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R’ei (and Elul) #1

Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li: Roshei Teivos Elul


The Hebrew month of Elul is an exceptionally appropriate time to improve our relationship with G-d. This may be accomplished by striving to realize that holy concerns are all that matter, and by arousing pity on our soul, trapped in this mundane world. Torah study cements the strong relationship with G-d achieved by the foregoing.

IT IS written (Song of Songs 6:3), “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.” The initial letters of the four Hebrew words that make up this phrase spell the word “Elul,” which is the name of the Hebrew month immediately preceding the High Holidays; this is an allusion to the fact that during this month, the Jewish People enjoys an especially close relationship with G-d, similar to that between two lovers.

The idea behind this is that Elul is an especially auspicious time for us Jews to try and bring ourselves closer to G-d. This is best accomplished when we take the initiative in our relationship with Him and work at cultivating our love for G-d, at our own spiritual improvement, etc.; then, during the High Holiday season which follows, G-d responds to our initiative by revealing His sovereignty over the universe. The heightened realization that G-d alone is King over all creation inspires an individual to a degree of awe and love for G-d not previously felt, a degree of closeness with G-d he or she may maintain throughout the year. It is this give-and-take relationship that is alluded to by the sequence of the clauses in our verse, in which the speaker is the Jewish People and G-d our symbolic “Beloved”: “I am to my Beloved” (the first clause) refers to the Jews taking the first step in striving for closeness to our “Beloved”; only then “my Beloved is to me” — G-d reciprocates by renewing His Kingship over us.

This is the ideal way for the Jews to relate to G-d — one should always take the initiative (known in Hebrew as “arousal from below”) that prompts Divine reciprocation (“arousal from above”), rather than wait for G-d to first inspire him or her.

Now, the reason why Elul is such a good time for us to improve our relationship with G-d is that in this month, the “thirteen attributes of Divine mercy” are especially prominent. (These are the thirteen attributes that G-d revealed to Moshe (Moses) when he was pleading for forgiveness on behalf of the Jews who had worshipped the golden calf (see Exodus 34:6). G-d showed Moshe how, by invoking these thirteen attributes, Divine mercy would be aroused, similar to the way one might prompt a wronged friend to forgive him or her by reminding the friend of that person’s well-known merciful qualities.) The thirteen attributes of mercy are a sublime spiritual level — an intrinsic part of G-d Himself, as it were — and are openly called into play on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), so their revelation as well during the month of Elul indicates that G-d Himself really “takes to heart” the pleas of the Jews then.

This is better understood by means of an example. During Elul, G-d is compared to a king approaching his capital city at the end of a journey, when all the nation’s subjects flock to the fields outlying the city to line the road the king will use. At this time, the king smiles and waves to the populace, and looks favorably not only upon noblemen and officers, but may smile just as benignly at a common peasant. When he reaches the palace, however, the king assumes a more regal aspect — his sovereignty is asserted anew — and only the highest ranking citizens can see him, by appointment. Similarly, like the king after his return to the palace, G-d sits in judgment on the Day of Atonement, when He utilizes the thirteen attributes to forgive the Jews, yet these same attributes are accessible to each and every single Jew, regardless of spiritual standing, throughout the month of Elul.

Why do we merit this wonderful revelation?

The great revelation of G-dliness inherent in the thirteen attributes of mercy comes to the individual through his or her first dedicating the very deepest aspects of his or her will to G-d: a person must contemplate on the inexpressible greatness of G-d, and on one’s own total insignificance by comparison, to the point where one truly realizes that any petty; material desires one may have are absolutely worthless; instead, the person knows that the only thing worth wanting is G-d Himself, for Whom one would even be willing to sacrifice one’s life (G-d forbid). When G-d sees that a Jew is giving of his or her very self for Him, He reciprocates in kind by allowing the great revelation discussed above — part of His own very Self, so to speak — to come to that individual.

And one must not think that this is an impossible level to reach, for just the opposite is the case: the capacity to devote oneself entirely to G-d is an inherent part of each and every Jewish soul. Indeed, the very word “Israel” (“Yisroel” in Hebrew, referring to the Jewish People) connotes one in whom G-d Himself is the dominant factor, since it implies “Y-Sar-Kel,” which means that “Kel” (a name of G-d) is ever the “Sar” (leader, ruler) within him or her.

Practically speaking, however, there are many who have not attained this level; in fact, on the contrary, they may (G-d forbid) have put their own material wishes first and transgressed in some way. These people, too, have the Divine light shining within them — that is inextinguishable — but it is as though it were lost, sublimated deep within the personality, and must be recovered, rekindled. It is as advice for this situation that the verse proclaims (Deuteronomy 4:29), “And you shall seek, from there, G-d your L-rd.” Since G-d is omnipresent, the word “here” always applies to Him, and the word “there” is sometimes used in reference to the opposite of holiness. In our context, it refers to the actions, words, and thoughts a person may have had for other than G-dly purposes (and it goes without saying for unG-dly purposes). One who wishes to rediscover the Divine spark he or she has “lost” must, as the verse allegorically puts it, seek it from there: from one’s own actions, words, and thoughts that were not proper, he or she must seek and search out the answer, subjecting every little matter to careful scrutiny and coming completely to grips with the enormity of his or her offense. When one appreciates the lofty nature of one’s Jewish soul, and how far, far away from G-d he or she has brought it through sinning, that person will feel bitterly sorry, and actually feel compassion and pity for his or her poor soul. It is this pity that is the key to rediscovering the inherent love for G-d that the person had “lost,” for when one is moved to pity on his or her own soul, G-d, too, will have pity on that person, and allow the hidden love for G-d to be revealed anew in him or her.

(This is an extremely useful concept in drawing oneself closer to G-d, and is alluded to in the verse (Isaiah 29:22), “To Jacob who redeemed Abraham.” As is well known, our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were each specifically associated with a G-dly emotion: love of G-d, awe and fear of G-d, and compassion, respectively. As the verse hints to us by the words “Jacob” and “Abraham,” compassion (i.e., the compassion felt for one’s own soul upon contemplation of the descent and degradation it has suffered as a result of the person’s sins) is a powerful tool for improving one’s relationship with G-d, for it can “redeem” — bring out anew and rekindle — even a deeply buried love of G-d, as explained above.)

What about someone who tries reflecting on how great a descent he or she has caused for his or her soul, yet cannot seem to arouse any feelings of pity within him- or herself? This very circumstance should arouse the person to pity, for his or her soul has sunk to a state similar to that of an amputated limb which can no longer be felt at all. Yet the power of compassion is such that if this thought finally arouses the person to pity after all, even the “amputated limb” of his or her soul will be reattached.

One more thing must be borne in mind. Even should a person search his or her deeds in the manner described above, and actually succeed in finding his or her lost love for G-d — bringing it to the surface to be experienced as the motivation for his or her actions — the resulting revelation of G-dliness will not last or be able to remain with the individual if he or she does not provide some suitable environment for it, something in which to contain it, so to speak. It is necessary to ensure that the inspiration one worked so hard to cultivate does not simply peter out as the individual goes about his or her normal routine. This “containing vessel,” which holds and preserves the Divine inspiration within a person, is the Torah, as it says (Song of Songs 3:2-4), “… I will seek the one my soul has loved…I caught hold of him, and I will not let him go until I have brought him into my mother’s house and into the room of the one that bore me.” Jewish philosophy explains that the Hebrew phrases “my mother’s house” and “the room of the one that bore me” refer to the Written Torah (the Scriptures) and the Oral Torah (the entire corpus of Jewish knowledge, traditionally expounded orally from the Scriptures) respectively. This is because the function of a house or a room is to encompass, to contain — in a broader or more particular sense, respectively — that which is within them, and in our context, these expressions are mystical allusions to the manner in which Torah study and performance of mitzvos are themselves the “vessels” which “contain” the light of G-d within the individual Jew. Through study and practice of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, one ensures that the G-dliness which he or she has brought out within him- or herself will remain with him or her; and what is more, he or she is thereby enabled to grow spiritually and rise to ever increasing heights in his or her relationship with G-d.

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin