The oldest known Kabbalistic text, Sefer Yetzirah, teaches us that the month of Elul is connected to the Hebrew letter yud, the smallest and most fundamental letter in the Aleph Bet. The letter yud is connected with the sefira of chochma or ‘wisdom’. chochma is attributed to the "right" hemisphere of the brain, which is characterized by non-linear thought, creative intuition and imagery (as opposed to language). From this series of correspondences we can see that Elul is a time of making one’s self 'small’ — like the tiny letter yud — in order to humble the ego and activate some of the deeper, ‘subconscious’ levels of our soul and psyche.

Elul is a time of making one’s self 'small’...

Furthermore, Elul is also associated with "silence", which is the stillness that comes before sound. This is significant considering that the Shofar is blown on Rosh HaShanah, the first day of the New Year directly following the final month of Elul. This Shofar blast is considered the ‘first sound’ of the year, the initiatory vibration that gives birth to the next cycle of creation. We learn from this that Elul is thus a time of transition, inward reflection and serious, spiritual work.

Being that it is the last month of the "year", and being that each step of our journey through the Hebrew calendar is illuminated by a corresponding stage of spiritual development, Elul is recognized as the hardest and deepest stage of the yearly cycle. For as is commonly known, the stage of completion, or ‘cleaning up’, is often more difficult and less exciting than the messy and inspired process of creation. It is often easier to start something than to finish it.

But what exactly is the work of Elul? And what is the proper way to go about doing this work?

To put it simply, the work of Elul begins with us. This presents us with a paradox, being that the self is an entity that is at once both accessible and elusive.

We all have an ‘image’ of ourselves, which — often subconsciously — informs our actions, words and even thoughts.

We often find ourselves doing, saying, or thinking certain things simply because, on a subconscious level, there is this unconscious image ingrained, and these involuntary actions are a result of its influence.

We must therefore delve deeply into the depths of our multi-layered psyche in order to ‘release’ ourselves from the grip of this ‘image’ — the ego — and ‘return’ our center of power to the source of our true being — the Soul or Higher Self. This is the work of Teshuvah, of ‘rectification’ and ‘realignment’ — this is the ‘dirty’ work of Elul.

Throughout this intense and internally directed process we must perform a Cheshbon HaNefesh — ‘Accounting of the Soul’. It is through this meticulous recapitulation of our character traits and behavioral patterns that we attempt to acknowledge all of our mistakes, misdeeds and miscommunications over the course of the previous year and further, to exorcise their negative energetic repercussions. Elul is the time of the cleaning of the slate, where we attempt to ‘balance our cosmic check book’.

We must approach this path consciously and compassionately however, for there may often be great inconsistencies between our intellectual knowledge and our actual behavior.

For example, one could have a strong intellectual conviction that lying is harmful to oneself and others. This conviction may be based on an extensive knowledge of Torah teachings concerning the prohibitions against lying, as well years of psychological training in the mechanics of the mind, culminating in a deep understanding of the many reasons why people lie…all to no avail. One’s deeply ingrained, potentially unconscious and emotionally triggered habit of lying could still remain untransformed.


...the conscious...level of the mind is just one level out of many.

The answer is that the conscious, or rational, level of the mind is just one level out of many. There are many deeper, less tangible levels of self, which are commonly understood to comprise the ‘subconscious mind’. These unconscious attributes can often over-ride our consciously articulated moral compass and determine our behavior.

To reiterate: When we find ourselves doing, saying, or even thinking something negative, malicious or hurtful, despite our best intentions, it is often because there is a certain ‘self-image’ deeply ingrained in the recesses of our subconscious mind. This may be an unconscious identification pattern which is sometimes formed early in life, or may develop later on as a result of any number of different experiences, traumas or transformations.

When we are in the presence of certain conditions, characters or stimuli, this deeply set self-image can end up ‘taking the reins’ — dictating our actions, words and thoughts, and defying our conscious control. You might tell yourself very strongly to stop doing something, but this may not have a lasting or proven effect when exposed to certain circumstances. Despite all your efforts, when the stimulus returns, you may still involuntarily return to your unconscious reaction or reflex.

This reveals a dis-connect between our conscious, logical and verbal self and our deeper subconscious visual self , a tension between word and image as represented by the right-brain and left-brain modalities.

How can we transform our subconscious mind, if not through intellectual or conscious effort? How do we influence ourselves more deeply than our verbal, or logical left-brain is capable?

Repetitive Behavior

One approach is the experiential path of repetitive behavior — the path of doing — since habit can become ‘second nature’. It is through this practice of ‘right action’, rather than ‘right intention,’ that gives birth to the common conception of Torah’s perspective of ‘deed over creed’. This can be a highly effective technique to alter one’s behavioral patterns on the surface level — from the outside in, so to speak.

But there is another approach, a deeper way that attempts to confront the source of negative character traits and refine them at their root, akin to a ‘weeding of our psychological garden’. This path sidesteps our logical, linear left-brain and works directly with the right-brain modality of visualization and imagery.

Imagination — Cheshek –- Desire

The source of all suffering or negativity is Cheshek, ‘desire’ and expectation. Our desires are often fueled by our imaginations. So we can approach Teshuvah — ‘rectification’ or ‘realignment’ — on the level of action; instead of doing a certain behavior, we can just stop doing it — but that would not be a full Teshuvah. It would not get to the root of the desire, which is lodged in the abyss of un-rectified imagination , the source of our false self-image.

Full Teshuvah would require a transformation...

Full Teshuvah would require a transformation of perverse or egocentric cheshek into positive cheshek. This would result in the recognition of all desire being rooted in the desire to re-connect with the Infinite One — with G‑d. We would then be capable of visualizing noble things and imagining goodness, instead of entertaining perverse or demoralizing fantasies based on unconscious conditioning. It is through this ‘rewiring’ of our internal circuitry that we are able to redirect our imaginations and energies from sin to Mitzvah, from depression to exaltation and aliveness.

In conclusion, the month of Elul is represented by the zodiac symbol of the Virgin. This energy manifests in two ways. The first is that during the course of Elul, through the gradual and cleansing process of Teshuvah, we attempt to become pure and virgin-like. But more importantly, this powerful month reminds us of an indestructible purity that exists within us that is never soiled. There is a part of our soul that remains forever pure, unaffected or unscathed by any external influence. That aspect of our being, although at times obscured or neglected, never goes away — we are always essentially whole.

During the month of Elul, our work is to chip away at our kelipa or ‘character armor’, so that we can reveal this ever-present purity within.

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