Tomorrow begins the month of Elul and with it, the countdown to the yammim noraim, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time of self-reflection marked in traditional circles by the sounding of the Shofar at the end of daily services and the recitation of Psalm 27 ("God is my light and my helper, whom shall I fear?").
In our tradition, the notion of preparation is an important one. We cannot just go diving into the experience; we require some kind of trigger, some ritual or modality that readies us and puts us in the proper frame of mind. We recite a blessing before we study Torah. We engage is p'sukei d'zimra (songs of praise) and birchot hashachar (morning blessings) before we get to the 'meat' of the morning service. And we anticipate the days of Judgment and Atonement with a month of spiritual 'calisthenics'. For many of us, the highlight of Elul is the observance of Selichot, the last motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) before Rosh Hashanah. The service is the High Holidays liturgy in miniature, with references to Al Cheyt, Avinu Malkeinu and other prayers recited by the penitent and contrite of spirit. These prayers are recited late in the evening (or even midnight) and many congregations then use the opportunity to switch their Torah mantles from their year-round, 'colored' mantles to High Holy Day white, signifying the congregation's anticipation of the New Year.
There's a great article from My Jewish Learning on ways to incorporate Elul into our own daily lives, but as we prepare for the summer to end, the school year to begin again, the changing of the seasons from summer warmth to autumn chill, I encourage you to start preparing your own "New Year's Resolutions". In fact, if you have any in mind, feel free to share them below!