Rishonim like the Avudraham and Baal Haturim, and the great kabbalist, the Arizal, highlight several verses in which the initials of four consecutive words spell “Elul.” These verses, they explain, teach what to focus on as we prepare for the Yamim Nora’im.
1) Prayer: “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I [referring to the Jewish nation] am my beloved’s [referring to Hashem], and my beloved is mine” (Shir Hashirim 6:3). We express our eternal loving relationship with Hashem particularly in prayer, and during Elul we therefore pray especially devoutly, say Selichos, and recite extra Tehillim. By doing so, a fervent desire to serve Him by fulfilling His other mitzvos arises in us.
2) Torah study: “Ina l’yado v’samti lecha – [Hashem] caused it to happen to him, and [He] will provide for you [a place to take refuge]” (Shemos 21:13). This verse concerns cities of refuge for people who inadvertently killed someone, but metaphorically it can also refer to Elul. As the Arizal states, “G-d, in His kindness, has provided the month of Elul [as a refuge] for everyone who has transgressed during the year so that he may return in teshuvah and be accepted.”
This interpretation is based on the Talmud’s statement, “Words of Torah provide refuge” (Makkos 10a). Words of Torah – i.e., studying Torah – will grant us atonement.
3) Charity: “Ish l’rei’eihu umatonos l’evyonim – A person to his fellow and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). During Elul, we increase our charitable giving, aware that by showing compassion to the less fortunate, we may elicit similar treatment from Heaven when He judges us on Rosh Hashanah.
These three verses point to Elul as a time for reinforcing the “three pillars upon which the world stands: Torah, service [of Hashem through prayer], and kind deeds” (Avos 1:3). These three pillars are also the three general categories into which all mitzvos are divided.
4) Teshuvah: “Es l’vav’cha v’es l’vav [zar’echa] – [Hashem will circumcise] your heart and the heart of [your children]” (Devarim 30:6). Hashem will help us escape any difficulties, personal and external, that hinder us from doing sincere teshuvah during Elul. Our efforts to improve ourselves in Torah study, prayer, and charity should all be in the spirit of teshuvah, returning to Hashem in repentance.
5) Geulah: “LaShem vayamru leimor ashira – [Moshe and the Children of Israel sang] to Hashem, and they said as follows: ‘I will sing” (Shemos 15:1). These words, which spell “Elul” (although not in order), refers to Az Yashir, which Bnei Yisrael sang after Hashem rescued them from their Egyptian pursuers. Our Sages explain that many words in this song refer to the resurrection of the dead and the future redemption.
This verse (mentioned by the Arizal) reminds us of the goal of our service of Hashem: the coming of Moshiach, the ultimate purpose for which the world was created.
Interestingly, the Avudraham notes another verse where the word “Elul” appears as part of two consecutive words: “[Uva l’Tziyon] go’el ul’shovei [fesha] – And a redeemer will come to Zion and to those returning from transgression” (Yeshaya 59:20). The last two letters of “go’el – redeemer” and the first two letters of the next word, “ul’shovei – those returning [in teshuvah],” spell “Elul,” thus combining the essential themes of geulah and teshuvah.
By preparing for the coming year, resolving with all seriousness to improve ourselves by eliminating anything negative and enhancing the positive, we ensure that not only we and our dear ones, but also the entire Jewish people and the world around us, are inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year. May it be a year of geulah!
(Based on teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)