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The Month of Elul: Calling Us Back to Love

Dear Friends,

Tonight is the New Moon of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Elul calls us to prepare our hearts for the New Year. This weekend I am leading an LSI workshop on teshuvah, repentance and return, here at the WJC. I wanted to share with you some thoughts on this month of Elul, words I originally shared in 2003.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov (a good month),

Rabbi Jonathan


The Month of Elul: Calling Us Back to Love

Ani l’dodi v’dodi li—

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. Song of Songs 6:3

About a month ago, I performed a wedding, as a last-minute replacement for a colleague who had unfortunately taken ill. The groom is a cousin of mine, and so without hesitation I flew out to Cleveland to officiate.

I love performing weddings. I can’t think of a greater privilege than to stand under the chuppah with a couple as they declare their love and commitment to each other. The energy is palpable, filled with love, trepidation, hope, excitement. We stand in a timeless moment, when the possibility of love is fully declared and fully present. The guests and witnesses each contribute their own silent dreams, hopes, disappointments, and joy, as we all focus on two human beings declaring their intention to love.

This wedding was at the beginning of the month of Elul, the month that initiates this High Holy Day season. Elul is the month of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Our tradition teaches that we must begin the process of teshuvah, of self-reflection and making amends, in Elul, so that when the High Holy Days arrive we are already inwardly prepared for a New Year.

Elul is also considered an auspicious month in which to get married. This is because Elul can be an acronym for a verse from the Song of Songs:

Ani l’dodi v’dodi li—

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. Song of Songs 6:3

As you might expect from the Jewish tradition, the resonances go much deeper than romance. Elul is a season of love not only because it makes a cute acronym. Elul is a time of committed love because it ushers in our season of teshuvah, our season of turning towards the people we love, turning towards our deepest values, turning towards God. This is our season of love.

Wait a minute. Aren’t these the Days of Awe, of fear and trembling? Aren’t we standing before the Judge, praying for a lenient decree? Aren’t these the days of repentance, when we beat our breasts in remorse?

They are, indeed. We face our mortality and our smallness this day. As we acknowledge our mortality, we are motivated to set right that which we can, while we still have time. Yet our tradition also asserts that these are the days of love. Teshuvah, the act of returning, can be motivated in many ways: by fear, by desperation, by loneliness . . . or by love. All the elements of teshuvah — turning around, reaching out, making amends, being deeply honest, humbly seeking forgiveness, meeting each other’s eyes — all of these, in essence, are acts of love.

The main proponent of this view was Rabbi Akiva, the unchallenged giant of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbi Akiva was a lover, a lover of Israel, a lover of humankind, and an ecstatic lover of God. When asked to name the central principle of the Torah, Rabbi Akiva answered, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As Rabbi Hillel taught, the rest is commentary, and we must spend our lives studying and practicing this principle of love.

Almost 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Akiva was involved in an important controversy. The canon of our Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, was nearly closed. Yet Akiva insisted that one more book be included, Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs. There was great and understandable opposition to this idea. The Song of Songs is a magnificent, juicy collection of erotic Hebrew love poetry. Two voices alternate, declaring their passionate love for each other. God is not even mentioned. Yet Rabbi Akiva insisted that it belonged in the Bible. He insisted that more than any other book of the Torah, the Song of Songs allegorically reflected the most important relationship between God and humanity: love. Akiva actually declared, “The entire Torah is holy; but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

That analogy is even more audacious than we would first imagine. The Holy of Holies was the inner sanctum of the Temple. The High Priest entered into that sanctum but once a year, on Yom Kippur, in order to meet the Divine Presence and utter God’s most secret name. Was Akiva implying that this was a meeting of lovers? I think he was.

The Hebrew phrase, “ken yehi ratzon,” is usually translated as “May it be God’s will,” reflecting our received notion of God strictly as a potentate, decreeing the fate of the realm. But the word “ratzon” has more than one meaning. It means “will,” and it also means “desire.” “Ken yehi ratzon” is thererfore also rendered as “May it be God’s desire” — and this was the relationship that Rabbi Akiva experienced with the Creator. God desires us, God wants us to be close, God is waiting for our love, just as we yearn to feel connected and loved. Imagine: just as each of us yearns to feel connected with life around us, so all of life yearns for us. God is calling to us, “Shuvu, come back, my dear ones, come back.”

That is the call of Elul: I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. It is time to turn towards acts of love, time to rouse from the lethargy and the exhaustion, to rise up from the despair, to shake off the numbing habit, and to remember how to love. On this Day of Atonement, the day of at-one-ment, here we are, with our prayers on our lips, our hearts laid bare, and our yearning revealed. We have no idea what the coming year will bring. We stand here together in our Holy of Holies, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. It is time to reveal our love.

So allow me to share with you now, with all my love, what I shared with that radiant young couple in Cleveland:

It is so easy to become disconnected from the people we love. Wounds and betrayals and disappointments collect, and we turn away, protecting ourselves from the pain. Overwork, unplanned crises, the press of our frantic pace, pull us away from each other. It happens gradually, insidiously, inexorably. The promise we make to the people we love, the promise we make to this world that we love, the promise we make to our souls and to the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Source of Life, is that when we find that we have turned away, we will turn back again. We will do teshuvah.

The turning away and the returning are the inevitable ebb and flow of our lives. Sometimes we need to turn away, we need to retreat, we need to regroup and gather our strength. The promise we make every Yom Kippur is that we will return, we will not remain isolated, we will swallow our pride, we will make the kind or generous or humble gesture that might once again let love begin to flow. Just as the Sabbath cycles with the days of the week, so we promise to return to love, to life, to each other, again, and again, and again.

We know we are weak. We know we are easily distracted. We know that we will stumble, and avert our eyes, that we will not want to cry, that we will wish it was easier. Dear God, may we hear you whispering to us throughout your Creation, in nature’s magnificence, in the clear gaze of intimates and in the glances of passersby, in the laughter of children, in the words that we utter here tonight. Dear God, may we here you whispering to us, calling us back to love once again.

—Kol Nidre 5764