Parents know each child is different. Similarly, each month is different; each has a different “personality” and a different function.
What is the nature of the month of Elul?
According to one system of counting, it is the last month of the year. If our fate during the coming year is decided between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, then Elul must be very important.
How do we try to ensure that the coming year will be good?
This is our job during Elul.
Elul has been described by the acronym Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine” (Shir HaShirim 6:3).
Isn’t it strange to think of Elul in this way? We are coming before our Father and King for judgment. We crown Hashem “Melech” on Rosh Hashanah. How, then, can we describe our relationship with the Supreme Judge, who holds our fate in His hands, in such romantic terms? Does this make sense?
Imagine you are on trial for your life. You are trembling in the courtroom. Armed guards are watching you. The prosecutor is about to list your crimes. At that moment, would you tell the judge how much you love him? You would be crazy!
Or maybe not.
The way we put on tefillin offers a parable for life. First we put on the shel yad, which is tied around the upper arm opposite the heart. Then we place the shel rosh upon our head and, lastly, we wrap the retzuah (leather strap) around our hand. What does this teach us? That the heart is primary.
We begin the day by adjusting our emotional orientation. When we place the shel yad upon our arm, our heart is bombarded with holy “radiation” from the tefillin. If our heart is good, we will be good. So we send healing into the heart in order to bring it under the influence of Torah. Following the heart, we place the tefillin upon our head, and then we wrap the retzuah around the hand.
But the heart is primary. As the Gemara says, “Hashem wants the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b). If a person is “happy with his lot” and full of chesed, all else will follow. The heart must be good; then comes the brain. We take our good, generous emotions and the brain conceives of ways to implement them. The last step is action itself, symbolized by the retzuah.
We have to work on our heart. The cause of our Exile was sinas chinam, unwarranted hatred between Jew and Jew. The cure is ahavas chinam, “unwarranted” love. “Sinah” and “ahavah” are emotions, which emanate from the heart. The heart must be cured and trained.
The way we prepare for life by regulating our emotions, so we prepare for our encounter with God. Elul thus becomes the month in which “ani l’dodi v’dodi li.”
We also need an ayin tovah – a good eye.
The Mishnah (Avos 5:22) teaches: “Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul are among the disciples of our Father Avraham. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Bilaam.” Rabbi Yissocher Frand asks, “What does ‘ayin tovah’ really mean? It means a generosity of spirit and a generosity of dealing with people.”
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On Yom Kippur the kohen gadol enters the Kodesh HaKadoshim. What does he find? Atop the Aron HaKodesh are the kruvim, facing each other. These two figures, male and female, represent a loving couple. When Hashem created the world, he populated Gan Eden with Adam and Chava, who represent the culmination of creation. That they rebelled against Him represents their own weakness, but quite clearly they were created with the ability to live in perfect harmony in the presence of Hashem. If a man and woman live together the way Hashem commands, their relationship is the building block of His world.
But there is more.
The Gemara tells us that the kruvim represent the relationship between Am Yisrael and God. “Rabbi Katina said: When the Jewish people made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the festivals, the priests would roll up the partition of the Holy of Holies and show them the kruvim in amorous embrace. ‘Look,’ they would say to the people, ‘God’s love for you is like the love between a man and woman’ ” (Yoma 54b).