The Central Message of Elul and Beyond
“Shuv, shuv” – The poignant cry of HaShem, (Yud Hey Vav Hey in the Hebrew text), YHVH, our G-d and Creator has echoed down through the ages and is reflected countless times through the pages of the Torah…His words are calling each of us today, ”Shuv, shuv… Return, return!” But how do we return? This is an age old question…yet the answers are clear. Listen to the Voice of HaShem through His prophets of old and take hold of His Promise!
“From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you, says HaShem, but you say, how shall we return?” (Isaiah 55:7)
“Take words with you and return to HaShem. Say to Him, Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously, that we may present the fruit of our lips” (Hosea 14:7).
“Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to HaShem, and He will have compassion on him, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).
“When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days you will return to the HaShem your God and listen to His voice”
“Therefore, thus says HaShem, If you return, then I will restore you…“ (Jeremiah 15:19).
Elul is all about teshuvah…return, returning to our G-d in repentance and to the pure souls He created us to be… and in our return receiving His mercy and forgiveness as we forsake all other gods and cling to Him and to Him alone … to HaShem, to YHVH, the One and Only G-d and Creator of the Universe. He tells us plainly in the Ten Words when He descended upon Mt. Sinai amidst the thunder and the lightning, the fire and the smoking, and the quaking of the Mountain accompanied by the shrill blast of the shofar growing louder and louder. It was here that He delivered His unforgettable “aish da’at,” the fire law, and entered into a Covenant relationship with His people…and what was His first utterance?
“You shall have no other gods beside Me!” (Deuteronomy 4:7).
He states it clearly and emphatically here and it is repeatedly stated, over and over, in the Torah and the Prophets.
”Look to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am YHVH, and there is none else (Hebrew- ain od). There is no god beside me!” (Isaiah 45:6-7).
The month of Elul and the 10 days following leading up to Yom Kippur is a very special time for those of the Jewish faith and many others who are attaching themselves to HaShem and His Torah. As we stated in our previous article, it is a time of opening up our hearts to the poignant call from our Creator…and with kavanah (heartfelt intent), examining ourselves and doing some serious soul searching as we prayerfully attempt to discover the areas where we find ourselves lacking and then, b’ezrat HaShem, with HaShem’s help, move forward and take steps to correct them.
Our hearts are the core, the inner quintessence of who we are. The touching words of the Sweet Singer, King David, referred to “a man after His (HaShem’s) own heart,” (I Samuel 13:14) come to mind here in his fervent prayers to His G-D…
“Search me O G-D, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:24).
“Behold You desire truth in the inward parts; therefore teach me wisdom in the inmost heart” (Psalm 51:7).
“Create in me a clean heart O HaShem. and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Cast me not away from your Presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12-14).
True teshuvah is paradoxical for it is a gut-wrenching grief and heart breaking process that causes deep remorse and pain, yet at the same time it is motivated and coupled with a hope and faith that it will result in a breakthrough…a breakthrough from which will spring forth an unsurmountable joy, like a “hidden spark beneath the surface,” as we move out of our darkness and into the Light of a renewed relationship with our Creator! Baruch HaShem!
Elul- an Acronym for HaShem’s Love — אני לדודי ודודי לי
“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”… translated so beautifully from the Hebrew as “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs or Shir HaShirim 6:3). This beautiful phrase is especially important to those of the Jewish faith as it is written in the traditional Jewish marriage contract, the ketubah, and is often engraved on the inside of the newlywed’s wedding bands. Many outside the Jewish faith have embraced this endearing custom as well.
Shir HaShirim or Song of Songs, penned by King Solomon is full of analogies of this love relationship, but in actuality each of these analogies stem from the love relationship between HaShem and His people. In Judaism, the teaching is that Elul is a month of unlocking and restoring that love relationship …a relationship that may have become diminished, tainted or even darkened.
The prophet Hosea also employs this analogy of the love relationship between HaShem and His people in these touching poetic words attributed to YHVH Himself, “I will betroth you to me forever; and I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loyal love and in mercies. And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shalt know YHVH” (Hosea 2:21).
The prophet repeatedly calls upon the people to “keep troth, “to return to HaShem, their G-D (Hosea 12:7).
This has become a constant reminder to the observant Jewish male as he begins his day with the traditional morning prayers by wrapping tefillin around his arm and reciting these words from Hosea 2:21, “I will betroth you to me forever…”
Who is this incredible G-D that desires a relationship with us? In His personal encounter with Moshe at the burning bush, He identifies Himself as ehyeh asher ehyeh.
Ehyeh is the first person form of hayah in Hebrew and it is generally accepted that it means, I AM, IS, WAS, WILL BE! The four letters in the Hebrew text, Yud Hey Vav Hey (with no vowels) are referred to as the Tetragrammaton, written in English as YHVH and are used to differentiate and to elevate Him from all other gods.
He is the G-d of the spirits of all flesh (Numbers 27:15). He is not only the Creator of the heavens and the earth, but the Creator of all mankind for it is He that gives us our very breath and spirit (Isaiah 42:5) through which we live!
He is El Elyon, G-D Most High…He is The Force of All Forces!!! To even think that He would want a relationship with us humans is so incredible that it should literally make us shiver and fall down on our faces before Him! What is our response? It should be one of infinite thanksgiving, gratitude and unspeakable awe!!!
A Bit of History and Review – The Forty Days
During the writing of the Talmud (100-500 C.E.) which was after the devastating destruction of the Second Temple, the month of Elul became a special time for the Jewish community in Babylon as it became the custom for the ordinary Jew, not just the rabbis, to begin to take time off work to join in study groups to read and discuss the Bible. With this they began to look back and see the grievous error of their ways which resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent Babylonian captivity.
In seeking reconciliation with their G-D, they began looking back into their history as a people and found that the first reconciliation between HaShem and His people occurred after Moshe spent 40 days on the Mountain with YHVH, and after having received the Ten Words, written by the very finger of HaShem, came down with the two tablets in hand only to find them worshipping the Golden Calf…the devastating result was the breaking of the precious tablets before their very eyes! (Deuteronomy 9:17). According to Jewish tradition this was the 17th of Tammuz, which years later marked the day when King Nebuchadnezzar breeched the walls of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE! History repeats itself, but so does HaShem’s mercy as we shall see.
Moshe pleaded with HaShem for their forgiveness after the horrendous Golden Calf incident. He made several more 40 day treks up the mountain, the last of which, according to the sages, began on the first of Elul and culminated when he came down from the Mountain with the second set of the Ten Words, indicating that HaShem in His mercy, had granted forgiveness for His people (Deut. 10:1-6). The sages concluded that this date was the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur…the Day of Atonement. Adding the 30 days of Elul to these first 10 days of Tishrei brings us to the number 40. Thus began the tradition of the 40 day period of Teshuvah.
It is noteworthy that Jewish sources assert that it takes 40 days to change a habit (Or ha-Ner#40). The highly renowned Rabbi Eli Melech of Linzesk in his writings gives specific examples of how to begin this process (Tzeil Katan, #16).
There have been numerous books and articles based upon the latest neuroscientific and behavioral research which agree that new habits are built on purposeful goal-directed behavior and foundations of intention and that 40 days is certainly a good start to create a new brain pathway. I might add that this relates to the Hebrew term kavanah or heartfelt intention, and is the main focus of this 40 day season of Teshuvah during the month of Elul. Growing out of this Period of Teshuvah came two main traditions.
The First Tradition – The Blowing of the Shofar
The shofar is blown every morning during the month of Elul except for Shabbat and the last day of the month. The blast of the piercing call of the shofar is reminiscent of the blowing at Mount Sinai and the awesome events that occurred on that momentous day. It was designed to be a daily spiritual wake up call for us to examine ourselves and to stop what we are doing, to turn and shuv, to repent and to renew our relationship with the Creator. If we listen carefully, we can still hear that clarion call from Sinai as it continues to reverberate around the world…not just during the month of Elul, but every day.
The Second Tradition – The Reading of Psalm 27
Psalm 27 is read during every service beginning with the first of Elul and continuing all the way through Shemnei Atzeret at the end of Sukkot. This psalm, also attributed to King David, is a plaintiff cry for help when we are surrounded by enemies on the outside. It can also be seen as an inner cry for help as we attempt to deal with the enemies within ourselves.
Why do we read this Psalm during this season of the year? Is it for the purpose of preparation of a coming of event or events to come? Does it allude to the coming Festivals of HaShem during the High Holy Days of Tishrei in a coded message of sorts? Perhaps a close examination of the psalm will enable us to discover some more of those hidden sparks beneath the surface!
It begins with the beautiful words, “HaShem is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” According to the rabbis, this “light” alludes to Rosh Hashanah, and is like the morning light. It awakens us from our slumber, returns us to our conscious state and reminds us that our focus each day needs to begin with thanksgiving and a return to HaShem.
As “light” refers to Rosh Hashanah, “salvation,” refers to Yom Kippur and forgiveness, the Day of Atonement… a beginning again where we are once again pure and whole! But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only two of the three Festivals during the month of Tishrei. What about the third one?
We continue reading to discover the answer, “For in the day of evil, He shall hide me in His pavilion (tabernacle or shelter), in the covert of His tent. He shall hide me; He shall set me upon a rock; and now shall my head be lifted up above my enemies round about me. Therefore I will offer in His tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing and I will make melody to HaShem!”(Psalm 27:5-7). Those familiar with the Hebrew will notice immediately that the clue is in the English word “tabernacle or shelter” and is none other than the word “succah,” which of course relates to the joyous Festival of Sukkot…so we come full circle each year as we participate in the 40 day period of Teshuvah beginning with the painful look within ourselves and the agonizing and groaning over all our sins to the forgiveness on Yom Kippur and the joy of Sukkot!
King David was in dire straits when he wrote this Psalm begging HaShem to save him from his enemies. He speaks beautifully of His deliverance which can give us hope today as we go through our own difficult times. Chana Weisberg, editor of the Jewishwoman.org states in her article on Psalm 27 that the psalmist illustrates three stages of deliverance for King David that are represented in this Psalm. “First, G-d illuminates his path so he can flee. Then G-d protects him and removes the danger. And lastly,G-d brings him to a place of refuge.”
We, like King David sometimes become overwhelmed and cannot see our way out of the despair and the darkness. What can we do? We can pray and we can praise His Holy Name, knowing with full assurance that HaShem is always there to help us find our way and to give us peace and calm…even in the midst of the storm. The key is not to lose our focus.
There is a lovely song that so poignantly catches the spirit of Elul. Its lyrics are taken directly from this Psalm and speak beautifully as to where our focus should be…
”Achat Sha’alti.” שָׁאַלְתִּי אַחַת
“One thing I have desired of HaShem; that I will seek after; that I will dwell in the House of HaShem all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of HaShem and to inquire in His Temple (Psalm 27:4)
“Achat sha-alti mey-eyt HaShem o-tah ah-va-keysh.
Shivti b’veyt HaShem kol y’mei chayai
Lachazot b’no-am HaShem u’l’vakeyr b’haychalo”
On a personal note, there are many beautiful versions of this song…I chose this one as it is the melody that I learned early on in the beginning of my journey over 3 decades ago. I memorized it in Hebrew by listening to it over and over…it has brought me so much joy through the years…and often still brings me to tears…tears of gratitude… as I sing it and reflect on its beauty.
So as we read the beautiful words of Psalm 27, and engage in teshuvah with kavanah may the cry of the shofar pierce our hearts to the core of our being.
May we continue on our journey of self- discovery as we leave behind all the things that trap and entangle us and ask HaShem to help us discover and utilize those hidden sparks beneath the surface that He placed within each of us…those sparks that reveal who we really are. May we truly reach within and beyond ourselves and turn with all our hearts to HaShem, to YHVH, our G-D and Creator, for in turning we are returned…returned to Him, where we belong!