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.”
* * * * *
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).
Do you think that after all our rebellions against Him, Hashem would still want us back if He didn’t love us? After all that we have done to Him? We know He wants us back. Don’t we say every day that He will send a redeemer “b’ahavah” – with love (Shemoneh Esrei)?
If Hashem did not love us, our history would have ended thousands of years ago. And during Elul we remember our mutual love. This love between the Ribbono shel Olam and Am Yisrael is the foundation of everything – all history, all hope, all ruchnius and the entire existence of our Holy Nation.
How do we begin Shabbos, the holiest day of the week? With Shir HaShirim, the passionate outpouring that describes the ageless love between Hashem and His People.
Chapter two: “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the youths; in his shadow I long to sit, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. He brings me to the house of wine, and looks at me with love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am lovesick…”
Chapter three: “On my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but I did not find him. I will rise and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares…. I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but I did not find him…”
Did you ever read of such heights of passion or depths of longing? This is the love between Am Yisrael and Hashem. Our eternal search for Him has been the entire purpose of our national existence.
Listen to the suffering of Am Yisrael (chapter five): “I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he did not answer me. The watchmen who go about the city found me; they struck me; they wounded me; the guardians of the walls stripped me of my mantle…”
Has there ever been such love and such suffering as ours?
But we do not give up, and we are sustained by the conviction that our quest will be rewarded. This conviction is reflected in the songs of Shabbos, beginning with Lecha Dodi, which describes the chassanah between us and our Creator.
Why is Shabbos a bride? Because on Shabbos the Nation of Israel and Hashem become one again. Shabbos is not a theory; it’s in our heart and soul because it is an expression of love. “Enter in peace, oh crown of her husband. Even in gladness and good cheer, among the faithful of the treasured nation, enter Oh bride! Enter Oh bride” (Lecha Dodi).
But we don’t limit our expression of love to Shabbos. We begin and end every day with an expression of love – “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad.” What is the Shema telling us? Hashem, our God, is the One and Only.” Is this not marriage?
Every day we say, “You shall love Hashem your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your resources.” Is that not a marriage vow? And the Shema goes on to list the consequences of love and, God forbid, the consequences if we forsake the One we love. We don’t want to get divorced from Hashem. Divorce from Hashem is called Galus, exile, and the pain is beyond description in a world that hates us.
“And you will swiftly be banished from the goodly land that Hashem gives you.”
If that is not divorce, what is it?
As Shabbos ends, we express our longing for the days of our simcha with Hashem. “Majestic, beautiful, Radiance of the universe, my soul pines for Your love…. Please… spread upon me, my Beloved, the shelter of Your peace…” (Yedid Nefesh).
This is exactly the emotion the Torah wants us to feel as we enter the days leading to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We refer to Hashem as “Melech” on Rosh Hashanah. Isn’t that exactly what a bridegroom is called? When we stand for the chassan at the chuppah, are we not standing up for a king?
“A groom is similar to a king. Just as a king does not go out in public alone, so too a groom does not go out in public alone. Just as a king wears garments of honor, so too does a groom wear garments of honor during the seven days of rejoicing. Just as everyone praises a king, so too everyone praises a groom during the seven days…. Just as the king’s face shines like the sun, so too does a groom’s face shine like the sun, as it says (in Tehillim 19), ‘He has set up a tent for the sun, which is like a groom going forth from his bridal chamber’ ” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 16).
Here is a description, from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, of the similarity between a bridegroom and the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur: “On his wedding day, a bridegroom is like the High Priest going into the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies is like the chuppah and the kohen gadol is drawing himself into an intimate relationship with God, just as a bridegroom is preparing for an intimate relationship with his bride.”
Just as the chassan is similar to a king, on Yom Kippur he is similar to the kohen gadol. During the Yomim Noraim we enter into an intimate relationship with Hashem. He becomes not only our chassanbut our King.
* * * * *
For the past three years we have davened on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Beit El Yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael. The place is full of kedushah; the atmosphere is electric. There is much singing, but the climax is at the words “v’chol ma’aminim” – “All believe He is the eternal King, Who gives sovereignty to kings, but retains kingship.” When we reach those words, the beis medrash explodes in ecstatic song. The entire kehillah sways back and forth for perhaps twenty minutes, singing the most beautiful niggun.
Who can be so excited? Only Jews who are crowning Hashem King.
What is this excitement? It is called love.
At the moment the recent massive Siyum HaShas was completed, Rabbi Shlomo Gertzulin shouted “mazal tov” into the microphone and ninety-two thousand Jews exploded in song, swaying and dancing for a quarter of an hour. I watched security officials as they witnessed holy Jews delirious over Torah. They were used to seeing – lehavdil – crowds going crazy over a piece of leather being carried over a white line as well as fights on and off the field as helmeted hulks battle each other. Here you had myriads of Jews, delirious over Hashem and His Torah. No fights. Only Kiddush Hashem.
What is this if not an emotional, passionate, eternal love affair?
There is in fact nothing in the human experience that compares to the love between Am Yisrael and the Ribbono shel Olam. We should keep this in mind as we enter the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If Hashem were not our basherte, we would not stand a chance. But we are His basherte! Therefore, we not only stand a chance, we are about to have a new chassanah that will rank equally with the Great Day of our betrothal at Har Sinai.
Who will be the wedding guests? Legions of angels.
The world will sing with the sweet music of the Levi’im and inhale the perfect aroma of the ketores, the incense. Tzaddikim will dine under the chuppah, made of the skin of the Leviathan.
“We will revere You and sanctify You according to the counsel of the holy Seraphim, who sanctify Your Name in the Sanctuary, as it is written by Your prophet: ‘And one will call another and say, ‘Holy, holy, holy is Hashem, Master of Legions, the whole world is filled with His glory.’
“From His place may He turn with compassion and be gracious to the people who declare the Oneness of His Name, evening and morning every day, constantly, twice, with love, they proclaim ‘Shema’…and He will let us hear, in His compassion, for a second time in the presence of all the living…‘to be a God to you, I am Hashem, your God’ ” (Shabbos Mussaf Kedushah).
Let us prepare for the renewal of our vows to the Master of the Universe.
This is the greatest love story of all time, and we are in it!
“Please be revealed, and spread upon me, my Beloved, the shelter of Your peace. Illuminate the world with Your glory that we may rejoice and be glad with You. Hasten, show love, for the time has come, and show us grace as in days of old” (Yedid Nefesh).
Roy Neuberger’s latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim), is available in English, Hebrew and Spanish, with French, Russian and Portuguese editions in preparation. Roy is also the author of “From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul” (available in English, Hebrew and Russian) and “Worldstorm.”
About the Author: Roy Neuberger's latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim), is available in English, Hebrew and Spanish, with French and Russian editions in preparation. Roy is also the author of "From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul” (available in English, Hebrew and Rus-sian) and "Worldstorm.” Roy and his wife speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his websites www.tosinai.com and www.2020visionthebook.com.
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