Tradition Today: A time of love

Elul is dedicated to strengthening the closest, most loving possible relationship between ourselves and God.

'I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.’ The Hebrew of this verse from Song of Songs (6:3) – ani ledodi vedodi li – has been understood to be the acronym of Elul, the name of the month that begins this coming week. Following the midrashic interpretation of Song of Songs, in which the two lovers are seen as representing God and Israel, this verse then describes the intimate relationship between God – the Beloved – and the people Israel. According to this understanding the entire month of Elul is dedicated to strengthening the closest, most loving possible relationship between ourselves and God.
Elul, of course, is the month immediately preceding Rosh Hashana. There is something strange and paradoxical about using that verse describing love as characterizing the month leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe, the time of divine judgment. Fear and trembling would seem more appropriate. As the Maharal of Prague wrote, “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into his soul and search his deeds, that he may make confession.”
Of course originally the month of Elul was not given any task at all in the scheme of the Jewish year. Nowhere in the Torah is there any hint that Elul was in any way special or connected to the Days of Awe. The many customs associated with Elul developed much later, when it was felt that preparation was needed before entering into the most sacred days of the Jewish year.
One of the earliest such customs, that of sounding the shofar during the entire month, is mentioned in an eighth-century midrash, Pirkei Derebbi Eliezer, which connects it with the time when Moses went up to Sinai to receive the second set of tablets, a sign of God’s willingness to be reconciled with Israel after the sin of the golden calf. The midrash says that this is the event referred to in the verse “God ascends amidst acclamation; the Lord to the blast of the horn” (Ps. 47:6). Thus the sounding of the shofar is also a sign of love and reconciliation and not of harsh judgment.
Other customs of Elul include the recitation of special penitential prayers known as slihot and the daily recitation of Psalm 27, which begins with the words, “The Lord is my light and my help, whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?” Incidentally, the word lulei (were it not), which appears toward the end of the psalm, is Elul spelled backwards. None of this sounds especially threatening. Perhaps the message that Elul is intended to convey is that regardless of the theme of judgment found in Rosh Hashana, Judaism teaches that God is a God of love and mercy and not a God of punishment who is to be feared. Revered – yes, feared – no.
The theme of judgment on Rosh Hashana is first mentioned explicitly in the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 1:2): On Rosh Hashana all human beings [are judged], they pass before Him as troops, as it is said, “The Lord looks down from heaven; He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth – He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings” (Ps. 33:13-15).
Based on this, several liturgical poems elaborated on the idea of judgment, the most important being Un’taneh tokef, which gives a vivid and indeed frightening picture of “the day of judgment.” As a matter of fact, the author of that great piyyut has borrowed his imagery from prophetic and apocalyptic descriptions of the final day of judgment for all humanity that do not appear in the Mishna at all and has ascribed them to the yearly day of judgment, Rosh Hashana. Yet it seems to me that it is a mistake to overemphasize the fear of judgment when so much else in the liturgy and in Jewish teaching seems to be pointing rather toward a relationship of love between God and human beings.
Why else should the tradition take that verse from Song of Songs as the meaning of this month of preparation? Why else interpret the shofar as a sound of loving reconciliation? So much in Judaism points in the same direction. Consider the fact that when winding the straps of the tefillin around one’s fingers, the verses recited are a marriage formula, “And I will espouse you forever; I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness; then you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:21-22).
Elul is an important month for us. It is a time to reflect upon our lives and our deeds, a time to open ourselves up for judgment and therefore for change and improvement. But at the same time it is an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God, so that the days of awe are also the days when “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.