Each year we enter into a period of deep reflection and prayer which begins with the month of Elul. In Aramaic, ‘elul’ means ‘search’. For those of us who are engaged in active contemplative practice, the process is rather like the children’s game of Hide and Seek. We are enjoined to seek the Beloved when He is “in the field” at this special time “when He can be found”, but we may also find that it is the Beloved who is searching for us. Sometimes it seems that He is hiding from us, but more often it is we ourselves who are in hiding.
In playing Hide and Seek for Contemplatives, there are times when we simply can’t be bothered looking for G-d, and times when we do not wish to be found ourselves. Times when we push G-d away like spiteful children losing a game, and times when when we try to hide Him in a mental cupboard out of embarrassment or shame. This can sometimes be due to remorse about things we have done or said or thought ourselves. Sometimes it can be because we have chickened-out in a political, social, or theological world in which it is unfashionable to admit that we want to know G-d in an explicitly intimate way.
G-d sometimes seems very close to us and we rejoice. But even when we feel we are doing our best, there can be a strong sense of His distance or absence.
Sometimes He hides from us in a sort of dance, in a sort of game, in a sort of lesson, in a sort of method we don’t really understand, and sometimes struggle against. It can go on for years like that. The absence of any sensation that G-d might be within hailing distance is a common and recurring state in the life of most full-time contemplatives. This is not punishment, cruelty, or the Divine toying with us like puppets. But it may be a refining test-situation. It may be a positive tool which ultimately helps us to see more of G-d and less of ourselves in the contemplative process. It can remind us that it is G-d Himself that we seek and not the gifts He gives us.
Yes, He will let us find Him…but we cannot make Him stay.
Yes, He will wrestle with us for a time….but at dawn He will be gone.
Yes, we may sense His Presence for a moment….but we cannot dwell in that moment for long and live.
The month of Elul leads into the ‘Ten Days’, a period of confession, self analysis, and charitable giving at the end of which the Jew seeks forgiveness and the union of ‘atonement’ with G-d on Yom Kippur. Almost without pause, this segues into another festival, that of Sukkot during which we declare our trust in the protecting cloud of G-d’s Presence.
For many Jews this period is the time of year when they become their most active in both prayer and in self examination. For those who live out the festival calendar with some intensity, there is a sense that one should ‘seek G-d while He may be found’ with the month of Elul being an annual retreat-time par excellence. For such people the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Awe can be extraordinarily charged and numinous. This can even be the case for contemplatives who have an intense prayer regimen all year round.
For many Jews, the season provides an uncomfortable (but somehow also welcomed) opportunity to take stock and it gives them a formally sanctioned encouragement to engage in a more intense prayer-life than may be thought appropriate or even possible at other times.
The month of Elul and the Ten Days, are a time when the game of Hide and Seek is liturgically intensified. In a sense, G-d was/is there all along and we create the liturgy to highlight that.
But the month of Elul and the climax of the introspection that is reached on Yom Kippur can sometimes be a sort of one-off binge which does not truly connect with the time preceding and following it. There is also the risk that our confessions can become rather pathetic exercises in perfectionism unless we remember that we are also confessing in the plural for ‘kol Yisrael’.
The long haul of the penitential period which opens with Elul, and which closes at the end of Yom Kippur can be a cathartic experience, but it is not magic. Neilah is best seen as being a part of a continuing journey rather than as a triumphal destination. A contemplative also knows that time is really an illusion. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow are simultaneous in G-d: The still point of Musaf Yom Kippur can be like a small flame inside the soul which burns all year round as a memory and a reference point.
In this way of seeing things, though G-d has concealed Himself, His Presence is not altogether withdrawn but there is a sense in which this kind of hiding is for our own good. We are reminded that Moses saw the back and not the face of G-d and that Elijah covered his face with a mantle: both prophets experiencing the event thus shielded for their own protection. The times in which we are in our own cleft of the rock are rare events, and the obscuring cloud is actually our friend.
We are given the Penitential/Holiday season as a chance to double up our half-hearted efforts to find G-d. Its message is really that He is more present in the world if we make Him so. But that is also a description of what a Jew is trying to do in every moment and not just once a year, or even once a week.
Potentially, every moment can be ‘the time when He might let us find Him’. Every place is His ‘field’ if we are actively looking for signs of His Presence.
But it sometimes involves us seeing in the dark.
It sometimes involves us standing still in order to see that He is right next to us.
It may involve the ability to survive on the manna of hope when faith is all but lost. It certainly involves patience and determination. And in this game of Hide and Seek, whether we are playing it during Elul, during the High Holidays or on a normal weekday- it is the energy and consistency with which we make the search that counts: for we are told we can find Him….. but only if we search with all our heart.
It requires total commitment, but He is waiting for us and coming towards us as we turn towards Him in teshuvah,and He has a place in His Heart for us all.