Nothing in life is an accident. In Parashas Va’eschanan, we read about the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge for those who unintentionally killed (Devarim 4:41-49). This parasha usually falls out immediately following Tisha B’Av, and, consequently, shortly before Elul. At face value, the Arei Miklat, Tisha B’Av, and Elul do not seem to share a thematic connection. The Ir Miklat is a city of refuge – a safe haven – for one who unwittingly murders. Tisha B’Av is a day of sadness and destruction, as Klal Yisrael mourns the loss of the Beis HaMikdash and the tragedies that have occurred throughout Jewish History. Elul is the month of teshuva. What links these three topics together? In order to understand their deep underlying connection, let us delve into each of these three topics.
Tisha B’Av: The Death of the World
On Tisha B’Av, we go through a process of aveilus (mourning), similar to the process of mourning a loved one. This seems to be an excessive response to the loss of a building – the Beis HaMikdash. However, the destruction of the Temple itself was merely the physical expression of a much deeper tragedy. As we have previously discussed, the Beis HaMikdash was the makom of connection between Hashem and this physical world. The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed as a result of the disconnect that we, Klal Yisrael, created between us and Hashem, between us and our fellow man, and between us and ourselves. We lost sight of the spiritual root of this world, shattering the connection between us and Hashem. As the Nefesh HaChaim explains, once this was broken, the physical vessel that represented this connection i.e., the Beis HaMikdash, was reduced to an empty shell that could easily be destroyed (Nefesh HaChaim 1:4).
The concept of death is the disconnect between a spiritual life-force and its physical vessel. The death of a person is the process of one’s soul separating from their body. (Death is a stage of life, not the end of life.) When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, the world died. The soul of the world, i.e., Hashem, left its body, its vessel – the physical world – resulting in a cosmic spiritual chasm and a shattered reality. (True, Hashem is still manifest in this world, but only infinitesimally compared to the connection that once was.) We mourn on Tisha B’Av not just for the destruction of a building but for the death of the world itself. And we yearn for the day when Hashem will once again be fully and clearly manifest in this world, revealing the spiritual essence of this physical reality.
Based on this idea, it is now clear why Klal Yisrael was sent into galus as a result of the churban Beis HaMikdash (destruction of the Temple). A person who murders another intentionally is executed as punishment. [This is middah k’neged middah (measure for measure): The murderer removed his victim’s soul from the physical world, so he is punished likewise. An accidental murderer, on the other hand, is not executed but exiled. This is also middah k’neged middah, but due to the unintentional nature of the act, the punishment is less severe. Instead of the killer losing his existence in the physical world, he loses his physical “place” in the world, his makom. He is forced to leave his home and live in exile. Interestingly, the word for place (makom) is deeply connected to the word for existence (kiyum). Hashem gives existence to the world (kiyum) by creating a place for the world (makom). When one takes away their fellow man’s existence in the physical world (kiyum), they also take away their place within it (makom).]
When the Jewish People “killed” the world, we were sent into exile. We lost our home, our makom – Eretz Yisrael. According to some opinions, this was in fact an act of mercy on the part of Hashem, as the Jewish People should have been executed for murdering the world – for having severed its soul from its body. Instead, though, we were merely exiled, maintaining the ability to correct our mistake and return home.
This serves as a beautiful explanation of the Midrash that states that instead of destroying the Jewish People, Hashem took his wrath out on the wood and stones of the Beis HaMikdash (Eichah Rabbah 4:14). Hashem destroyed the Beis HaMikdash, but He did not destroy us, giving us the chance to rebuild anew. Our exile, in a sense, is a gift, as it allows us to rebuild the connection between us and Hashem and return home once more.
Elul: Returning Home
This is why Elul directly follows Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is the time of breakdown, exile, and death. Elul is the time of rejuvenation, redirection, and rebirth. As we transition from Tisha B’Av toward Elul, we pause, stop the negative momentum, and begin building anew. The low of Tisha B’Av becomes the impetus for growth throughout the month of Elul, and in this way, it becomes a yeridah l’tzorech aliyah – a breakdown for the sake of ascension. Elul, in the deepest sense, represents our journey back home to our proper makom, back to our unbreakable bond with Hashem. The goal of Rosh Hashana is to fully and wholeheartedly anoint and embrace Hashem as our King. This can only happen after a month spent bridging the gap that we created between us. Elul is our voyage back home as we reconnect Hashem to this world – the Soul of the world to its proper place. The literal meaning of the word “teshuva” is “return” (shuv means return), and that is our goal at this time. We yearn to return the world to its proper, higher state, to return the Jewish People back to our elevated status, and for each and every one of us to return to our higher, true selves.
The process of return is a joyous one, but it is also a challenging one. We often feel as though we are fighting an uphill battle, and we struggle to maintain momentum and continue gaining ground. Every year as we approach Elul, there is an underlying sense of dread as we prepare ourselves for another year of “New Year’s resolutions,” writing down the same list of goals, only to be forgotten two weeks later. For many, this is the unspoken dread of Elul – the feeling of despair and loneliness as we grapple to rebuild ourselves and what feels like a broken connection with Hashem. This is why Hashem created the Ir Miklat.
Ir Miklat: a Place for Those without a Place
An Ir Miklat is a place for those without a place. When one loses his physical makom, he feels lost, abandoned, hopeless. At exactly this moment, he is given a sense of hope. He may have lost his place, but there is still a place for him to go in the interim until he can return home. This is what the Ir Miklat represents: hope for the hopeless, home for the homeless, stability for the unstable.
Hashem as the Makom of the World
There is an additional spiritual idea here that reveals the ultimate depth of this concept. Many people think that before Hashem created the world, there was nothing. On the contrary, until Hashem created the world, there was everything; there was only Hashem Himself. As the Arizal, Ramchal, and others explain, Hashem created the world by making a makom, a space, within Himself. Just as everything in the physical world requires space to exist, existence itself required a space to exist. If you have a cup completely filled with metal, you cannot pour any water into it. Only if there is a space in the cup, if there is room for the water, can you pour water into the cup. Before Hashem created the world, there was no space for us to exist, as all of existence was occupied by Hashem. To create the physical world, Hashem made space within Himself for us to exist. This is why Hashem is referred to as the “Makom of the world,” the place of the world (Midrash Tehillim 90; Rashi, Avos, chap. 2). We exist within Hashem, so to speak; He is our makom.
However, there are times in our lives when we feel distant from Hashem and when we question whether or not Hashem truly cares for us, loves us, or believes in us. It is specifically at these times that we refer to Hashem as “Makom.” For example, in a house of mourning, it is customary to tell the mourner, “HaMakom yenachem – The Place will comfort you.” This is because at this specific time, the mourner (avel) feels most distant from both their loved one and from Hashem. We therefore remind the mourner that not only is Hashem still your Makom, but He is also still the Makom of your loved one. This helps the mourner feel close to Hashem and reminds him that the mes (dead relative) is still here, in existence, within Hashem, simply in a more spiritual dimension.
This is the idea of an Ir Miklat. When one loses their physical makom, they feel completely abandoned. We not only provide him with a different physical makom, but we also ensure that he realizes that he will always have an existential, spiritual Makom – Hashem!
Elul as Our Makom
This is the purpose of Elul. Tisha B’Av reminds us of how broken we can become, of the genuine difficulty and challenge of life. But there will always be an Elul, an Ir Miklat, a Makom. This connection between Elul and the Ir Miklat is alluded to in the Torah. The very first time the Torah mentions the Ir Miklat is in Parashas Mishpatim, with the words: “If G-d brought it about [meaning that the murder was unintentional], I will make a place for you…” (Shemos 21:13). The roshei teivos (first letters) of these words is Elul!
Elul is our Ir Miklat, reminding us that we will always have a place to stay until the chaos subsides. But even while in the midst of that chaos, we must remember that this is only a way station, and that we must arise and journey back to our true makom, to our true destination. Elul is our shelter amidst the storm, a lighthouse in the dark. It helps protect us from the darkness, but it also helps guide us back to our true destination.
When we pass by the month of Elul, Hashem covers every tree with white flags. Elul is Hashem’s way of saying, “There will always be a place for you.” In response, we must embrace that place and begin rebuilding from there toward our true destination.
This is the first step of teshuva: recognizing that we are not where we need to be, but that through constant effort and the help of Hashem, we can get there; we can return to our true makom, and we can ascend to a true Rosh Hashana. The foundation for this is our interim makom, our Ir Miklat, Elul – the place for those without a place. This allows us to gain our footing, create clarity and purpose, and begin our journey back home. May we all be inspired to pause, find our footing, and use this Elul to purposefully journey back to our true makom, i.e., Hashem.