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Re'eh, Elul

Friday, 30 August, 2019 - 1:29 pm


Elul!  The final month of the Jewish year begins this Sunday.  That word, Elul, carries a wide array of meanings.  For many rabbis it means it’s time to start polishing their sermons, for presidents of typical congregations it is a time to prepare their appeals, cantors practice their music and synagogue staff typically (not including almost all Chabad Centers) are selling tickets for High Holiday services.  Guest lists and menus are being planned for the holidays, and, of course, rabbis and teachers try to discuss and explain the deeper meaning of the Holidays. 


Traditionally, and most important, Elul has meant that we need to start taking seriously the fact that the year is drawing to a close, and it is time to make the annual “accounting” of where we are and how we are doing on fulfilling our mission in life.  Just as every business person must from time to time asses how the business is doing, what’s working and what is not, etc., so too we need to stop and take stock of our activities once a year. Another area of spiritual work in Elul is to prepare for Rosh Hashanah itself which is one of the reasons we blow the Shofar every day during Elul, in preparation of the main Mitzvah of Rosh Hashana – blowing the Shofar.  I know they sound like the same thing, but as you will soon see there are actually two distinct aspects of the work of Elul.


One of the fascinating aspects of Elul is the word itself.  There is no other month in which the name is so descriptive of the meaning of the month.  The four Hebrew letters of the word are acronyms for several phrases, each related to another aspect of the spiritual work that is characteristic of this month.  The most famous is Ani Ledodi Vedodii Li – I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me, referring to the Teshuva – return – to Hashem that we do, and the response in blessings and Divine light from Hashem.  You can find a wealth of information on Elul here


I want to talk about an acronym of Elul that is much less known and requires some discussion of Kabbalah and Chassidus to understand.  How do you spell the Hebrew word “lo?”  It has only two letters, but there are two ways to spell it, depending on what it means.  The lamed is the same on both, but lo with an alef as the second letter means “no,” and with a vav it means “to him.”  If you put these two words together, lamed alef and lamed vav, you get the letters of Elul.  What does “no” and “to him” have to do with Elul?  Earlier I alluded to the two parts of the spiritual service of Elul.  The “accounting” of where we stand in the observance of our life’s mission, and the preparation for Rosh Hashana.  Each of these is reflected in one of the words, lo (not) or lo to Him. 


Living a spiritually meaningful life, connected to Hashem and fulfilling the purpose for which He created us, involves the observance of many commandments, some things we must do and others we may not.  As we review our actions of the past year, we may realize that there are some areas where we need improvement – that our living “for Him” may have occasionally fallen by the wayside as we pursue our own needs, feeding our egos and following desires that weaken our connection to Hashem.  In Elul, we work to strengthen our observances and to remind ourselves of how great it is to live a life being conscious that we are here to better the world and to reveal the spiritual light of Hashem.  We work on living more “for Him” in our daily activities.


Then there is a much deeper aspect of our connection to Hashem in which we focus not so much on particular observances, but on our essential bond with Hashem.  This bond is referred to in Zohar as “lo” with a alef – “no.”  Chassidus explains that relationship and revelation of Divine light can only be on a conscious level.  There is a level of Divine essence that can never be revealed, that is beyond the grasp of even the holiest and most refined.  In fact, if we go deeper for a moment, the essential existence of Hashem is beyond any kind of revelation or relationship, even in the highest spiritual realms, because all “realms,” even the most spiritual, are still creations.  When we refer to Hashem’s essence, there is no creation and no existence other than Hashem’s pure existence.  So on that level, there is nothing other than Hashem’s essence and no connection with anything.  That is what we are referring to with the mystical “lo” – no. 


Chassidus teaches that the essence of our soul is sourced at the essence of Hashem.  This is not something we can comprehend logically, because it is beyond any logic or experience, it is the very essence of our souls that is above any kind of expression.  Yet on Rosh Hashanah we connect to this level.  We blow the Shofar, representing the cry from within the depths of our soul that has no expression of words or form of music.  We won’t, on Rosh Hashanah, enumerate our sins or shortcomings.  It is all about “accepting the sovereignty” of Hashem and recommitting to being His people, on a deep, essential level.  That is the other part of Elul, when we blow the Shofar daily and remember our inner core, a part of Hashem.  That, as the Zohar explains, is the “lo” in our relationship with Hashem, the relationship that cannot be logically explained nor felt intellectually or in our revealed emotions.  So the name Elul expresses the two areas of preparation for the New Year – our practice and feelings that connect us on a daily basis to Hashem, and the reminder of who we are essentially, a part of Hashem that can never be separated. 


I wish you a successful Elul in both areas, and may you and all your loved ones be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet New Year. 

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