As August begins this year, the Hebrew month of Elul approaches and with it the Jewish journey of t’shuvah. Usually translated as, ‘repentance’, t’shuvah, based on the Hebrew root, Shin Vav Beit, to ‘return’, is the process by which we turn ourselves around and return to the true path of our lives.
Making t’shuvah is very personal; a responsibility that devolves upon the individual. According to Jewish teaching, each person is obligated to reflect and undertake a cheshbon nefesh, literally, an ‘accounting’ of their ‘soul’. To do this requires honesty, self-awareness and a willingness to acknowledge our mistakes and errors and the harm we have done. So, the journey of t’shuvah requires us to look into ourselves, but the focus of concern is on what we do to ourselves and others. There is no doubt that we hurt ourselves when we lose the way and need to return to ourselves, but we also, more importantly, damage our relationships with other people.
Like the names of the other months of the Hebrew calendar, derived from our people’s exile in Babylonia, the word, Elul, originated in the Akkadian word for ‘Harvest’, elūlu, and first appears in Tanach in the Book of Nehemiah 6:15. Nevertheless, the four consonants of the name Elul – Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed – are generally understood in entirely Jewish terms, as an acronym for the initial letters of the phrase in the Shir Ha-Shirim, The Song of Songs (6:3): Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – ‘I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.’ A lyrical expression of human erotic passion, Shir Ha-Shirim was included in the Tanach by the first rabbis because they read the book as an allegory of the covenant of love between the Eternal One and Israel. And so, Elul as an acronym of ‘I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me’ was also understood in this context. As Moses ben Abraham puts it in his liturgical compendium, Mateh Moshe (Cracow, 1591): ‘If Israel will long to turn in complete t’shuvah to their Father in heaven, then his longing will go out to them, and he will accept them in t’shuvah.’
Reunion with the Eternal One on Yom Kippur is the ultimate goal of the t’shuvah journey, but first each one of us is challenged to return to one another: I am to… and …. to me: I relate to others, and each person whom I encounter relates to me. That is the essence of what it means to be alive. The philosopher Martin Buber encapsulated this understanding in his work, Ich und Du – ‘I and Thou’. ‘Thou’ is the Eternal ‘Thou’ and also each and every ‘you’ that we – each and every ‘I’ – meet. What difference might it make to our lives if each ‘I’ related to each ‘you’ as the Eternal ‘Thou’? The forty day t’shuvah odyssey we begin on the first day of Elul is a sacred opportunity to return to ourselves and to others and repair ourselves and our relationships. May each one of us find the courage to make the journey. L’shanah tovah!