The special month of Elul does not always come at a convenient time. Particularly this year, when Elul begins earlier in the summer than usual, it occupies a significant chunk of our summer, a time when we usually like to relax and enjoy trips, family get-togethers, social gatherings, and recreational activities. But precisely for this reason, it behooves us to reflect for a few moments on the meaning and significance of Elul, and on what this month is all about.
On the simplest level, Elul was earmarked as a special period for repentance since the time when our ancestors were encamped at Sinai. Forty days after receiving the Torah, on the 17th of Tammuz, they worshipped the golden calf, whereupon Gd decided to annihilate them. In response to Moshe’s pleas on the nation’s behalf, and the nation’s heartfelt repentance, Gd rescinded the decree. It was during the 40- day period from Rosh Hodesh Elul through Yom Kippur that Moshe earned Gd’s forgiveness, which Gd announced on Yom Kippur. From that time on, these 40 days have been a special period of compassion and forgiveness. The mercy Gd showed to His beloved nation during those 40 days at Sinai is reawakened each year during this time, making it an especially auspicious opportunity to earn forgiveness through our sincere, heartfelt prayers and repentance.
In truth, however, the unique status of Elul predates even the sin of the golden calf, and is rooted in the process of the world’s creation.
The Ultimate Act of Kindness
The Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria, 1534-1572) taught that Gd set up the world in such a way that our actions down below trigger actions in heaven. Through “it’areruta detata” – our “awakening” here on earth – there occurs an “it’areruta dele’ela’ – an “awakening” in the heavens. When we pray and perform mitzvot here in our world, this puts into motion certain processes in the upper worlds, resulting in “shefa” – an outpouring of blessing that comes from the heavens into our world. In order to receive Gd’s blessings, we must activate them through our actions.
There was, however, one obvious exception to this rule – the world’s creation. Of course, there were no people in existence to activate the spiritual forces and bring down Gd’s “shefa.” Gd’s creation of the world was thus an exceptional act of pristine hesed (kindness). He provided us with this beautiful world, with a world full of potential and blessing, without any “it’areruta detata,” without any person doing anything to receive it. The world’s creation marked the ultimate act of kindness.
Needless to say, this was done because there was no choice; there were no people to earn the “shefa” through their actions. But even so, Gd did not suspend the rule entirely. Nothing was done beforehand to bring the “shefa” of creation – so He gave it to the world “on credit,” so-to-speak.
This concept is taught to us by Rashi, in his very first remarks in his commentary to the Torah. Explaining the words, “Bereshit bara Elokim et hashamayim ve’et ha’aretz,” which are normally translated as, “In the beginning, Gd created heaven and earth,” Rashi writes that this translation is incorrect. This phrase actually means that Gd created heaven and earth “bishvil reshit – for the first,” meaning, for the sake of Am Yisrael, which is referred to as “reshit” (“the first”), and for the sake of Torah, which is also called “reshit.” In other words, Gd created the world even though this bounty was not earned because in the future, the Jewish Nation would arise and would perform mitzvot. He foresaw that the “credit” would eventually be paid, as it were, through the special, sacred actions which Am Yisrael would perform throughout their history.
It often goes overlooked that the anniversary of the world’s creation falls during the month of Elul. Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Tishri, celebrates the creation of Adam and Havah on the sixth and final day of creation – which means that the first day of creation was the 25th Elul. Indeed, some Kabbalistic sources teach that the 25th of Elul should be observed as a special day – a day when one must be particularly careful to avoid anger, and when one should eat festive meals, immerse in a mikveh, and give charity. There is also a custom to light five candles in the home on this day, corresponding to the five times the world “or – light” is mentioned in reference to the first day of creation.
Developing this point further, Elul represents the time when Gd acted out of absolute hesed, without any initiative on our part, creating the world “on loan,” with the expectation that it would be earned later through Am Yisrael’s good deeds. Each year, during the month of Elul, this special hesed is reawakened. As in the time of creation, Gd is prepared to grant us unbridled kindness and blessing even if we are undeserving – on the basis of our commitment for the future. As long as we genuinely commit to raise our standards during the coming year, to work harder to fulfill His will and refrain from wrongdoing, He is prepared to repeat the ultimate act of kindness, to create for us a beautiful world once again, in His infinite mercy and kindness, despite our current state of unworthiness.
We can harness this exceptional kindness, the kindness of creation, regardless of what this past year looked like. No matter how undeserving we might think we are of earning a favorable judgment this Rosh Hashanah, we can tap into the special hesed with which the world was created by committing ourselves to be better.
The Elul Scouting Mission
Further insight into the significance of this month can be gleaned by examining its name – “Elul.” Although this name does not appear to be related to any familiar Hebrew word, we do find it used in the Aramaic translation of Onkelos to the Humash.
The famous story of the spies begins with Gd’s command to Moshe to send men to “scout the land” (Bamidbar 13:2). Onkelos translates the word “veyaturu” (“and they shall scout”) as “vi’alelun.” The root of this Aramaic verb is alef, lamed, lamed – the same root as the word “Elul.”
The month of Elul, then, is a time for “scouting.” We are to thoroughly scour our characters and our conduct to determine where we can improve, what commitments we can and should make for the coming year in order to earn Gd’s kindness. And just as the scouts traveled throughout the Land of Israel during their mission, so must we examine the entirety of our lives. We are to think very carefully about our conduct in all areas – our relationships within the family, our professional conduct, how we treat and speak about our neighbors, friends and fellow community members, our adherence to halachah, our commitment to Torah study, our charitable donations and volunteer work, our prayers – everything. This process, obviously, takes time. We are given 40 days to “scout,” to search, to study ourselves, to think and to consider where we can improve and how these improvements can be made successfully.
True, this process is not exactly congruous with the relaxed, free-spirited mood of summer, the time when many of us like to “take it easy,” to not work too hard and not think too hard. But with the stakes this high, we have no choice. Sure, we are certainly entitled to relax and enjoy vacation time. But even so, we must ensure to allocate some time each day of Elul to our “scouting mission,” to serious soul-searching and contemplation so we can come before Gd on Rosh Hashanah with a genuine, precisely-formulated commitment to improve.
Recreating Our World
Our tradition associates each of the Jewish months with a different constellation, and the constellation associated with Elul is Virgo, an unmarried woman. The connection between Elul and this constellation lies in the theme of purity and newness. During Elul, we are given the opportunity to return to our original state of purity and regain our innocence. This concept, too, closely relates to the commemoration of the world’s creation. This month is uniquely suited to turn back the clock and recreate ourselves, to turn ourselves into what we should be. Regardless of the mistakes we’ve made and the sins we’ve committed, we are given the opportunity to start anew.
And, as this month marks the anniversary of the world’s creation, we are given the opportunity to earn a new creation, to have Gd recreate our world and our lives. In this month of special kindness, we beseech Gd to create the world anew, to give us a happier, more joyous and more peaceful world than the one we currently live in. Certainly, we all have much to be thankful for, and gratitude for our multitude of blessings must be a significant aspect of our process of “taking stock” as the year comes to an end. But as we all know; this has been a year of great pain and hardship for the Jewish People. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken many lives and many livelihoods. Several horrific tragedies have shaken the Jewish world over the last several months, such as the disaster at Meron on Lag Ba’omer, the deadly rocket attacks from Gaza, and, most recently, the building collapse in Florida. Let us all make the commitment to recreate ourselves so we will be worthy of a newly created world, a world without tragedy and pain, a world without poverty and deprivation, a world of peace, security and prosperity for all, a world in which Gd’s presence and infinite kindness are palpably felt and recognized by one and all, amen.