This month is the month of return. Elul, the month before the beginning of the year, or literally the Head of the Year, Rosh Hashana.
What does Return mean? When we were younger, in my family, we would call people who became religious chozrim be-teshuva, and those who left an observant lifestyle chozrim be-she’ela, and we thought it meant those who returned with the answer, and those who returned with a question. But Teshuva in Hebrew doesn’t just mean answer, or repentance; it means to return. So really a chozer be-teshuva is someone who returns with returning. And someone who asks a lot of questions is just being Jewish.
This is one of the things I’ve always loved about Judaism, that it’s so much about asking questions. Trying to understand, and when receiving an answer not being satisfied with it and asking more. God and knowledge are infinite, so therefore so are our questions.
Though there’s this aspect of endless knowledge that will never be grasped, learning more about Judaism is the most settling thing, the most comforting. I understand who I am in a way that I never did before. The feelings of unease, inadequacy, fear and anxiety about the future that used to plague me, are eased. Returning means returning to yourself and realizing who you are, what your powers and strengths are, and also along with this the humility that comes from recognizing that none of it is really yours and none of it comes from you, and this sort of nullification leads to true happiness and gratitude, and to greater responsibility, of using these gifts given to us for the good. Everything I have, the blessings I’ve been given, all of the incredible people in my life, my family, my friends, my work, all of this and all of the skills I have are directly from God, because everything is from God. So I have infinite gratitude, or should have infinite gratitude, which is the real definition of a Jew. Yehudi, from the root word Hodaya, meaning to be thankful, grateful, to acknowledge. Meaning our essence, when we return to it, is pure gratitude.
So much of Judaism teaches us how to be grateful. That we are in our essence full of gratitude, but that it’s something we have to work to reveal. So the first thing we say in the morning, the very first word is Modeh — acknowledge/grateful. Then comes ‘am I’. Modeh ani lefanecha… Grateful am I before you God… We are telling God first thing in the morning that we are grateful that He returned our soul to us…
Asking questions leads to many answers but really to asking more questions, and realizing more and more that we don’t know anything. So being a baal teshuva, an owner of return, isn’t an owner of ‘the answer’, it is something that everyone is. Everyone is a master of return. Someone who was born into a more observant family still chooses to ‘return’, to practice Judaism in their day-to-day life. Return means to return to our selves, to our real essence. Isn’t this something we all strive for? Isn’t this something we, all humans, do, every night when we go to sleep? We close our eyes and become unconscious, our souls returning momentarily somewhere closer to our Source so that we can be replenished.
Returning means returning to our soul. Recognizing that we have a soul, that our soul is part of God really, and recognizing that every thing that has ever happened to us in our lives, even and maybe especially those things that were the most difficult or dark or traumatic, God was there too. Recognizing the oneness of God in every aspect of our lives leads us to return to our essence, which is happy and holy.
Acknowledging that we are vessels for God’s blessings and that it’s our job to keep these vessels clean and pure, makes us return to God and to that Source within us that is giving and happy. Returning makes us realize that when we give we are happy, that when we behave like God we are happy, because He is the ultimate giver of everything.
Right now, as the sun is just setting, the day is Chai Elul, the 18th day of this last month of the year, the day of chai, life. This is a very special day in Judaism and especially in Chassidut. It is the day that the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut, was born, and the day that the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad Chassidut, was born, and the day that the Baal Shem Tov revealed himself as a great tzaddik and leader. There’s an amazing concept that starts today and lasts for the next twelve days, leading us straight to Rosh Hashana.
Starting today, with a Jewish day starting at sunset, every day corresponds to a month from this past year. Today corresponds to the first month of last year, Tishrei, or September, and tomorrow to October, and on, for the next twelve days, culminating in the New Year. This month of Elul is about returning and fixing, and by this process we are fixing our past and our own selves, to prepare for the new year. We prepare for what’s next and new by doing accounting, an accounting of the past year, month by month, day by day in these condensed energy-filled days. Where was I strong, where did I grow and improve as a person, in my life, relationships, career, spirituality? Where did I stumble, where did I have conflict with myself, with others, with my work, with my goals?
Difficult things might come up during this month because they are our opportunity to do this amazing fixing for the whole year that passed, and really do a big cleansing of ourselves so that we can be the best people we can be moving forward. We prepare ourselves and our physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual vessels, to be open to receiving all the abundant blessings and new missions we will be given and accomplish this coming year.
When a child gets hurt, she runs back to her father. Sometimes we need to get hurt so that we will run back to our God, and our essence. During this month, which is also an acronym in Hebrew for I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me, God is most accessible to us. Of all months of the year, now is the easiest time to connect to God and feel that He is right here next to us, as is said, The King is in the Field, waiting for us to approach Him and talk to Him about whatever is in our hearts, what we wish for, what we’re sorry for, what we really need.
I bless everyone that we will all be able to connect to our true essence, which is happy, grateful, pure, and giving, and that we will really ask for and receive whatever it is we need and wish for, and that we will receive it with love and joy during this amazing time of renewal, and may we all be signed and sealed in the Book of Life!