmita. More info here.

Third: this period which begins with the shofar tomorrow, culminates with the prayer for rain, which we say on Shemini Atzeret. An entire tractate of the talmud, Masechet Ta’anit, addresses the question, what happens if the rains don’t fall? It’s an ancient question with contemporary salience, in this time of plague and climate change. We’re proud to announce four consecutive online lectures, during the four intermediate days of Sukkot, by Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair, looking at how Masechet Ta’anit can offer real wisdom and fresh perspective at this strange moment in human history. They’re at noon EST each day on October 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th. Registration is free – info here – please put it in your calendar. Yedidya is a brilliant teacher, and this will be an important and thought-provoking series of talks.

And fourthly, and finally – joy. The day after the prayer for rain we have Zman Simchateinu, the time of joy. That’s how this period culminates. And, despite all the heaviness in the world right now, it’s with some leaning-in to joy, to simcha, that I believe we best accomplish the work of teshuvah. So I wanted to share these words from Shuli Karkowsky, who is Hazon’s EVP, who has shouldered a remarkable load during this COVID period, and yet who epitomizes joy – simcha; the joy we share with others – in all she does.

From me: chodesh tov, shabbat shalom.


The Instinct for Joy, by Shuli Karkowsky

My third child just turned one, and reminded me, delightfully, of distant memories of his older brother and sister.  As soon as any of my children were old enough to stand, they danced.  When music comes on, anything with the slightest beat or melody – the background of a car commercial, a melodious phone ring – my one-year-old sticks his itty bum out, and starts moving it rhythmically, flexing his chubby thighs in time to the music. No one taught him to do this.  He’s not mimicking any behavior they had seen their parents do. He just has a deep-seated instinct to dance.

It is only during coronavirus that this struck me as remarkable.  Generally, our genetics embed in us instincts without which we cannot survive as a species.  Those same genetics decided that every baby must know how to dance. 

Watching my son dance as we socially-distance during coronavirus felt profound.  Every day, I remind myself how lucky I am.  My immediate family remains healthy. I have a job I love. We have food on the table, and a roof over our heads.  We have so many things that so many others are struggling with these days.

And yet….even those of us lucky enough to have our basic requirements met are struggling. Because coronavirus has stolen from us all of our communal expressions of joy.  Our dance parties.  Our weddings and bnai mitzvah.  Our sports games.  Our play dates. Our coffees with friends.  And though these aren’t as essential, day to day, as food or shelter, without joy and community, we cannot thrive as a species.  

Joy is codified throughout our Jewish tradition.  We are commanded to rejoice in our holidays (Deuteronomy 16:14) to bring joy for a bride and groom (Berakhot 6b). Joy is consistently and repeatedly mandated as a mitzvah.  Because, though we don’t think of it as a basic instinctual need, without joy and communal celebration, we cannot survive.  

Today we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, the start of the month that celebrates the Jewish high holidays. Traditionally, this is the launch of our journey to repentance. Throughout my childhood, it was a pensive, somber season, with hours spent mumbling opaque Hebrew verses in shul, and yeshiva classes focused on all the apologies I owed G-d, others, and myself. 

In Orot Hateshuvah, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) argues that the act of repentance – though soulful – is not somber.  Rather, teshuva, which literally means “return”, is about returning to the essence of one’s souls, and in finding oneself and completion, finding joy. It is therefore no accident that the ultimate day of judgment, Yom HaKippurim, can literally be translated as “the day of the Purim” – referencing another Jewish holiday that is the epitome of joy. 

Throughout this pandemic, we’ve spent much time at Hazon thinking about what communal joy looks like during a pandemic.  We hosted a virtual #SoundTheCall event on Earth Day which welcomed over a thousand people to celebrate Planet Earth; we invited hundreds to join us in cycling together through our 2020 Vision Rides even when we’re apart; and we’ve welcomed a safe number of people back to the Isabella Freedman campus for short, socially distanced tastes of its magical escapism. 

As we think about all the things we must do differently in the next year, see it as an opportunity to become your fullest self, as we hope to return to our old joyful routines and rituals, but new rhythms that are healthier and more sustainable. During times that feel incredibly dark, I welcome you to give yourself the reprieve of doing your own teshuva soulfully, but from a place of sincere and soaring joy.  As I learned from my baby son, it’s a matter of survival. 

Chodesh tov, shabbat shalom,


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