Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Elul, the month immediately preceding Tishrei, serves as the spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is the month of repentance, when an honest cheshbon hanefesh, soul-reckoning, is made of the past year. Just as a businessman assesses his business to determine how to run it more smoothly and successfully, so a Jew in the month of Elul assesses his past year’s spiritual service to G-d.

The Rebbe explains that the meaning of Elul is alluded to in its name. The letters of the word Elul, one of its acronyms, are the initial letters of the words, “Ina Leyodoh VeSamti Lecho – [G-d] caused it to happen, and I will provide [a place] for you [to which he can flee].”


This verse refers to a situation in which a person accidentally kills someone. To protect him from the vengeance of the slain man’s relatives, the Torah mandates that “cities of refuge” be set up to which such accidental killers can flee and be safe.

The cities of refuge provide a haven for the person’s body. But what of his soul? Although he did not mean to kill, a Jew should not transgress even unintentionally, for not only the soul, but even a Jew’s body, should by its very nature and essence recoil from sin. A truly righteous person does not sin even inadvertently.

A Jew, however, also possesses an animal soul, which muffles the sensitivity of his G-dly soul and leads him to do animal-like things. He therefore needs atonement for even unintentional transgressions. The atonement for the person who kills accidentally is that he must stay exiled inside a city of refuge, for exile atones for sins.

The month of Elul parallels the situation described above. With every transgression, a Jew sheds blood in that he deprives his G-dly soul of its vitality. Yet atonement is possible if the person will exile himself to the “city of refuge” in the dimension of time, which is the month of Elul.

Exile means to leave “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house,” the spiritual equivalent of which is to leave one’s desires, one’s ingrained character traits, and the conclusions reached by the human intellect – anything that is a barrier to total submission to the yoke of heaven. In short, a Jew must escape from his egocentric existence and embrace a new life founded on the conclusions of true soul-searching and repentance. Then such “exile” is an atonement for both intentional and unintentional transgressions, and one is saved from the seekers of vengeance – that is, from any unfavorable pronouncements of heavenly justice for one’s sins.


Paths to Elul

Not only must cities of refuge be built, but, as Rambam writes, “The court is obliged to define the paths that lead to the cities of refuge, to repair them and to broaden them…” In spiritual terms, this corresponds to the paths whereby one reaches the spiritual city of refuge – the month of Elul.

A Ksiva Vachasima Tova – a happy, healthy and prosperous new year to all our brethren.


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Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman is director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. He can be reached at [email protected].