The Meanings of Elul
Elul. Aleph. Lamed. Vav. Lamed. Elul. This month is our soul time. This is the time that the hard work begins. A time of self-examination and accounting in preparation for the High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Selichot prayers, prayers for forgiveness are traditionally recited daily, in the hope that our destinies might change because of God’s Divine Grace. Tomorrow night, we recite the Selichot in the evening, when there are no distractions of our daily activities, and in the darkness of night the intimacies with the Divine can be most keenly felt.
Our tradition teaches that during this month of Elul, Moses was spending the last 40 days on the mountaintop, praying for God’s Divine Grace. For the Israelites. For himself. Elul is also known as the “Days of Grace” or “Days of Compassion” because during this time God was open to listening to Moses. And through Moses sincere intervention and appeal, God showed Divine mercy and forgiveness.
The spiritual energy of this month, we are taught is found in the name of the month itself. Our rabbis and our mystics taught that the letters of the Hebrew word given shape and definition to the month’s purpose.
The letters of the name of the month are read as several different acronyms, each of the four letters standing for a different verse of the Bible which identifies a different aspect of Elul’s spiritual energy.
Most commonly known is that Elul is an acronym for the verse from the moving love poetry of Song of Songs: “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li”, meaning: “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me.”
Elul is the month of love. We yearn to find our way back to God to repair the spiritual destructions of mistakes and transgressions. We feel God’s love as God responds to our reaching out. We say: We are for our beloved” and God responds “My beloved is for me.”
This is the month in which we re-create, re-dedicate a loving partnership with our Maker. The High Holy Days will feel different and more intimate if we have consciously worked on our relationship with God through this period. It will be a sincere discussion with our beloved who loves us.
Elul is also an acronym for a verse in the book of Esther: “Ish Lere’eihu U’Matanot La’Evyonim” meaning “each man to his fellow and gifts to the poor.” Elul is the month of acts of lovingkindness and charity. We do not only show love to God, but we show our love to other people through acts of mentschlekeit Tzedakah.
Tzedakah is one of the means through which God’s mercy is shown to us as we repent. As it is written in our Machzor: “Repentance, Prayer and Charity temper God’s severe decree.” We begin our financial generosity during this month with donations to Jewish institutions, like the synagogue or Jewish causes or charities.
A third acronym taught in relation to Elul is a verse from the book of Exodus. It is in the section that speaks about the cities of refuge – a place where one who committed unintentional murder might find sanctuary from the wrath of a victim’s family. It is written: “Inah Le’Yado veSamti Lach” meaning “…deliver into his hand, I shall establish for you…”
Our rabbis taught that every transgression against God is a type of “killing”. “Our souls are lessened each time we do not follow God’s will for us. Our misbehavior like killing is a violation of our purpose in life. Like the unintentional murderer, our mis-actions are also unintentional because our souls are intrinsically pure. Our misdeeds are a lapse from our true will.
Elul is thus a refuge for us all in the calendar just as the cities of refuge are the safe place for the unintentional murderer. How do we take refuge at this time? The rabbis teach “words of Torah are a refuge.” Elul should be our time of return to Torah and mitzvot. The month is our inner sanctum for atonement and rehabilitations and return to the goodness of our soul.
Another interpretation. Elul stands for the verse in the book of Deuteronomy which speaks of the Jewish people returning in repentance to the land of Israel after exile as punishment for their transgression. The acronym is rendered “Et levavcha v’et Levav” meaning, “your heart and the heart [of your children]” [shall return/repent]. The verse we are taught hints at Teshuva, a time or regret, forgiveness and reconciliation, a time of return and repentance. A time to go back home to your true self and rediscover the sparks of God at the core of our soul.
A final rendering of Elul as an acronym. When read backwards the letters are found in the verse from the book of Exodus, in the song the Israelites sang at the Red Sea, a song of redemption that alludes to the final redemption. L’Adonai V’yamru Leimore Ashira” meaning [this song] to God and said, saying, I will sing…” Our repentance which we begin during the month of Elul, will be our redemption.
The Midrash tells a beautiful story that even if our repentance is tiny, the size of an eye of a needle, God will open that smallest of openings, and send repentance the size of huge horse-drawn chariots through that hole. We will be redeemed.
The acronyms of our month Elul are the scene setting for the Ten Days of Repentance. They urge us to form a love relationship with God, to be charitable, to strive to return to the words of Torah and the pureness of our soul, and to prepare ourselves to be redeemed.
Elul. Aleph. Lamed. Vav. Lamed. Elul. This month is our soul time. This is the time that the hard work begins.