The image of these Holy Days wafts toward us, again and again, in many different guises. When I think of these Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe), one of the strongest images I have is of our cantor, starting at the back of the room and marching up to the Ark, taking upon herself the burden for wafting our prayers to heaven with her own voice. As she marches up with a look of rapture on her face, a look of joy and solemnity, I sometimes wonder if she is actually going to stop when she gets to the Ark. She looks like she’s about to crawl in, but thus far, she has retrained herself.
At other moments I think about the procession of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest in ancient days in Jerusalem: how he would wander through the neighborhoods of the holy city until he finally arrived at Mt. Zion, how he would ascend the steps leading to the Temple — Shir Ha-Ma’alot, the Song of Ascent. Those psalms are choreographed in the number of verses to correspond to the number of stairs leading up through the southern part of the Temple Mount into the Temple courtyard. From there he would proceed from the courtyard of the women to the courtyard of the priests. And from the courtyard of the priests he would enter into the courtyard, and finally into the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh Kodashim, where he would stand alone to commune with God.
During these holy days, I think again of the cycle of our reading of the Torah: how we begin, in just a few weeks, with the creation of the universe and then the beginnings of our people, our enslavement in Egypt, our miraculous liberation, our marching through the wilderness until we get just to the border of the land of Israel, at which time we start over again, never quite arriving at our final destination.
And at this time of year I think of our lives: how each of us is a pilgrim on a journey, each of us on the way. We never really know our destination, and we never really arrive either. We just keep going on the journey. This season is life in miniature; life concentrated. From the time of the beginning of the month of Elul, until tomorrow evening when we blow the Shofar for the last time, we reenact those pilgrimage journeys: the journey of the high priest into the Holy of Holies; the journey of our people from Mitzrayim to the very borders of the land of Israel; the journey of our life from our birth to this day.
Think of this season for a moment: our ascending intimacy, our crescendo of closeness with the Divine. Elul launches this period; we are told that the month of Elul is an abbreviation for the words Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li (from Shir ha-Shirim: I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine). Like the rapture we witness on our cantor’s face as she proceeds through the congregation toward the beloved Sefer Torah — the fount of our existence, the nourishing spring of our people — we too glow with love in the month of Elul, hoping that yet again we will be our beloved’s. So this season begins languidly: You don’t want to start a romance too quickly; you don’t want to frighten off your beloved! Those still looking for a lover, take note. (Read the rest of this post…)
— Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles