What’s love got to do with it? The power of the Jewish month of Elul
While we are charged during Elul with relentless self-examination, it occurs within a relationship that is thoroughly grounded in compassion.
“Preparation” and “love” – what do these two words have in common?
I am a new mother. Five months ago, we were blessed to welcome twins, a son and a daughter, into our family. However, it was not in March, when they were born, that I began to love these two new lives; my love came much earlier. The moment we learned of our impending arrival (at the time we thought it was a singleton), I hurriedly prepared for this new journey. I made some major changes in my life – how I ate, slept, exercised, worked, in other words, how I lived. I was now taking care of this impending life and preparing for his/her arrival. I was preparing for unconditional parental love.
A few days ago the month of Elul began. Every month in the Jewish calendar has its own energy. Because Elul is the month preceding Tishrei – when Jews around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot – it is considered a time when we begin what the rabbis call “cheshbon hanefesh” – an “accounting” of our soul. We recall our thoughts and actions over the past year and begin to seek t’shuvah (repentance) for the things we did wrong, or that harmed others, and seek forgiveness from those we may have wronged. In other words, Elul is the pregnancy before the birth of the New Year. It is a month of preparation – preparation for what? Preparation for love, and let me explain why.
The rabbis teach us that Elul is actually an acronym. Each of the Hebrew letters - אלול - alef, lamed, vav, lamed – stands for the beginning letter of each word in the phrase “אני לדודי ודודי לי" – ani ledodi vedodi li – I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. It is a familiar phrase taken from Song of Songs 6:3. Why would this month bear that name, and why from that text? One answer is that as we pass our experiences from the past year through our sieve of self critique, we want that process to occur within a loving, compassionate relationship, and not one that is punitive or scolding. The Song of Songs is a celebration of a loving, lusty relationship between grown-ups. It is characterized by a yearning to see our beloved’s face, and to feel the closeness that is possible as lovers, or, as the rabbis understood it, between God and the Jewish people. Thus, while we are charged during Elul with relentless self-examination, it occurs within a relationship that is thoroughly grounded in compassion and a desire to return to a life that is unencumbered by callous and witless behavior.
Love is as indispensable to life as water. At its core, Judaism is all about love. We are commanded to love God, love others and love ourselves. Elul is a compass that helps guide us in the right direction, so that we can re-focus on these ideas in our lives. Love is not so simple and it requires work and preparation. The love Judaism asks us to subscribe to is one containing deep introspection and reflection. The rabbis connected Elul to love as a reminder to use this month to prepare for the love, to work to accept it in all its incarnations.
Elul is the month to dig deeply and seek out the cracks where love does not reside in our relationship to God, with each other and with our own souls. In doing so, we build a stronger love, one that is rich not only in meaning and feeling but also in the ability to constantly change and grow. Each year during Elul we have a chance to re-commit to this love, a love for all three – God, the other and self – that is an abiding love. A love that can guide each of us for the other 11 months of the year, and especially during the month of Tishrei, when we unite for the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays.
Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout NYC and beyond teaching, speaking and writing about Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com