And now we come to Elul, the final month for self-reflection and introspection before we once again encounter the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe.
A few days ago a friend and neighbor of mine in Mississippi asked me: what is the significance of Rosh Hashanah? (I had just mentioned it in relation to another upcoming event on our calendars.) I found myself explaining not only the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year,” though it is one of no less than four “new year” observances in the Jewish calendar!) but also its place in the whole progression from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, and beyond. I described the opportunity, offered to us explicitly at this season: for t’shuvah; atonement; forgiveness; for refreshing our priorities and values; for repairing our relationships with one another, with the world we share, and with God.
“That sounds so lovely,” my friend replied.
It surprised me, at first. This season does have the advantage of bringing us face to face with what and who is most important in our lives. But it’s pretty heavy stuff. No latkes and hamantaschen, no pretty outdoor huts or four questions (with the attendant four glasses of wine). This is not a season for merrymaking, like so many others in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, and Elul preceding it, and the Days of Awe following it, require hard, sometimes painful work in exchange for the big spiritual payoff. This part of Jewish tradition can be a hard sell, even (perhaps especially?) with the Jews. It is not always fun. But it is lovely.
The month of Elul begins this year on August 6th at sundown. A midrash (a rabbinic tale) identifies it as an acronym for ani ledodi vedodi li—“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”—from Song of Songs 6:3. The first letter of each word—aleph, lamed, vav, lamed—taken together spell “Elul”. The midrash reads the phrase as an exchange between God and Israel. True and lasting love requires tending. It requires sometimes arduous work. But how much lighter the burden of the work when it is for the sake of a beloved, with the knowledge that we are likewise loved?
Why do we work so hard to become our best selves at this time of year? Is it because God (or friends, or parents, or qi, or the forces for good in the universe, or whatever you call that which inspires you to be your best), despises our imperfect selves? Must we better ourselves to earn back the love of our beloved? Ani ledodi vedodi li: Elul comes to remind us that it is precisely because we are loved, no matter what, that God (or whomever else loves us) wants us to shine as brightly as we can.
And Elul comes to remind us that we are not expected to complete this daunting task all at once, in a day, or even in ten days—but over the course of a month and ten days, one tiny step at a time. Forty days to make ourselves over in the image (or eyes) of our beloved.
To help in this project, I will offer, as I did before Passover, a tikkun of texts for daily study and reflection. I will send it out to the congregation by email on August 5th, the 29th of Av, and it will also be available on the Temple website.
Meanwhile, try out this text: Ani ledodi vedodi li; “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” Is this statement true for you? If not, why? What does it mean in your life? Can “beloved” refer to something other than a human being? What can we change, in our thoughts or our actions, to make the text true, or more true, for ourselves? .