The long-awaited arrival of the fall season in Israel means that the tensions of summer are over. The lethargy brought on by the intense heat-ridden summer that incubated the nation lifts, and a time of resurrection and refreshment envelops us.
Israelis of all walks of life begin preparing for the New Year by planning festive meals with seasonal foods and creating invitation lists for the quickly approaching holidays. The nation readies herself in unity for the hopeful and productive coming winter months that will follow. Universities and schools swing their doors open, throwing off slumber, and welcome eager new minds ready to learn and grow. And, once again, children run in the streets with renewed vigor and energy.
This magical time of renewed focus and unity in Israel is also reflected within Diaspora communities that share the Jewish life cycle. Thousands will be coming from around the world to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals with us. It is time for Israel to enlarge her tents once again. But before the hustle and bustle of the tourist season picks up, we deliberately take full advantage of the very special and beautiful month that prepares our spiritual lives for these momentous days ahead.
Elul (September/October), the last month of the Hebrew calendar, is traditionally a time for Jews worldwide to review our spiritual progress over the past year and to prepare ourselves for the Ten Days of Awe that connect Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. An acronym for Elul constitutes the phrase “I am my Beloved’s, and he is mine,” reassuring us of the deep love and connection that we have with God, no matter where we find ourselves spiritually. Sometimes we have taken steps away from him during the past year, but it is taught that the month of Elul is a time of divine mercy and forgiveness from God.
To help us focus on our spiritual lives and take account of our actions from the past year, extra prayers of repentance and the recitation of Psalm 27 are added to our daily prayer routine, and during the last week of Elul, special prayers of repentance (known as slichot) are traditionally recited in the night hours. Many will also take on an extra mitzvah connected with self-improvement during these days, and with each dawn during Elul, we add the sounding of the shofar to morning prayers to awaken our souls to repent and prepare for the coming symbolic judgment. It is a beautiful cycle to experience from year to year.
While the people of Israel silently unite in petition to God, we also turn toward one another in repentance and forgiveness. Religious and secular alike come together during this season. One of Israel’s greatest strengths is her unity, and while Israel is divided on many issues and by many different expressions of faith, the fall holiday season has a way of uniting us and reminding us all of where we came from. At this time of year, the nation collectively moves together, like a body of water slowly moving down a riverbed: large, gentle, and powerful, each current and wave takes on unique expression of its own but remains part of a collective whole flowing seamlessly forward.
Israelis understand the biblical holidays as nationalistic in nature. Each fall holiday exemplifies this unique focus. Rosh HaShanah gives us national renewal as our New Year. Yom Kippur offers a day of national repentance, on which even the most secular refrain from eating. Sukkot is a lovely picture of national unity as we go from house to house to sit in each other’s temporary dwellings, reminding us all that we were once a strange people in a strange land and that now, through God’s providence, we are in our own land and dwelling together. Simchat Torah reinforces our identity as a nation as we visibly see how God’s covenant with us is still in force and celebrated. Even though these holidays are kept in every Jewish community worldwide, their thematic impact is fully experienced only here in our land as a nation.
Perhaps one of the sweetest moments for me falls right at the close of Yom Kippur. We have been gathered in prayer all day; we have repented before God and man; we are like newly born infants taking drops of crisp, cool water with vigor after a twenty-six-hour period of ignoring our fleshly desires. We are ready to begin again, each one anew.
The evening air is cool and the atmosphere quiet, and within hours of satiating our bodies, the tapping sounds of hammers fill our ears. The people of the nation—in the darkness of the night—begin building their sukkot. One can hear the voices of fathers helping their children and of mothers calling to their families to come and get more food. Together we drag our mattresses and furniture into our temporary houses and prepare to start the year together, by the grace of our heavenly Father. Rejoicing in a feeling of sweet redemption and newness, we eagerly build tabernacles with the anticipation that HaShem will dwell with us and our precious family members, friends, and honored guests.
Through it all, we participate in the sustaining power of the biblical calendar for our people throughout history. We muse over the loving caretaker who has had and still has us in his plan of redemption for the world. It’s amazing to see the entire nation of Israel—both secular and religious—gather together to keep HaShem’s appointed times, which in turn unites us in brotherly love and affection. May this unity be a light to the nations, and may we fully realize the purposes for our calling. May this be the year of the Messiah coming to dwell among us, bringing physical redemption to the world.