The Hebrew month of Elul, which began yesterday, has traditionally been considered a time of soul-searching and self-improvement in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—respectively the first and tenth days of the following month. While ancient midrashic sources tie this tradition to an exegesis of the story of Moses at Mount Sinai, Tzvi Sinensky argues that a clearer justification can be found in the minor prophetic book of Haggai, which is set in the land of Israel following the return from Babylonian exile—when the rebuilding of the Temple had been temporarily halted:
The book’s two chapters, particularly the first, are dedicated to urging the people to overcome their hesitation and proceed with the reconstruction [of the Temple]. Haggai delivers his first prophecy on the first day of Elul, repeatedly invoking the language of repentance: “Is it a time for you to dwell in your paneled houses, while this House [of God] is lying in ruins? Now thus said the Lord of Hosts: Consider your ways!” . . . Further, the verses go on to state that “They came and set to work on the House of the Lord of Hosts, their God, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month” [the Bible’s usual term for the month later named Elul], indicating that Elul opens with a call to repentance and continues with this theme throughout the month. . . .
Seeking to stir the people, Haggai exhorts four times in his book, “consider your ways,” a locution not found elsewhere in Scripture. . . . And it is not so much a spiritual message as a practical, albeit religious, one. Haggai is the pragmatic Religious Zionist, calling on all people to drop their excuses, roll up their sleeves, and engage in the rebuilding efforts.
Why then, did neither ancient nor medieval rabbis cite Haggai in their discussion of Elul’s significance? Sinensky considers several possible reasons, including this:
Haggai’s prophecy was delivered during a period of Judean resettlement, with lessons that were particularly poignant at that time, but less so in later stages of Jewish history. . . . If [this] reason for the historical sidelining of Haggai’s prophecy is correct, today’s period of return to Zion might be precisely the moment to reintroduce Haggai’s clarion call. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argued passionately in his 1956 meditation on Zionism, albeit at a very different moment in Israeli history, we can in no way be lackadaisical in our support of the Jewish state. . . . Further, Haggai’s exhortation of “consider your ways,” an attack on apathy, is acutely relevant in our time, although ironically perhaps most of all in Jewish communities beyond Israel’s borders.