Background, Torah and Tradition
King Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes states “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”(Ecclestiastes3:1)
With HaShem there is actually no time…no past, present or future…it is all one happening…but for us as humans it must be labeled and segmented in order for us to process it in our minds. For this reason, the Creator set up months, days, times and seasons, special appointments referred to in Hebrew as moed’im, for us to meet and connect with Him. (Genesis 1:14)
Elul – The Month of Teshuvah
The month of Elul is mentioned in Nehemiah 6:15 in reference to the 25th day of the month when the wall surrounding the Temple was completed. Its name carries deep significance for the Jewish people all over the world and with those who love Torah, but it is not in connection with the passage in Nehemiah, but instead it is connected with teshuvah….repentance and return. In Aramaic the word Elul is similar to the root word, search. It is at this season of the year beginning on Rosh Chodesh Elul that it is traditional to enter into a time of deep introspection, a time of bearing of the soul…of searching…soul searching…seeking to discover or re-discover all of those hidden sparks beneath the surface…including those sparks within us that have been buried or perhaps have become dulled over the past year, and those sparks in Torah that we have yet to discover on our journey!
Having come through the destructive forces associated with the 9th of Av and beyond, we felt a big sigh of relief as we began to experience a respite and a lifting of the heaviness as we peered into the heavens and witnessed the beautiful full moon on Tu b’Av the 15th day of the month. The rabbis have deemed this day the beginning of a “turning of the corner.”
Elul – A Pivotal Month on the Hebrew Calendar
As we embrace the new month of Elul, it is important to recognize both its meaning and its position on the Hebrew calendar… for it is a key month in the cycle of the seasons and in the inner workings of our hearts as they govern our relationship to our Creator and how we choose to live our lives.
Whether we use the Biblical reckoning of Elul being the 6th month counting from Nisan or Aviv in the spring or use the reckoning on the traditional Jewish calendar with it being the 12th or last month, counting from Tishrei in the fall, the month of Elul is a pivotal month not only on the calendar, but in our personal lives as well.
The month of Elul as we shall discover is a special time for in the Jewish faith, it is a period of preparation designed to bring us up to the High Holy Days of the month of Tishrei leading us through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and beyond! It is a month of repentance, a month of mercy and a month of forgiveness…
Retracing our Journey through the Months on the Calendar
For our purposes, let us go on a journey of the Biblical calendar beginning with the month of Nisan or Aviv in the spring and trace the progression of the year and the connections of one month to another up to where we find ourselves at this point.
The First Month – Aviv or Nisan…the month known as the Month of Our Redemption…the one in which HaShem brought the Children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, from Mitzrayim, the “narrow place” and told them that “this month shall be the beginning of months to you.” (Exodus 12:2)
The Second Month –Ziv or Iyar with the acronym of its Hebrew letters spelling out Ani HaShem Rofeka, I am HaShem your Healer. Seemingly insignificant at first glance, Iyar is sandwiched between the giant months of Nisan and Sivan, yet not insignificant at all for it is bridge between the Festivals of Pesach and Shavuot, the month of counting the omer in preparation for the most awesome event since the beginning of mankind.
The Third Month – Sivan, the month known as Matan Torah when HaShem, YHVH, the One and Only Eternal G-d and Creator of the Universe, descended upon Mount Sinai amidst the darkness, lightning and thunder, and spoke panim b’panim, face to face, with His people, and in giving them the Ten Words through his Prophet Moshe, brought them into eternal Covenant with Him! (Deut. 4:32-33; 5:2-4)
The Fourth Month –named after the abominable god of Tammuz which tragically captured the hearts of the people and caused them to rebel against HaShem their G-d! This month with its detestable name is connected in Jewish tradition with the idolatrous incident of the golden calf and the resulting breaking of the tablets with the precious Ten Words on the 17th day of the month. Many tragedies befell the Jewish people throughout the centuries on this day, including the most well-known incident when the walls of Jerusalem were breached, marking the beginning of what appeared to be the end. This initiated the 3 week period leading up to an even more tragic event which occurred during the next month.
The 5th Month – Av or Menachem Av (ironically meaning the “Comfort of the Father)” is marked by the infamous 9th day known as Tisha b’Av…the day in which both Holy Temples were destroyed (586 BCE and 70 CE), first by Babylon and then by Rome. This destruction resulted in the dispersion and subsequent scattering of the Jewish people among the nations, with only a handful returning…all because of rebellion, disobedience and going after other gods.
Reflecting back on the month of Av with its tragic history, we are cognizant of the meaning of the name of the month… Menachem Av, the Comfort of the Father. We are reminded that even in the worst of times throughout history, up to and including the present day chaos in our world today, that our G-D is always with us to give us both comfort and hope.
The Way Back Home, Teshuvah and the Lessons We can Learn
The weekly haftorah portions traditionally read this time of year, beginning on the Sabbath after Tisha b’Av and going through Rosh Hashanah are entitled the 7 Haftorahs of Divine Consolation. They are reflective of this theme of comfort and show unequivocally how HaShem in His mercy always provides a way back Home for His children through the path of teshuvah.
Countless times in the Torah, we find the words of YHVH pleading with His children down through the ages and holding out a promise that reaches us even up to this day if we will but listen and heed His Voice!
“Return to me and I will return to you” (Zechariah 1:3, Malachi 3:7). “You shall seek Me and you shall find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11).
The lesson in all this is that as we journey through the cycle of the seasons, the months of the year, we have choices to make every day. We can learn from those who have gone before us, choosing not to repeat their mistakes, but to learn from them instead. We can also learn from our own mistakes and avoid repeating them over and over each year. How do we accomplish this? It is only by keeping our focus on HaShem and His Torah…by maintaining that G-d Consciousness we have spoken of so often before.
No matter how chaotic our world may become, or how bleak or dark our own personal circumstances may seem, we must maintain that focus on HaShem for when we do, we will discover that we can see past the darkness…we will actually be able to learn to see in the dark!
We need to always be looking for the light in between the cracks. Each Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) is such a crack, like a tiny spark hidden beneath the surface which is hardly noticeable in the dark sky…and is only visible if we are looking…
And so we come to the wonderful Rosh Chodesh of Elul. We take a deep breath for we’ve symbolically been brought out of Mitzrayim…that narrow place, experienced the redemption at Passover, crossed the Red Sea, received the Torah at Mount Sinai and lived through the subsequent consequences of our disobedience and have come through the saddest most heartbreaking time in the history of the Jewish people. We can now begin focusing on the opportunities of Divine grace and mercy afforded us in this new month of Elul which marks the 40 Day Season of Teshuvah leading up through Rosh Hashanah and the awesome day of Yom Kippur!
Why a 40 Day Season of Teshuvah?
Jewish tradition teaches that it was in the early morning on the 1st of Elul that Moshe with blank stone tablets in hand, ascended Mount Sinai for the third time, to beg forgiveness for the Children of Israel where he would once again receive the Ten Words, inscribed by the “finger of HaShem.” (Exodus 31:19, Deut. 9:10)
But something remarkable happened along the way. HaShem granted Moshe’s request to show him His glory! (Exodus 33:18)
He placed Moshe in the cleft of a rock and covered him with His hand and when He passed by, removed His Hand thus allowing him to see His back, but not His face. HaShem then proclaimed His goodness before him in what has become known as The “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. “ (Exodus 33:18-34:8) Maimonides interprets this as a perception of HaShem’s reality but not His essence, and states that this was the closest any human being ever came to knowing G-d.
Each time Moshe ascended Mount Sinai, we are told that he remained 40 days and nights. (Deut. 9:9; Exodus 24:18) The Jewish sages teach that this last 40 day time period was from 1 Elul to 10 Tishrei (Yom Kippur). Thus evolved the Jewish tradition that as the Children of Israel received forgiveness and reconciliation with HaShem during this 40 day period, we also undertake the practice of entering into a 40 day period of teshuvah (repentance and return), and renewal of ourselves, our connection to HaShem and our G-d given purpose in life.
Elul is all about repentance, mercy and forgiveness…forsaking all other gods, clinging to HaShem, YHVH, the One and Only G-d and Creator of the Universe, and to Him only. All we have to do is open up our hearts, examine ourselves and with kavanah (heartfelt intent) and deep soul searching prayerfully enter into this special time of teshuvah. “Seek HaShem while He may be found, Call upon Him while He is near.”(Isaiah 55:6-8)
He is waiting for us…“Turn us to you O HaShem, and we shall be turned; renew our days of old.” (Lamentations 4:21)
More about this special month and the 40 Days of Teshuvah to come!