Tradition today: Elul - the month of love

As we approach the High Holy Days and prepare ourselves for the Day of Judgment, we should not allow their seriousness and solemnity to overwhelm us.

couple in love_58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
couple in love_58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Irecently officiated at a wedding at which the bride gave the groom a ring and recited the oft-quoted verse from the Song of Songs, “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
The significance of that verse for marriage is all too often glossed over. Spoken by the woman in the Song of Songs, it is a remarkable expression of equality and mutuality in the relationship between men and women. In the that biblical text, the man and the woman are on the same level. He is hers just as she is his, no more and no less. When love is involved, as it is in the Song of Songs – a book devoted to the topic of what real love means – male and female must be equals.
This is all the more remarkable when we consider that traditional Jewish exegesis has interpreted that book as being the expression of the relationship between God and Israel, the male figure representing God and the female representing the Jewish people. Following the rabbinic principle that “the biblical text never expunges its simple meaning,” this interpretation does not negate the reference to the relationship between men and women, but adds an additional level. It indicates that if we are to attempt to imagine the relationship between God and Israel, there is no better way than to compare it to the love of man and woman.
This is remarkably daring, since there is no way in which God and Israel can be said to be truly equal, yet the relationship depicted is indeed a mutual one. The Torah itself often uses that terminology, as do many of the prophets. The Sages adopted that in their reinterpretation of the Song of Songs. We, too, refer to God as the “beloved” – dod – Friday evening when we chant Lecha Dodi – “Come, My Beloved” – asking God to usher in the messianic era, the time of the ultimate Shabbat of peace and restoration.
The month that we are about to enter, Elul, is also connected to the Song of Songs verse. The Sages indicated that the name of this month, which is devoted to preparation for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, actually consists of the first letters of the verse’s words – alef, lamed, vav, lamed. They also pointed out that the psalm read each day of Elul contains the word lulei, which is Elul backward. The verse can be said to mean that to attain forgiveness and atonement, we rely upon the fact that “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine” – the closeness and mutuality of our relationship to God.
Connecting Elul to this particular verse gives the month a different feeling than might have been expected. After all, Elul leads up to Yom Hadin – the Day of Judgment. There is little or nothing remotely romantic about standing in judgment. Anyone who has ever been called to court is well aware of the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies such a situation. On Rosh Hashana, we are standing in judgment before the “Highest Judge of all,” to borrow a phrase from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel.
And yet the Sages had the audacity to address the Judge as dodi – my Beloved.
As we approach the High Holy Days and prepare ourselves for the Day of Judgment, we should not allow their seriousness and solemnity to overwhelm us. Rather, we should approach them with the knowledge that, as Judaism teaches, God is ready to accept our repentance with love and to enter a relationship with us that is close and intimate, even though in reality we are far from equal. If we aspire to be worthy of that relationship, we will find God to be a loving and willing partner.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.