It’s usually around the beginning of August when the signs appear in convenience stores: “Back to School.” It’s an advertisement encouraging you to purchase all your school supplies in their store.
My children always groan when they see it. “It’s the middle of the summer. Why do we have to see the dreaded “S” word? Camp is barely halfway done. Do we really have to start thinking about pencils, books, and angry teacher’s looks?”
But fair is fair. Because, at the end of May, there are signs advertising summer supplies, as well. It may also be time for school finals, but the warmth of summer can already be felt. In this country, when Thanksgiving is over, and often even beforehand, they start advertising for the holiday season. After Presidents’ Day, there are advertisements for the upcoming spring.
The annual advertising is a reminder that you can’t wake up “the day of” and think you’ll be ready. You have to prepare in advance and get the needed materials beforehand.
Each of our children received a list of necessary school supplies. Most of those lists are quite specific, including a specific size binder, certain types of pencils and/or pens, and notebooks. They also require certain s’farim from specific publishers. Generally, the common denominator between all the required materials is that they are different from what we have in the house from an older sibling or a previous year.
We do our best to ensure that our children have what they need. There’s a certain excitement they feel when they feel prepared to tackle the new schoolyear with bulging knapsacks containing their materials.
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, recently published a relatively short sefer in English about the special Musaf Sh’moneh Esrei of Rosh HaShanah.
When discussing the book, Rabbi Wein related an anecdote that served as his inspiration to write the book:
In 2005, Professor Robert Aumann was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. Professor Aumann, a proud religious Jew, is a friend and congregant of Rabbi Wein.
Sometime after being awarded the prize, the professor recounted to Rabbi Wein the multi-day events surrounding his receiving the prize. The program included appearing before the King of Sweden. There was a dress rehearsal beforehand about how to properly appear before the king. One does not simply appear before the king. There’s protocol of how to walk, talk, and present oneself before the king. He had to rehearse it until he had it down pat, so it would seem natural when he actually stood before the king.
Rabbi Wein notes that we all stand before the King on Rosh HaShanah. We have a list of things we want that only the King can grant us. The prayers in the Machzor are beautiful, and the ancient tunes are familiar to us. Yet, we often present ourselves in a haphazard manner, without rehearsal or prior preparation.
Rabbi Wein explained that he wrote his commentary to address that issue, so that when the reader davens on Rosh HaShanah, he can have some familiarity and understanding of the lofty prayers.
The month of Elul is the dedicated time to prepare for the great days of mercy and forgiveness of the days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur.
A person puts on a bathing suit before he goes for a swim.
A person packs his suitcase before he leaves on a trip.
A person prepares a speech before delivering it to an audience.
A person plans a project before he begins.
In the same vein, a person needs to prepare during the days of Elul for the great spiritual journey he is embarking on. The challenge is that most of us feel unsure how to prepare. What do we need for this journey?
The answer has to do with where we want our journey to take us. What positive changes would we like to work towards, this year? Once we’ve established that, we can take one small step in that direction and begin, or continue, the never-completed journey of spiritual growth.
Not sure yet to where your destination should be? Have no fear; that’s what Elul is for. It’s a month of spiritual and emotional planning and packing, for what will undoubtedly be the greatest journey of the year.