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As I start writing this, it’s Rosh Chodesh Elul–the new moon, which signals the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month in the Jewish year. It’s not a very exciting month if you’re looking at the calendar; there are no major festivals or fast days. But it’s one of the most important months in the year.

The Days of Awe (also called the High Holy Days, though I don’t like that nomenclature as much) begin on Rosh Hashanah (literally, ‘Head of the Year’), which is also Rosh Chodesh Tishrei–the next new moon. That’s the high point of the festival calendar, the time when all the big mystical stuff goes down. Elul, then, marks the last breath of normal time, the last chance to prepare for the spiritual tsunami that’s about to wash over everything.

This is always a weird time of year for me. As an academic, I find myself caught in the last-minute pre-term scramble, my mind sent spinning off in every possible direction just when my spiritual calendar starts striving most desperately for a quiet centre. I find myself doing things like working a 10 hour day while keeping the Yom Kippur fast, trying to at least read through the service I can’t manage to attend on my lunch break, or taking fifteen minutes away from an all-day meeting to go to the park and feed the ducks on Rosh Hashanah. It’s always a bit scattered, grabbing the moments I can and doing the best I can with them, struggling not to let the idea of the perfect strangle any possibility of the good.

This year, we will spend Rosh Hashanah in a hotel somewhere in the south of England. And in an airport. And on a plane. And then in line for immigration at our new place of dwelling.

This year, Elul is a month of physical as well as spiritual preparation for me. We are dismantling all the artefacts of our life as we have known it, examining each thing, weighing its value, deciding whether it is worth the cost of shipping. We are shedding old papers, old clothes, old habits.

We are, of course, not shedding anywhere near enough. And the process is far more fraught than meditative. It’s really freaking hard to feel centred in a room full of teetering stacks of books waiting for boxes and papers waiting for recycling, with packing materials strewn randomly over the floor and an ever-growing heap of blankets and pots and cushions waiting to be taken away to someone who will give them a new life of use. The visual noise is so overwhelming that I’ve taken to haunting local cafés when I need to write (I do have a few papers to give next month) because I cannot manage to focus on much of anything beyond shuffling stuff into different piles while I’m at home.

For some years, it has been my custom to listen to the shofar during the days of Elul. It doesn’t take a huge amount of time, but it does lend me a few minutes of focus and a sense of continuity through what’s always a very disjointed time of year. Last year, I made a shofar playlist–a mix of songs that helped me plug into the themes and resonances of the Days of Awe, the rhythms of fracture and mending, the dance-like movement of betrayal and return constantly enacted between human and divine (beautifully expounded upon in the last chapter of this book), all of which build up to the final sound of the shofar. It’s about 80 minutes long, which is about right for gathering my thoughts together and sipping my first pot of tea in the morning (I am emphatically not a morning person).

Here’s the playlist:

OrZarua Shir Yaakov
If It Be Your Will Leonard Cohen
Take This Longing Leonard Cohen
Hallelujah Jeff Buckley
Last Year’s Man Leonard Cohen
Strange Fire Indigo Girls
So Long, Marianne Leonard Cohen
Bird on a Wire Leonard Cohen
Hallelujah Rufus Wainwright
Waiting for the Miracle Leonard Cohen
Three Hits Indigo Girls
Who By Fire Leonard Cohen
Anthem Leonard Cohen
Adam Olam Shir Yaakov
Sisters of Mercy Leonard Cohen
I’m Here Shir Yaakov
Hallelujah Leonard Cohen
And, finally, a recording of a shofar.

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There’s a lot more I could say about this, but right now it’s late–and I have all month. But what’s your hectic time of year? How do you stay centred?

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