THE JOURNEY OF ELUL – Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – SJN, August 2018
August. The month for summer holidays. This year, the Hebrew month of Elul begins on Saturday evening, 11th August. Elul has a very different feeling about it. Elul is set aside for preparation for the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, also known as Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Returning, which begin on Rosh Ha-Shanah. Commencing on the first day of the seventh month, Tishri, Rosh Ha-Shanah ushers in an intense period of reflection and self-examination that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
It is not easy to turn our lives around and begin again. The custom of expressing our best wishes to people l’shanah tovah , ‘for a good year’, both in person, and when writing letters – and these days, emails – serves as a daily reminder to ourselves and others that the New Year is approaching. It is also traditional to visit the graves of loved ones during Elul – reminding ourselves of our connection with those who went before us, and the legacy we have received from them. On a more demanding level, Elul is the time to begin to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, literally, an ‘account of the soul’ – in much the same way as we examine the state of our finances; an account of our actions towards family, friends, colleagues, fellow congregants, neighbours, people in the wider community, strangers near and far, and the world around us.
In the midrash, rabbinic commentary, we find the word Elul treated as an acronym for a verse from the biblical book, ‘The Song of Songs’ (Shir Ha-Shirim): Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – ‘I am my beloved and my beloved is mine’ (6:3). Ani, like Elul begins with the letter Aleph. The letter Lamed of L’dodi stands for the first Lamed of Elul. The letter Vav of V’dodi stands for the Vav of Elul, pronounced here as the Shuruk vowel ‘u’. The last word of the phrase, Li, begins with a Lamed, representing the final Lamed of Elul. This particular midrash represents the journey of the month of Elul as a journey of love towards the Eternal One, who will respond by turning in love towards each person who makes the journey (See: Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, Schocken Books, New York, 1965, p. 18).
Reflecting on this midrash, made me think of another way of treating Elul as an acronym, which might be helpful for our journey. Aleph is the initial letter of the word, Ahavah, ‘Love’. Lamed is the first letter of the word for ‘Heart’, Leiv or Leivav. Taken on its own the Vav/shuruk vowel ‘U’ means ‘and’ when it precedes the letters Beit, Mem or Pei, or a word where the initial letter has a vocal sh’va – the shortest vowel sound in Hebrew. The word for ‘accompany’ or ‘escort’, l’vayah, which is the Hebrew word for ‘funeral’, begins with a Lamed and a vocal sh’va. So, we can understand Elul as a journey requiring Ahavah, Leivav U’L’vayah, ‘Love, Heart And Accompanying’. We need love for ourselves and for others and for the Eternal to motivate us to make the journey. We need heart – which in the biblical worldview is the seat of thought rather than emotion – that is, we need to think and reflect on our individual lives. Finally, we need to remember that just as we accompany those who have died on their final journey, we are summoned to accompany one another as we trek towards renewal. Although each one of us must face ourselves, we are not alone. Let us make the journey of Elul together.