This Shabbat we usher in the month of Elul and the beginning of the fall Jewish holiday season. In a very real way, Elul leads the days of selichot (starting on Saturday night, September 24) which leads to Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur, Succot, Simchat Torah, are all part of a system that starts this Shabbat with Rosh Chodesh Elul.
We can all identify several “famous Jewish 40s,” that is times that the number 40 appears in biblical or rabbinic literature. Perhaps one overlooked 40 is the 40 day interval from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur. Just as a fetus takes 40 days to form from nothing, and just as the world was “rebooted” after 40 days and nights of rain, perhaps the calendar is hinting that we have a chance to make a complete change during these holy, precious days.
The Hebrew month of Elul is spelled אלול and the Rabbis of the Talmud see in this name a hint. A verse in Shir HaShirim reads – אני לדודי ודודי לי I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine. The first letters of each word become an acronym that reads אלול In this verse of Shir Hashirim one of the lovers declares her faithfulness, and her faith. She declares that she is dedicated to her lover and she knows that He is just as faithful to her. For this reason the verse is often used as part of a wedding ceremony. By acknowledging the connection between this verse and Elul we have a beautiful glimpse into how to start this holy time of the year. Our mindset should not be one of trepidation at the upcoming cooking or dread at the time in shul. (At least it shouldn’t be only that.) We should see that this time of year is a time of love and connection between the Jewish People and Her Lover.
That sense of readiness to love and be loved by the Creator can be a powerful driver of change. I know that’s true and I feel that it’s true, but can I be real with you for moment? Since it’s just you and me, and since we’re so close I feel I can trust you with this. Change is hard and uncomfortable and it requires a lot of work. The great scholars of yesteryear might have said that it’s easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change one character trait. I’ll put it in a more relevant format for the 21st century. It’s easier to lose 50 pounds, and keep it off, than it is to be patient with kids at carpool time. I’m not sure that will make a great bumper sticker, but I think it’s true.
Real change happens in the real, actual world, not in the world of big fuzzy ideas. Change happens when you find the strength not to yell despite the fact that he had five warnings to get his shoes on because carpool is almost here. And it happens when after a complicated and frustrating day you greet everyone with love and calm. Change happens when you really feel like you’ve done enough, and they really have no right to ask you, and they never even reciprocate, but you find the compassion to help anyway.
(Lest anyone think that I hold myself to be perfected already and without the need to grow, feel free to ask my family about The Styrofoam Peanut Incident and you will understand in great detail that I am as flawed a human being as any. I’m aware.)
This time of year is about knowing we are loved, and working to feel as though we’ve earned that love.
I can’t help but include this insight. Parshas Re’eh and Rosh Chodesh Elull coincide very frequently, as they do this year. I noticed the following connection . In this week’s Torah reading we read,
בָּנִים אַתֶּם לה אֱלֹקיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא־תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת: כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַה אֱלֹקיךָ וּבְךָ בָּחַר ה לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה
You are children to Hashem your G-d. Don’t cut yourselves. Don’t mourn so greatly that you place a bald spot between your eyes. For you are a holy nation to Hashem your G-d and he chose you to be to him a treasured nation from among all the nations that are on the face of the Earth.
A fascinating thing is happening in these few verses. First G-d addresses us as His children, then as His holy treasured nation. Well which is it? Is Hashem addressing us as a Father to his children or as the Leader of our Nation?
The experienced shul goer might hear in this an allusion to a critical phrase in High Holiday liturgy. Avinu Malkeinu – Our Father Our King. We address the Creator as both King and Father simultaneously. These days are days of awe at the majesty and power of the Creator but also of love, of coming home to Father in Heaven.
We have Father who loves us. We have a Lover who desires an intimate relationship. We have a King who takes pride in our good work. These are the thoughts to try to hold, even during carpool.