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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The Month of Elul

Elul's Intimate Relationship

Our holy books note an allusion to the month of Elul in the Hebrew acronym of the verse “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). From here we can learn a number of ideas regarding the nature of Elul's unique divine worship.
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1. An Intimate Relationship
2. First - I am my beloved's; then - my beloved is mine.
3. "And they stood forty days."
4. Selflessness - the Power to Act
5. "Were it not that I believed"

An Intimate Relationship
Our holy books note an allusion to the Hebrew month of Elul in the acronym of the verse "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" (Song of Songs 6:3; the sages in fact cite a number verses whose initials spell "Elul" and which hint at the essential meaning of this month, however, this is the most well-known and hence the most significant of the verses). From here we can learn a number of ideas regarding the nature of Elul's unique divine worship.

We find that the relationship between God and Israel, according to this verse, is like the relationship between a pair of lovers. Yet, we would expect such a relationship to be something more akin to the relationship between a subject and his king, a relationship through which God is revealed as king of the entire earth, saying (in accordance with the Rosh Hashanah liturgy): "Recite before Me kingships in order to make Me king over you."

A plausible explanation is that the holiday-filled month of Tishrei witnesses a process of growth in the relationship between Israel and the Almighty. On Rosh Hashanah, God reveals Himself to us as a king, and we recite verses of kingship before Him. However, we take care not to mention sin on Rosh HaShannah, and we likewise refrain from reciting confession. It would appear that the reason for this is that "even if a king waives his honor, his honor remains unwaived."

However, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of forgiveness and atonement, God displays more compassion towards us. We therefore recall sins and confess five times on Yom Kippur. God appears to be revealing Himself as a father to his children, and "if a father waives his honor, his honor is waived.

Finally, at Sukkot, the time of our joy, when "God brings us into His inner chamber" and we take refuge in the shade of the Sukkah, a feeling of love between the Almighty and the Congregation of Israel can be felt, like a bride and groom, like a pair of lovers.

And if this is the case, the month of Elul, which precedes Tishrei, can be seen as a time wherein we anticipate the final goal. We prepare ourselves for a state of closeness to God, and the end state depends upon the beginning, and therefore the month is alluded to in the verse "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."

First - I am my beloved's; then - my beloved is mine
The sacred books teach that the month of Nisan is alluded to in the verse, "My beloved is mine, and I am his" (Song of Songs 2:16). In other words, the Almighty initiates Israel's redemption via an "upper awakening" - "My beloved is mine." Only after this do we requite His love - "and I am His." This is different than the month of Elul, in which we bear the responsibility of becoming awakened down below, drawing ourselves near to God in accordance with the sequence of the verse, "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine."

The novelty of this understanding is that, while in the month of Nisan the Almighty creates us "anew" (in the sense of "This month shall be for you the first of the months" [Exodus 12:2]), in the month of Elul we are given the capacity to improve our actions (in the sense of "Shofar - improve your actions" [Vayikra Rabba]; the Hebrew word for "improve" ["shaper"] is similar to the word "Shofar").

"And they stood forty days"
The Talmud (Sota 42b) addresses the question, how is it that Goliath stood forty days and insulted the armies of God?
"'And he stood for forty days' - Rabbi Yochanan says: These correspond to the forty days in which the Torah was given."

In other words, they correspond to the forty days during which Moses went up onto Mount Sinai to bring down the Torah to Israel, which were days of Divine compassion. It appears that this is coming to teach us that God made the two events correspond: in proportion to the great merit of these days there is an powerful accuser who arouses judgment.

How can this accuser be overcome? King David teaches us how. Goliath the giant appears garbed in scaled armor, and gives the impression of being insurmountable - certainly not by the little David who wears no protective clothing. All the same, David succeeds in striking him in his weak spot and thus defeating him.

It would appear that David struck Goliath in his spiritual weak point. This is evidenced by what David says to Goliath (1 Shmuel 17:45): "Then said David to the Philistine: You come to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied."

We stand awestruck by David's boldness, but it stems from his selflessness before God. It is not he that wages battle upon Goliath, but the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel. Therefore, it is clear that he will defeat Goliath. From here we learn, with regard to the month of Elul, that one must not fear the threats of the evil inclination when it tries to frighten us with what appears to be insurmountably strict judgment. Rather, we must trust that God will help us to overcome it, for we come armed with the power of God who calls upon us to return to Him. The first step, however, must come from us.

Selflessness - the Power to Act
In his sermons for the month of Elul, Sefat Emet explains that Psalms 100:3 is read, "Know that the Lord is God; it is He who made us, and we belong to Him," while it is written (note: in the Hebrew Scriptures there are sometimes differences between the way a word is read and the way it is written), "Know that the Lord is God; it is He who made us - not us." In other words, by nullifying ourselves before God, i.e., "not us" (lamed and alef = EL), we merit sensing that "we belong to him" (lamed and vav = UL). We might even add, according to what we have said above, that David's selflessness gave him the power to act against Goliath because he was filled with the sense that he acted in the name of God. By emulating David we can, if we so desire, act to change and improve the state of existence.

"Were it not that I believed"
The sacred books also teach that there is an allusion to the month of Elul in chapter 27 of Psalms which is read in the synagoge in Elul. It is the word "lu-le" ("Were it not that") in verse 13: "Were it not that I believe, I should see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." The word lu-le, when reversed, reads Elul, and the sages of the Midrash teach (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehilim 707): "Were it not that I believe, I should see the goodness of the Lord" - a Tanna taught in the name of R' Yose: "Why are there dots upon the world ‘lu-le’? David spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘Master of the world, I am sure that You will pay a good reward to the righteous in the world to come, but I do not know whether I shall have a share in it?' [He was afraid that] some sin might cause [his exclusion]."

Ostensibly, what we have here is a paradox. If David believed, then why was he so concerned and frightened that some sin might cause his exclusion? Rather, because he feared so that some sin might cause his exclusion, he was very resolute in his faith that God would help him.

As Hillel used to say (Avot 1:14): "If I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am for myself [only], what am I, and if not now, when?" On the one hand, everything depends upon me; on the other hand, I myself cannot do a thing without heavenly aid.

This is the essence of the month of Elul: On a spiritual level, one must be God-fearing lest he stumble in sin; on a practical level, one must act fearlessly to rectify the matters. When this is done, one who declares "Were it not that I believe" will believe that "I am my beloved's" leads to "my beloved is mine."

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Some of the translated sources in the above article are taken from or based upon Soncino's Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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