Among our more under-appreciated traits, we Jews are counters. We count for a prayer quorum, we count the omer, we count the days of the months to know when our holidays are. We might know the days of the week by their names—Sunday, Monday—but in Hebrew they are Yom Rishon, the First Day, and Yom Sheni, the second day. And before borrowing their current names from the Babylonian calendar, the Jewish months were numbered. What we now know as Elul was once the Sixth Month, leading to the Seventh Month that we now call Tishrei.
Counting can (ideally) foster planning and patience. It is by counting that we know when to do what needs to be done. It is because we count that we know not to start Rosh Hashanah until the first day of the Seventh Month—or as it is described on first reference in the Talmud (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:3), 30 days after the start of Elul. So every day of Elul is a count toward Rosh Hashanah, a count we punctuate with a daily blowing of the shofar. To everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1), we learn, and Elul reminds us that we do not skip ahead.
A year ago, in Elul 5780 (there we go counting again), a climate denier was in the White House and his biggest climate-denying enablers were in charge of the Senate. We knew it was the season for organizing, for getting out the vote, for pushing for action so that new leadership could step in and take bold, substantial action on climate change. Now, in Elul 5781, we find ourselves still lacking that desperately needed action on climate change.
Perhaps we thought that we could let up our efforts after Election Day, but to everything there is a season, and now remains our season for civic engagement with our elected leadership. Contact them and remind them of the shofar’s call to action. Our sacred Earth is burning from excessive carbon emissions and we must take action.
A year ago was our first Elul of this coronavirus pandemic. This Elul we may feel we are done with the pandemic, yet the pandemic is not quite done with us. Viral infections, hospitalizations and deaths remain too high and vaccinations too low. To everything there is a season, and now remains our season of masking, social distancing and vaccination. (And if you have not yet gotten vaccinated and you have access to the vaccine, then now is your season for inoculation!)
A year ago we found ourselves in the middle of a crisis of structural racism against ethnic minorities along with nationwide violent acts of hatred. This Elul we unfortunately find that we are still in the season of the fight against these persistent banes.
But this Elul we also finish the count of six years of work before beginning a seventh year of rest, the shmita year. In the shmita year, we will have the opportunity to count a year of rest for the land, rest for our fellow animals, and rest for us humans. Yet we need more than that to truly retire. We need our fossil-fuel burning machines and our addiction to them to rest. We need the virus to rest by not giving it the opportunity to spread further. We need the irrational hatred of racism to rest.
Clearly, we still have much work to do this Elul if we are to be in a better place in Elul 5782. Of course, these tasks are more than any one of us can do alone; however, it may not be more than we can do together. On Rosh Hashanah we may fill our thoughts with personal reflection, but we must remember we are all counting on each other.
David Krantz is the president of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.
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