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Elul: We’ve got this

It's that time of year when we must rise to the occasion to connect with God - but before we start out, He ensures that we have the inner resources to succeed
Blowing the shofar in the town of Lifta, near Jerusalem, September 2012. (Uri Lenz/ Flash90/ File)
Blowing the shofar in the town of Lifta, near Jerusalem, September 2012. (Uri Lenz/ Flash90/ File)

A shul once hired a rabbi on condition that he would never start a sermon with the phrase “In this week’s parsha…” Certain Jewish clichés have us yawning in no time. At this time of year, it might be “Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li” — “I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine.” Been there; heard that. G-d is our beloved, we’ve been out of touch, and it’s time to reconnect. Oh, and He’s waiting for us to initiate contact. We’ve been told this annually for as long as we can remember.

Jewish mysticism offers a deeper perspective on this timeworn one-liner. “Ani leDodi” represents the unique spiritual dynamic between G-d and us. To appreciate our two-way connection, we need to consider the nature of our soul. We often imagine our soul as the battery pack that keeps us alive. When our time is up, a shimmering white version of us floats heavenward to live on, in Paradise.

That’s not quite right. Our soul is more like a spiritual rope, tethered on one end to our body and on the other to G-d. Sometimes, G-d tugs on His end, and that inspires us out of the blue to invest in our spiritual well-being. Other times, we pull from our side through our prayers or increased spiritual commitment to arouse G-d to care for us.

When G-d initiates the process, it is called “an awakening from on High.” When we are the catalyst, it is “an awakening from below.” We’d all love G-d to stimulate us with miracles or revelation. We believe that if G-d would zap us with Exodus-like wonders, we would commit to Him forever.

G-d disagrees. Rather than hand us inspiration on a platter, He prefers that we work to achieve our connection. He knows it will be a slower, less impressive process, but it will produce a more meaningful outcome.

Pesach celebrates a historical time of “awakening from on High.” Elul, moving through Yom Kippur when it is all up to us. “Ani LeDodi” — we have to make it happen. G-d designs beautiful blessings for us, provided we invest the time and effort to earn them.

That may leave us feeling uneasy. We have a lot riding on the High Holiday period. That is when Hashem will determine everything for the coming year — our health, family stability, and mental well-being, not to mention global trends. What happens to us next year is up to us this year.

Feeling overwhelmed?

“Ani LeDodi” isn’t a pithy description of a human – Divine love affair. It is a challenge to take serious personal responsibility. Many of us may feel we do not have the resources to navigate this process successfully.

Enter the other commonly quoted Elul meme: “The King is in the field.” The parable describes how most people never gain access to the king because entry to the palace is off-limits to all but the elite. That changes when the king travels. As he passes through the townlets and fields, the locals get a chance to engage with a warm and engaging monarch.

Elul is that month when G-d “comes to town,” and we all get a chance for an up-close-and-personal. That is very different from the standoffish “Ani LeDodi” message that insists you have to make the grade before G-d looks in your direction. Both perspectives are valid.

G-d wants us to earn our keep, but He never demands of us before He empowers us. The Talmud notes how G-d insists that we give charity only after He blesses us with money. He instructs us to place a mezuzah on our doors after He has blessed us with a home. G-d insists that the blessings of the coming year depend on our efforts — which means He has empowered us with the tools to earn those blessings. Before He sends us on the journey to connect with Him, He pops into our world, the “field,” to ensure that we have the inner resources to succeed.

When we hear the first strains of the shofar on Sunday morning, it will be a call to action. We may feel overwhelmed by the message it implies — that it’s up to us to make this happen. If we listen closely, we will hear it announce that we will not travel this road alone. G-d has our back. And He wants us to succeed.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler is the director of Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group. Rabbi Shishler is also a special needs father. His daughter, Shaina has an ultra-rare neuroegenratove condition called BPAN. Rabbi Shishler shares Shaina's story and lessons about kindness and disability inclusion on his other blog, "Shaina's Brocha" and through lectures and Kindness Cookies teambuilding workshops.
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