The sixth Hebrew month, Elul, begins this coming Shabbat as the last month of 5778, a little anomaly resulting from the setting of the first day of the seventh month, Tishrei, as Rosh Hashanah. If we follow the Midrashic calendar, then the designation of Rosh Chodesh Elul as initiating a good time for Judaism has this reason: During the wandering in the wilderness, Av was marred by the disaster of the Golden Calf. The later weeks of Av were a time of penitence and imploring God not to destroy the faithless Israelites. Midrash says that Moses finally carried the argument with God, and on Rosh Chodesh Elul ascended Mount Sinai again. There he was to carve two new tablets and inscribe the Law on them.
Through the generations, Elul has become a time of preparation. On weekdays one might hear the sound of the Shofar, as the difficult blowing is rehearsed in advance of Rosh Hashanah. For the greater Jewish community, however, the practice is the request to all whom we meet: “If I have offended you in any way through the past year, whether intentionally or inadvertently, I ask your forgiveness.” That request is required to be replied to with: “I forgive you and ask the same for myself.”
At the end of Moses’ second sojourn on Mount Sinai, the second tablets were brought to the people. That fortieth day—the 10th of Tishrei—bears the name Yom ha-Kippurim, the Day of Atonement. However, that atonement is for sins against God alone. The 40 days that precede Yom Kippur, beginning with Rosh Chodesh Elul, are the time for us to seek forgiveness from other people.
Judaism’s practices are often humanistic. The concern with relations with others, with shalom bayit—peace in the house—remains central to our annual quest for forgiveness from God.