Prayer is always an avenue to God. But in the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, and during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God lends a particularly sympathetic ear. And so when Moses trudged despondently up the mountain that first day of Elul after dashing the tablets of the Law, and for forty days and forty nights begged God’s forgiveness, the sin of the golden calf was forgiven.
On that Yom Kippur, the shattered pieces of God’s faith in the Jews were restored and the twin tablets of their eternal relationship renewed. And ever since, these forty days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur have been prime time for prayer.
The romance in this prayer date is picked up in midrashic literature. The Midrash points out that the first letters of the first four words of the verse (Song of Songs 6:3) “Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li” (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”) spell out the word Elul.
So too the first letters of the relevant four words in Exodus 21:13 that refer to the cities of refuge for manslaughter spell out Elul – for Elul is a safe harbor in time, during which God protects us from the damaging consequences of our sins.
Similarly, the first letter of the last four words of Esther 9:22 about sending choice portions to one another and gifts to the poor, which emphasizes the role of charity in procuring God’s forgiveness, also spell out Elul.
When Moses ascended the mountain that first, fateful day of Elul, the shofar was sounded daily in the Camp of Israel, heralding his expected return. This eliminated the possibility of the disastrous assumption, previously drawn from his prolonged absence, which resulted in the sin of the golden calf. This is the source of the rabbinical requirement that we sound the shofar each day of Elul. The shofar awakens us and admonishes us not to slumber thorough this unique period of communication with God.
Commencing with the first day of Elul, through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and culminating on the last day of Sukkot, we recite Psalm 27 – LeDavid Hashem ori veishi (The Lord is my light and salvation) – after each morning and evening prayer service. The focal point of reference therein is the word “light,” denoting the spotlight of judgment trained upon us on Rosh Hashanah, as well as to the word “salvation,” denoting God’s Outstretched Hand of Salvation on Yom Kippur. The psalm also reminds us of God’s protective roof on Sukkot.
If repentance is not to be used merely as a credit card to postpone payment at maturity date, then we must endeavor to sincerely honor our commitment and repent before the Day of Judgment. But just in case, despite our sincere endeavors, we fail to meet such commitment before Rosh Hashanah, God does grant us an extension. Accordingly, it is our custom to annul our vows on the last day of Elul.