Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Month of Elul - A Time for Self-Evaluation

The month of Elul is a time for self-accounting. Elul (אלול) in Hebrew is the acronym of "I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me." (Song of Songs 6:3)
אני לדודי ודודי לי
On the other hand, in verse 2:16 it says, "My Beloved is to me and I am to Him."
דודי לי ואני לו
Why here do we read these terms in reverse order?

Commentaries explain that the "me" refers to the people of Israel, and the "Beloved" refers to God. The Song of Songs portrays a loving relationship between God and the Jewish people.

This love affair can come about in one of two ways. Either God initiates the relationship, showing man the love He has for him, and man thereafter returns the love, as implied by the verse "My beloved is to me and I am to Him." Or, on the other hand, man can initiate the affair, showing his love to God first, and then God reciprocates by showing His love to man. This is connoted by "I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me."

To illustrate, there usually exist two sorts of stories by those who have "returned" to God. Some of these people speak of some divine revelation or intervention that occurred to them, as on some mountain peak in Thailand, or during a horrible traffic crash, or some special moment, when they felt the loving Hand of God. Such a situation relates to "My Beloved is to me ...".

In contrast, other such people never experienced a revelation or special miracle. They simply arrived at an intellectual conclusion they need to investigate the path of Judaism, and after a long process of search they concluded that truth lies in Torah, so they began to serve God. Only at a later stage did they begin to feel the love that God has for them. This type of affair is alluded to by "I am to my Beloved ...".

Were we to ponder the Jewish calendar, we'd find two months that parallel these two situations: The months of Nissan and Elul.

Nissan in Hebrew means "miracle". During Nissan, many miracles happened to the Jewish people during their exodus from Egypt, when God demonstrated His strong love for them, even though they did not deserve it on merits. Only at a later time did the Jewish people reciprocate with love of their own. The month of Nissan therefore fits the verse "My Beloved is to me ...".

But Elul is void of miracles, Godly revelations or special holidays. It's a month of working on oneself, of learning Torah and doing mitzvot, a time of thoughtful prayer and inner, self-reckoning. It's a time for climbing, of exerting oneself. When man achieves, on his own initiative, a closer relationship to God, God will then respond to him or her with love. Our sages illustrate this relationship as follows, "Wedge for Me an opening the size of a pinhole, and I'll expand it for you to the size of an auditorium".

Which is why Elul reflects "I am to my Beloved," - which then draws down "and My Beloved is to me".

The Alter Rebbe (the 1st Lubavitcher Rebbe) provided a metaphor for the month of Elul. It is that of a king who all year dwells in his palace. Only a privileged few can gain face-to-face access to him in his inner chambers. But there is one period during which the king makes himself available to the commonfolk, by going out to them in the fields. These folk, even dressed in their work clothes, now have the opportunity to meet the king. From there they can accompany the king to his palace.

This king is God. All year long God is in His heavenly palace, and in order to receive his attention, people have to achieve incredible spiritual heights or exceptional deeds. But during the month of Elul, God is near every individual, present at our location wherever we are, and gives us the chance to change, listens to us and responds by responding with a kind countenance and a smile.

Let us therefore exploit these days of mercy by examining our behaviors to see where they can be improved and thereby get closer to God. As it says, "Return to Me and I will return to you!" (Malachi 3:7)

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