The month of love

Welcome to Elul, the month of preparation, self-awareness, forgiveness and love between ourselves and God.

Rocks good illustrative for love 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock)
Rocks good illustrative for love 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
This is the first week of the month of Elul – the sixth month of the Jewish year. If you were to look in the Torah for a reference to Elul, you would not find it. There are no holidays in Elul.
Nothing special seems to be going on. But in post-biblical times, in the calendar of rabbinic Judaism, the whole month of Elul becomes a period of great significance, an entire month devoted to preparation for the great days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe.
How is it possible to enter this time of judgment and repentance with no preparation? You cannot simply take the plunge.
You have to spend time getting ready – indeed, an entire month is not too much. 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.”
Over the course of the centuries various practices have been developed to help us with that task, actions that make Elul a very special month. The shofar is sounded each day, reminding us of the need to search our deeds but also signifying that God is forgiving, desiring life and not death, as the story of the binding of Isaac teaches. Special prayers of forgiveness, Slihot, are recited early in the morning or late at night – in which God’s attributes of mercy (Exodus 34:6-7), revealed to Moses at the time of the sin of the golden calf, are repeated.
A special psalm is also chanted morning and evening, Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my help, whom should I fear?” The psalm is particularly appropriate because it reveals the anxiety that we all feel regarding the future and our uncertainty in standing before God, yet ends with a positive note, a feeling of hope. It provides assurance that the individual “will enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” and urges us to “Be strong and of good courage! Hope in the Lord!” Significantly, the word Elul itself has been interpreted as representing the first letters of the Hebrew verse Ani ledodi vedodi li – “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” chapter 6, verse 3 in the Song of Songs. This book was interpreted by Rabbi Akiva and others as referring to the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The beloved – dod – is God, while the woman is Israel.
That, incidentally, is the meaning of the hymn in the Kabbalat Shabbat service called “Lecha Dodi” – “Come, my beloved” – a call to God, the beloved, to bring in the Messianic era – the Shabbat. According to Akiva, then, the true relationship of God and Israel is a relationship of love, not fear, best likened to the relationship between man and wife.
This interpretation is especially significant during Elul.
The thought of the days of judgment could indeed generate a feeling of fear, almost of panic. Indeed, the title “Days of Awe” points in that direction, as does some of the poetry of those days such as the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. The use of the verse from Song of Songs as the meaning of the month of Elul serves to ameliorate that fear and remind us that love is the primary relationship with the Divine. It should not be forgotten that the command in Deuteronomy is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might,” and that the prayers preceding the recitation of that verse state that God loves us greatly as well. The relationship is of mutual love.
Welcome, then, to Elul, the month of preparation, the month of self-awareness, the month of forgiveness, the month of establishing a relationship of love between ourselves and God.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).