Each year, God recreates life for every one of His creations. So that His kindness does not reach the wicked, He judges all creatures on Rosh Ha-Shana, granting life and blessing to the good and minimizing them for the wicked. In addition to this being proper and just, it is also necessary to improve the world, for if the wicked were to continue receiving life and blessing, it would reinforce their wickedness, and they would bring harm and curses to the whole world (Shlah).
Thus, the days on which God draws close to His creations and grants them new life are also the days on which He judges them. These are also the times when repentance is most readily accepted, since God is closer to His creations then. Therefore, even though it is appropriate to repent all year round, repentance is more readily accepted during the ten days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur. As the verse states: “Seek the Lord while He can be found; call to Him while He is near” (Yeshayahu 55:6). Accordingly, this period is known as the Ten Days of Repentance (Rosh Ha-shana 18a; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:6).
Even though judgment does not begin until Rosh Ha-Shana and the Ten Days of Repentance, it is better to begin thinking about repentance beforehand. This way, by the time the Ten Days of Repentance arrive, we can truly return to God. Additionally, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For as a general rule, before a person is called to account for his sins, it is relatively easy for him to express remorse for them, to rectify them by repenting, and to neutralize the charges against him or at least to minimize them. (This is true for human courts as well.) However, once the time of judgment has arrived and the prosecutor has already laid out his case, it is harder to get the charges dropped (Sifrei, Naso §42). Therefore, Jewish practice is to begin repenting in Elul.
Each year anew, we approach these days of repentance with fear and joy. We are fearful because we do not know if we will be vindicated before God, nor what sentence we will receive if found guilty. For many people who were complacent at the beginning of the previous year are no longer alive at year’s end, or are alive but suffering. At the same time, we are joyful because we have the opportunity to return to God through repentance, to pray before Him and offer supplications, to cleanse ourselves of the wickedness that stains us, and to reconnect with the principles we believe in. Even if we are condemned to suffer, this is good for breaking sinful habits, allowing us to improve ourselves and our lives.
Without an annual accounting, the grind of daily life would cause us to forget all the great ideals to which we aspire. Without a vision, we would be overcome by our evil inclination, slaves to our desires, and hostages to our animalistic side. The Days of Awe are our annual reminder of all the great hopes we had, all the topics and books which we wanted to study, and all the good deeds that we wanted to do. We become disgusted with the sins to which we have fallen prey. We are sorry for having committed them, and we confess to them; we re-examine our priorities. All this in hope that the upcoming year will be a good one, during which we will increase our Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds, and dedicate ourselves to improving our families, society, and nation. As a result, we ascend higher and higher each year, improving the world and contributing to it.