Sunday, August 11, 2013

Elul During Summer Vacation?

by Rabbi Reuven Spolter
Judaic Studies Lecturer


Every few years, before the Jewish calendar can adjust itself with an additional month during the spring, the summer and winter chagim arrive unusually early. This year, for example, Rosh Hashanah, which "normally" falls towards the end of September, begins this year during the first week of September. Simchat Torah ends before the end of the month! It's an "early" year in every sense.

What difference does that make? Why should the secular date that Rosh Hashanah falls on matter? It shouldn't – but it does, because much of our lives revolve not around the Jewish calendar, but the secular one.

We take our vacations not based on the Jewish calendar, but on the secular one. Our lives are often governed by work and school schedules almost always set not according to the Jewish calendar, but the secular one. For this reason, you may well be on vacation right now because your children are still on vacation, which will continue until the end of the month. This is true not only around the world, but especially in Israel. It's a yearly tradition in August for parents of young children to complain that that they don't know how to go to work while their kids are off from school.

The Jewish calendar cares not for summer vacation or secular school schedules. While we were on vacation, the month of Elul began, ushering in the first pangs of the High Holiday season.  For men who attend shul in the morning (and especially for Sephardim who recite Selichot each night), the Shofar reminds us: Rosh Hashanah is coming. But for many women, and especially for our children who are enjoying their vacation, Elul has yet to enter their consciousness.

Recently, Rav Yona Goodman, head of Chinuch Emuni at Orot, shared a short audio (link here) which got me thinking about this issue. While during a normal year, it might make sense to leave the lion's share of Rosh Hashanah preparation to our kids' schools, this year, when they begin school only a short time before Rosh Hashanah, we must take it upon ourselves to educate our children both about Elul, and about the process of Teshuvah.

When do we do it? Actually, opportunities abound. You can:

  • Talk about Elul around the Shabbat table
  • Do your yearly Tzedakah accounting, sharing with your children how much you "owe"
  • Instead of the beach, use a vacation day for a family chessed project
  • Take a family Tiyyul to a spiritual location (shofar factory?), to put us in the mood for Rosh Hashanah
Rav Yona's words were ringing in my ears as we sat down to dinner last week, and two of my children briefly entered into minor spat over some insignificant slight. While I would normally try and ignore the argument during dinner, I instead noted that it was Rosh Chodesh Elul, and entered into a short discussion around the table about controlling our anger – and that perhaps this could be a goal that we could share as a family during Elul.

In truth, Elul during the summer presents a unique educational opportunity. Because our children learn about the High Holidays in school, a danger exists that they might come to see Teshuvah not as a personal, intimate process, but instead as yet another subject that they cover in school (which is entirely unrelated to their home lives). Nothing could be farther from the truth. The very best way to counter this mistaken perception is to bring Teshuvah into our homes, and make the process of introspection and self-improvement a household affair.

Even when you're on vacation.