Thoughts on Elul
The month of Elul is one that doesn’t get much airplay on the national Jewish consciousness networks. There aren’t any significant events that happened in Elul, no holidays to celebrate, no tragedies to mourn. The month usually comes at the end of the summer, when the kids are still in camp, and the heat seems to continue unabated.
But in another time and place, the word ‘Elul’ could cause someone’s heart to stir, because it meant that there was only one more month until the Days of Awe would be upon us. Somehow, it could be sensed that Elul was a time that meant that a certain seriousness was necessary. It was a time to focus again on our relationship with God, our relationship with others, and even ourselves. To take stock of where we’d been that year, to look to the future with resolve.
The month of Elul, however, is not just about the coming Holy days. It is also a culmination of the months that preceded it.
In previous articles, we noted that the Jewish calendar is composed of two sets of six months. There are six that are the winter months, months of quiet growth beneath the surface. These months will begin soon, with the month of Tishrei. Currently, we are in the month of Elul, which is the culmination of the six month series of the spring and summer, when the growth is more active and pronounced. The world takes on a bright and warm sheen, which reflects a corresponding time of open spiritual growth, as well.
The cycling of the summer is also more pronounced, as we go through the joys of Passover and redemption, as well as the recommitment to Torah we experience on Shavuos. It is then followed by the three weeks of mourning over the destruction of the Temple.
And here we are, after all these experiences, looking ahead to the New Year that awaits us, and another cycle of subtle growth through yet another winter.
Our sages point out that the name of the month of Elul (אלול) is an acronym for a number of different phrases from the Torah. One of them is the phrase from the Song of Songs (6:3) אני לדודי ודודי לי – I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is mine. This denotes the powerful bond between the Jewish people and God. On another level, the sages note that it also an acronym for the phrase in the book of Esther (9:22) איש לרעהו ומתנות לאביונים – [gifts were sent] from a man to his friend and gifts to the poor. In both of these phrases, if one takes the first letter of each word, it spells the word Elul (אלול).
It can be deduced that the sages are suggesting that Elul contains a special aspect of relationship between man and God, as well as between man and his fellow. On a deeper level, there is also an aspect of our relationship with ourselves, as we will see.
It is interesting to note that the month of Elul is the sixth in the series of spring and summer months. The corresponding month in the autumn and winter months is the month of Adar, when we celebrate the story of Purim, as told in the book of Esther. It was in that very story that we found the verse which speaks of the relationship between man and his fellow, which forms the acronym of the month of Elul.
As we explained earlier, the sixth month in a series is the culmination of all of the spiritual energy of the five previous months. It is for this reason that we find in the deeper sources, the sixth aspect is referred to as “כל” – All. (See R’ Aryeh Kaplan, The Bahir, p. 101.) In a parallel way, the sixth day of the week, Friday, is also the culmination of the five days that preceded it. It is also the day about which our sages sages say (Avodah Zarah 2A), “מי שטרח בערב שבת יאכל בשבת” – whoever puts in effort on Friday will be able to eat on Shabbat. It is thus a day that completes our weekly efforts and prepares us for the day of rest.
As we mentioned, the five months that precede Elul are the active spring and summer months. During this time, we have been very involved in the cycle of our relationship with God. In Jewish life, our relationship with God is always intertwined with our relationships with the people who are most dear to us in our lives.
In the first month of this series, Nissan, we experienced the Exodus from Egypt as we sat with our families at the Seder, recounting how God redeemed us. We counted the days through the second month, Iyar, leading up to Shavuos. In the third month, Sivan, we sat with our friends and family through the night as we brought back to life the giving of the Torah on Shavuos. In the fourth month, Tamuz, we began the mourning for the destruction of the temple, which culminated in the fifth month, Av, when we sat on the floor, mourning as a community, and read from the book of Lamentations.
As we got up from our sorrow, we celebrated the holiday of Tu B’av, which expresses a renewal in relationships. This expressed the completion of this cycle of relationship.
As we come to Elul, the sixth in the series, we have the opportunity to take stock of all of our relationships. We look at the cycle of our relationship with God, as well as our relationships with our fellows. And on a deeper level, both of these are really outward manifestations of our relationships with ourselves. Our interactions with others, and the type of contact we have with God always reflect who we really are at our core.
Thus, Elul is a time to look at the cycle we have experienced in a more pronounced way than in the winter months. Here we can openly see who we are and start to think about who we want to be. We gaze backwards, even as we look forwards to the month of Tishrei that is soon approaching. It is in Tishrei that we will express our desire to be committed to our relationship with God. This higher relationship is reflected in our associations with the people in our lives, and our commitment to them, as well.
As we observe where we have been, and where we hope to head, we become more whole within ourselves. Paradoxically, as we focus more on our relationships with others, we become more content within our own beings. This is the ultimate preparation for the month of Tishrei. Elul is that opportunity. If we take it, and prepare properly on ‘Friday,’ we will have a most beautiful and meaningful experience for the High Holidays.