Elul came early this year – or perhaps August came late. In any case, this week we entered that important month of the Jewish calendar.Elul does not figure in the various lists of holy days we find in the Torah, but since it precedes Tishrei, the month of the High Holy Days, over the centuries it became important as the month of preparation for those sacred times.Therefore, during Elul we sound the shofar, read a special penitential psalm, Psalm 27, and recite slihot, special prayers asking for forgiveness.Elul becomes, in other words, a time of contemplation, a time to consider what we have done or not done during the past year, a time to improve and to change.Since we are to stand in judgment at the end of Elul, it would be easy to view that month as a time of fear and trembling, for who is not afraid when appearing before a judge? How much more so when the judge is “the highest judge of all”! Psalm 27 itself begins with the words, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?” This indicates that while at such a time we might well be afraid, yet tells us that having hope in the Lord, there is no reason to fear.Indeed, the Jewish tradition has tended to play down the aspect of fear and to emphasize instead the positive nature of the opportunity that Elul gives us – to establish a closer relationship to God.We see this clearly in the fact that tradition has interpreted the name Elul – alef, lamed, vav, lamed – as being the first letters of the verse from the Song of Songs “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (6:3). Although Song of Songs is clearly love poetry between a young man and a young woman, the sages, led by Rabbi Akiva, applied it to the relationship between Israel and God. God is the dod – the male beloved – and Israel is the female. What Akiva was saying was that there is no better way to understand and represent the relationship between Israel and God than to compare it to the love of man and woman. By making this verse the slogan of the month of Elul, tradition has determined that Elul is the month in which we can most closely come into contact with God, and achieve the love and intimacy that humans achieve when they are in love.The use of the Song of Songs is only the final step in Judaism’s depiction of divine love in human terms. The Shema – which is as close to a formulated credo as Judaism gets – sets the tone by stating, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and with all your might.” Although there are other verses in which we are commanded to fear or revere God, the sages did not ask us to recite them since they saw these motivations as inferior to love – for they imply obedience only because we fear punishment. Love is a pure motive which asks nothing in return.The Song of Songs verse is especially meaningful because it implies a relationship of mutuality. Just as we love God, so does God love us. This was made clear in the formulation of the blessings just before the Shema, beginning with, “With abounding love have You loved us, O Lord our God,” and concluding with, “...Who chooses His people Israel with love.”How fortunate we are to have this entire month to contemplate and develop this mutual relationship with God, and to enter the time of judgment free from fear because of God’s love for us.