The main theme of the Hebrew month of Elul and the following first ten days of Tishrei is repentance. This period leads into Rosh Hashana, the new year, and culminates with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Emphasis during these forty days is on introspection, self-improvement, resolutions for the new year. Sephardi Jews get up an hour earlier to recite Selichot, penitential prayers. Ashkenazi Jews, who will start Selichot the week of Rosh Hashana, recite an extra psalm and blow the shofar, the ram’s horn intended to awaken the slumbersome to repentance.
The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuva, from the same root as shiva, return. Our ability for repentance is a gift from God which allows us to return to a purer spiritual state after having strayed. I find it particularly symbolic that I will, God willing, return to Israel during the ten days of repentance. Since settling the land of Israel is one of the positive commandments, it is therefore easy to think of returning to Israel as a form of repentance. In fact, the tanaic sage, Rabbi Ishmael, perhaps to some extent hyperbolically, compares Israelites living outside of Israel to idol worshippers (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 8a). Yet, I see an additional connection between repentance and return to Israel.
Word morphology is of the utmost importance in Hebrew, and particularly in biblical and liturgical Hebrew. Every Hebrew word is derived from a root. If one does not know a certain word, one is often able to gleam some meaning from the root of the word. For example mafteach, a key, has the root peh, taf, chet, same as open. Sometimes a common root indicates a deeper parallel between the two words. Teshuva has the root shin vav bet, same as shav, returns. I think of it as follows: our natural spiritual state, our equilibrium state in terminology borrowed from physics, is one of highest purity. After we stray we have a natural tendency to go back to our equilibrium purified state, to return, like a physical system strains to return to its equilibrium state. Similarly, Jews living outside of Israel have, I believe, a natural affinity to return and live in Israel. Sometimes, this is masked by layers of impurities, caused by long years of living in galut, the diaspora. But when you peel away the outer layers, the core is still there. There are countless stories of people who have never before been to Israel, but feel immediately at home the moment they disembark for the first time, as if they were returning home, rather than going to a new place. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi said I am asleep but my heart is awake. Life away from Israel is like slumber, and we are only fully awake when we live in Israel.
Our sages, always fond of acronyms, noted that the name Elul, spelled in Hebrew aleph, lamed, vav, lamed, is the acronym of the phrase from King Solomon’s Song of Songs “ani le’dodi ve’dodi li” – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. The Song of Songs is a collection of allegorical love letters between God and the people of Israel, and this allegory is often repeated throughout the Bible and Rabbinic literature. But what does that love story have to do with repentance? Most people who have had a marital dispute will recognise that some of the sweetest times in married life follow reconciliation. It seems to me as if the sages were reading into this verse from the Song of Songs, God’s call, if it were, to reconcile and experience the sweetness that will follow. During this month of Elul, I am also hearing the call of the Land to come and settle there and enjoy the sweetness of living in the land of our ancestors.