Elul marks the beginning of the countdown toward the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days). What is the significance of this month? The Ramchal writes that time is a forward-moving spiral. Every year the same spiritual forces are available on that day as in history. For example, just as on Rosh Hashanah Adam HaRishon was created, so too, every year on this day we have the potential for being re-created. What does the month of Elul correspond to in history? The Bnei Yissachar writes that it corresponds to the period before creation. What existed before creation? Only Hashem's will to do good to another, to give of Himself and thus to create the world. Accordingly, today, the month of Elul corresponds to the period before creation, when G-d is ready to give to those who want to receive. Thus these days are called 'yemai ratzon', days when Hashem's desire for us to come close to Him is manifest more than at any other time of the year.
Accordingly, Elul is the time that is most mesugal for genuine growth. In what way can a person strive to make real changes during this period? In order to answer this, it is first necessary to discuss the incorrect ways of approaching teshuva. One common occurrence is that a person does little real contemplation about what is holding him back, before Yom Kippur. When that holy day arrives, he suffices with apologizing for all this sins, without having any concrete plan of how to avoid committing them in the future. Inevitably, the day after Yom Kippur, he returns to normal, and nothing has really changed.
A more positive approach is to at least take on a small kabbala (undertaking) such as praying from a siddur. Nonetheless, my Rebbe, Rav Berkovits Shlita argues that such undertakings can distract us from the real changes that will enable us to remove the obstacles that prevent us from coming closer to Hashem.
It is also praiseworthy to learn sefarim that discuss teshuva. However it is not sufficient to merely learn about teshuva, rather one must actively go about doing it in an effective manner.
Rav Berkovits explains that this time offers a great opportunity for a person to really analyze and understand himself, and to identify those factors that are preventing him from reaching his true potential. In order to properly do teshuva on the Aseres Yemai Teshuva, it is essential that one begin this cheshbon hanefesh early in Elul, and not wait until Rosh HaShana to start thinking about how he can change.
It is not sufficient to merely identify the sins that one commits. The Vilna Gaon writes that midos (character traits) lie at the root of every aveiro and mitzvo. Accordingly, the key is for each person to understand and identify the underlying midos (character traits) that cause him to stray from the ideal path. Often, one particular trait can be the cause of a large variety of sins.
For example, a person may note that he is weak in getting up in the morning for Shacharis, wastes too much time, and gets easily frustrated with those around him, causing him to speak to them in an overly harsh manner. It is conceivable that all these sins arise from laziness, or a desire for comfort. This understandably causes a person to find it hard to arise in the morning and wasting time. But it can also be the cause of frustration. This feeling comes about as a result of things not being the way one wanted them to be. This is often the way that is most comfortable, and therefore when other people cause a person to do things that he does not want to do, he feels that they are causing him a lack of comfort. Consequently, he becomes frustrated with them.
Elul is a time of great opportunity, and simultaneously, great fear. The Pirkei DeRebbe Eliezer tells us that we blow the shofar on Elul to demonstrate the fear that we feel as we approach the Yamim Noraim. What is the reason for the fear of Elul? Rav Avraham Grodzinski zt"l, explains that the fear of Elul is the fear of missing the great opportunity that is present. This is the time that is most mesugal to bring oneself back to Hashem. May we all merit to not waste this golden opportunity and make real, lasting changes.