Elul – A time of Introspection, teshuva and growth
The gift of this month…
Elul is the only month in the Jewish calendar where we are not busy with fasts or chagim and have the gift of a full month to contemplate and introspect. It’s an opportunity for inward reflection, where we have a chance to look within ourselves and process the past year. Our souls yearn for connection and meaning, and now is the time for this inner work.
Kabbalah teaches that the gematria (numerical value) of Elul = 67 which is equal to that of “understanding” (בינה). The month of Elul, the final month of the year, has the opportunity if we take it, to bring new and deeper understanding with regard to all the events of the past year. It’s a time to contemplate, “What really happened over this past year for me personally, nationally and globally, and why?” What are the consequences of my past year for the upcoming year?
Does it ever feel like Monday turns into Tuesday and before you know it another year has gone by? Now is our chance to put the brakes on and take a deeper look. In a recent Logotherapy counseling session (meaning-centered counseling), one of my clients exclaimed, “There has to be more to my life than just being an Architect!” And there is, if we take time out to ask ourselves these bigger questions. The invitation is here for us now. Somewhere along the line we have gotten stuck and just do what we do without thinking on a deeper level if we bring meaning into our lives and the lives of those around us. This month we are preparing ourselves for Rosh Hashanah to pray for another year to live. To be given another year is a privilege. Do we want to just go through the motions of day in and day out merely existing, or do we want to really live each day? What kind of life are we hoping for? Through questioning we can see how we grew, made a difference over the past year, and if we were able to transform our challenges into stepping stones, instead of stumbling blocks.
One of the acronyms for the word ELUL in Hebrew is Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li. אני לדודי ודודי לי . “I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me” (From Shir Hashirim 6:3). This month was given to us as a time to come closer to G-d, when He is more accessible to us – The King is in the field. Rabbi Moshe Luria (The Arizal) in his Kabbalistic teachings explains that with the arrival of Elul comes Divine kindness. Just as G-d shows kindness and mercy to us, we need to do this to ourselves in our contemplative process and towards those around us.
The work of the month of Elul is called ‘teshuva,’ which has two meanings – ‘response’ and ‘return’. Returning means coming back to our essence and this is done through repentance. Repentance is a process that we start where we can make real, lasting change in our lives. It is about leaving behind the masks we wear to find our true essence and return to that. And here, I am not talking about the physical masks we are all wearing now to protect us from Coronavirus, I’m talking about the figurative masks that we hide ourselves behind. ‘Response’ is not only the answer to a question, it is about how we respond. Responsibility means our ability to respond. Elul is about taking responsibility and taking action. It is an invitation to use our failings from the past year to act as a springboard to bring us to a higher level that we wouldn’t have reached had they not occurred. It is said that our greatest achievements are how we deal with our shortcomings. This month we have a second chance. It is a time to think about who we are, what sort of choices we have made to bring us to this place in our lives, and where or who we want to be in the coming year. In life we all make mistakes and now in Elul we get to look at them with kindness and decide what we want to do differently going forward.
It is said that the direction in life that we want to go in, G-d will help us get there. Unfortunately we will be helped even if the direction we want to go in is not down a good path. Dr Victor Frankl (founder of Logotherapy) says, “It’s not what you expect from life that is important, it is what life expects from you that is important.” This profound statement is the focus of Elul. Logotherapy teaches us how to transform our existence into something more meaningful so that we are here not just for ourselves and our own benefit but we are here to serve. Now we have an opportunity to dream big and aspire to greatness. It is the month to return to our essence and our true purpose in life, and ask questions like, “How can I serve?”
Recently I heard an idea on the Aish website from Charlie Harary that I want to share. He recalls his school days when he was in the hockey team and his team made the play offs. The week before the final game he had a fight with his best friend and everything changed between them, including how they played together on the field. During the first half of the final game neither of them was in sync or tried to help each other score. At half time they were 2-0 down. In the locker room the coach was furious and told the team that to win the game, winning has to be the primary focus, and because it wasn’t their focus, he benched both of them. For a team to win, you have to drop your egos and unite. You can’t be on a team when “I” is more important than “WE”.
What does it mean to be on the team and why is this also so important now in Elul and Tishrei? Isn’t this time of year a time of introspection and personal Al Chet’s? What’s it got to do with brotherly love? The Talmud says that the cause of all Jewish calamities is a lack of unity and brotherly love. When we ask ourselves the question, “Why are we here?” the answer has to be far greater than what I am personally here to accomplish. The people around us are not just here as pawns to be used in the pursuits of our own personal achievements and happiness.
They say that the greatest gift that G-d has given us is our lives, and the greatest gift that we can give Him in return is what we make of our lives. Elul is the time to look deep and see how we see the other around us and know that we are all part of the jigsaw puzzle and every piece is essential. Let us (personally, nationally and globally) take responsibility for this and stop blaming others, especially other sects. When we can live our lives from this unity perspective, then G-d will have no choice but to bless us all with peace, health and abundant blessings.
To end off, in Pirkei Avot 5:26 it says that in proportion to the effort comes the reward. In Elul we aspire to great heights, and this is the energy that we end the year off with. We can carry this enthusiasm and aspirations into the new year. What a great place to start the new year off from. So, let’s integrate the lessons of the year that has passed and return back to our source, back to our original essence and grow into the greatness that we can become.