I. Awe and Love

Chasidut teaches how the name Elul is an acronym for Solomon's verse, "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine." (Songs 6:3) The first part of the phrase, "I am my Beloved's…" relates to our divine service from below. Its second section, "…my Beloved is mine", alludes to G‑d's illumination from above. This latter revelation occurs mainly in the Ten Days of Awe, i.e. from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, for it is then that G‑d's illumination descends below in a revealed manner. Before a king enters a given city, its inhabitants go out to the fields where they greet him…

King Solomon hinted to this, "His left hand is under my head, His right hand envelops me." (Songs 2:6) The period from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur is allegorized as "His left hand". The left side represents the attribute of Severity (gevura), which engenders fear of G‑d. We fear G‑d during these ten days because His attribute of Kingship (malchut) is revealed. That's why this period is called the Days of Awe, for when G‑d's Kingship is exposed, fear and awe of the king fall upon the entire system of worlds.

When a kingdom's subjects view their king, they are overcome with awe of the intense splendor. Similarly, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur G‑dliness is exposed to every Jew, a revelation termed by Solomon as "my Beloved is mine". To experience the awe of this divine consciousness, however, a precondition of our divine service is first necessary. That is alluded to by the verse's first phrase, "I am my Beloved's."

Divine assistance is required to enable our love and fear to be complete. Throughout Elul, G‑d empowers us to beseech Him. He does so by illuminating His Thirteen Attributes of Compassion, which affects virtually every Jew to perfect his service of "I am my Beloved's."

The infinite light of the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion is truly exalted - beyond the entire system of worlds, exceeding any form of measure and limitation. Indeed, their consummate revelation occurs on Yom Kippur, called, "Shabbat of complete rest." (Lev. 16:31) If this is so, however, why are Elul's days ordinary and not holy? Why aren't all the days of Elul designated as holidays, similar to Shabbat and Festivals?

A parable will explain the difference. Before a king enters a given city, its inhabitants go out to the fields where they greet him. There the king happily receives them all with a beaming countenance. Afterwards, the throng follows the king to his palace. But there, entrance is forbidden and only a select few have permission to enter.

A similar distinction applies to how the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion shine on Yom Kippur in contrast to their illumination during Elul. On Yom Kippur the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion shine in full revelation. This resembles the condition of a king within his palace. Since he is in his palace, his essential being is overtly revealed. Conversely, in Elul, while the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion shine inside the soul of every Jew, they are nevertheless not manifest overtly. This limited revelation parallels the condition of the king while out in a field. There, he is cloaked in outdoors wear that is suitable for fields. It is impossible to differentiate between fire and the light it emits…

In this case, the garments' purpose, however, is not to protect the King. Rather, they safeguard the field. For, bereft of such garments, the full splendor of the King would shine forth, and that would nullify the field's self-existence. To help the field maintain its identity, the King must don sets of attire.

Hence, throughout Elul, when the King is in the field, His Thirteen Attributes of Compassion radiate in a lesser manner. In contrast, on Yom Kippur, we merit to join the King revealed inside His palace. Then the essence of the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion is exposed.

A remarkable phenomenon exists in regards to the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion. While throughout Elul only their light shines forth, nonetheless, that light contains within it the essence of its source. Since they are the Light of the Infinite One (Ein Sof), they consequently illume His Absolute Being.

Support for this rule is found in the verse, "For G‑d your G‑d - He is a consuming fire." (Deut. 4:24) By allegorizing G‑d to fire, we discern the nature of His Light. Generally speaking, it is impossible to differentiate between fire and the light it emits: both are of the fire. In a similar manner, the radiation of the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion during Elul itself is Light of the Infinite One Himself.

Elul's radiated Thirteen Attributes of Compassion are a preparation for their full revelation on Yom Kippur. One might ask, how can a mere radiation be related to intense Absolute Light? But it certainly can, for although their state during Elul is external - as a king in a field - nevertheless, they are the Infinite One's Light, and we can't distinguish between them.

II. Seek Out

All of this is fine for Jews who are seeking G‑d out in the field. But what can be said of those who find themselves in a lowly spiritual state - beneath the aspect of fields, whom Isaiah describes as "lost in the land of Assyria" (Isaiah 27:13)? These individuals sank to such depths as a result of an impure "spirit of insanity" that adhered itself to their consciousness and lead them down the primrose path of doom. The Talmud codifies the criteria of insanity, "Who is insane? He who loses everything which is given to him." All that G‑d bestows from Above is lost to him. How can one overcome this hapless situation?

Torah offers advice, "From there you will seek G‑d your L-rd (Elokim), and you will find Him, if you search for Him with all your heart and all your soul." (Deut. 4:29) Legal authorities in Jewish law interpret "L-rd" as power. They say, "G‑d your L-rd is your power and your life force." But since that sensation is missing, rendering one "lost in the land of Assyria," the verse counsels a search. And where should one search? He must seek G‑d precisely in the place He went missing.

But what is the actual state of a lost object? It's only hidden from its owner; relative to itself, it is not hidden at all. The former owner can discover his misplaced article if only he'd search. The king stands in the field. He receives everyone with a smiling countenance…

An analogy can be drawn to spiritual searching, which the Torah calls repentance. Though a person finds himself in such a low state, nonetheless, all of Elul's qualities remain operative. The king stands in the field. He receives everyone with smiling countenance.

Elul has the power to correct and perfect all of the pervious year's months. In his repentance, an individual capitalizes on this property of Elul. Starting on the first day of Elul and carrying on through Yom Kippur are what are termed the Final Forty Days, which follow two prior sets of forty days.

Moses ascended Mount Sinai on the eighth of Sivan - after the Giving of the Torah. Forty days later he came down, Tablets in hand. These are called the Initial Forty Days.

Upon his descent, Moses encountered the Golden Calf and promptly smashed the Tablets. That ill-fortuned day was the seventeenth of Tammuz - now a public fast day commemorating the breach of Jerusalem's walls (as well as the aforementioned catastrophe). Moses soon ascended the mountain again, returning forty days later. This period is termed the Intermediate Forty Days.

Moses then resumed his audience with G‑d on Sinai on the first of Elul and received the Oral Law from G‑d. He remained there until the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, at which time he reappeared, this time holding the Second Tablets. This phase is called the Last Forty Days. Just as the Initial Forty Days were desirable to G‑d, so, too, the Last Forty Days…

Why is Elul an auspicious time to repent? On its first day commences the Last Forty Days. Yet, this final set of forty comes on the heels of the intermediate and initial periods. Why, then, is it so significant? The Midrash supplies the answer, "Just as the Initial Forty Days were desirable to G‑d, so, too, the Last Forty Days. This was not the case, though, with the Intermediate Forty Days." Hence, the Last Forty Days, beginning on the first of Elul, manifest repentance.

Repentance distinguishes the advantage of the Last Forty Days, for, as Maimonides tells us, "Repentance makes an individual more desirable before G‑d than he was prior to his transgressions." Maimonides' assertion finds support from a second opinion in the above-quoted Midrash. The Sages posited, "Just as the Initial Forty Days were desirable to G‑d, even the Last forty Days were." The Last Forty Days are higher than the Initial Forty Days because they highlight repentance.

Returnees to Judaism (baalei teshuva) illustrate this concept. When they return to G‑d, His Will is aroused in a more exalted degree than it is by even the Divine service of the righteous (tzadikim). Of this Maimonides says, "The righteous are unable to stand where baalei teshuva stand." Repentance, then, is the spiritual content of Elul.

III. Elul Effort

In addition, one must counsel himself with Solomon's advice. He said, "I resolved to arise then and roam through the city in the streets and marketplaces; that through Moses I would seek Him Whom my soul loved. I sought Him, but I found Him not. They, Moses and Aaron, the watchmen patrolling the city, found me, 'You have seen Him Whom my soul loves, what has He said?' Scarcely had I departed from them, when, in the days of Joshua, I found Him Whom my soul loves. I grasped Him, determined that my deeds would never again cause me to lose hold of Him, until I brought His Presence to the tabernacle of my mother and to the chamber of the One Who conceived me." (Songs 3:2-4) A defective wick won't hold a candle's flame…

Elul's illumination of the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion brings about, "I am my Beloved's." That in turn arouses G‑d's revelation, allegorized as "…my Beloved is mine." While this seems laudable, it is nevertheless insufficient.

The light of the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion is expressed as "a consuming fire". We know that the nature of fire is to ascend upwards toward its spiritual source above. How, then, is fire found down here on earth? Something must serve as a tether that will grasp and retain the fire. For this reason, a defective wick won't hold a candle's flame.

A similar condition is required for the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion. There must be a vessel for the Light of G‑d. And that container is the Torah, as the Talmud teaches, "Great is learning because it causes action." That's what Solomon meant when he said, "I grasped Him, determined that my deeds would never again cause me to lose hold of Him, until I brought His Presence to the tabernacle of my mother and to the chamber of the One Who conceived me."

"The tabernacle of my mother" refers to the Written Torah. And "the chamber of the One Who conceived me" alludes to the Oral Torah. An identical message is delivered by Elul's acronym verse, which concludes, "[I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine;] He who feeds among the lilies" (Songs 6:3). The Zohar teaches that the Hebrew spelling of "lilies" is similar to the word for "learning". The verse's opening section is attained, Zohar tells us, "by learning the laws of the Torah."

Solomon's phrase "in the streets and marketplaces" hints to the mitzvot. For mitzvot entail worldly matters, and their performance is delineated by exacting criteria. Expressively there, within the bounds of material finitude, we fashion a dwelling place for G‑d.

The underlying theme of all the mitzvot is charity, as Solomon informs, "He that runs after charity and acts of kindness finds life." (Proverbs 21:3) Correspondingly, Zohar calls charity by the generic term "mitzvah." Torah and acts of kindness serve as vessels which hold "He is a consuming fire."

By studying Torah and performing acts of kindness in complete perfection during Elul, our service of "I am my Beloved's" elicits a revelation of G‑d's "my Beloved is mine," also in Elul. After all, Elul's acronym verse also contains "my Beloved is mine." True, that section of the verse refers to the illumination of the Ten Days of Awe; nonetheless, the complete verse hints that both its components apply to Elul.

The last letter of each of the words, "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine" is the letter yud. The numerical value of yud is ten. When added together, their sum equals forty. This proves that the Last Forty Days is one comprehensive unit and that throughout Elul is also manifest "my Beloved is mine".

In fact, during Elul are illuminated two levels of the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion. At first, G‑d shines a covert reflection of their light, which inspires Jews to repent - "I am my Beloved's". Then, our repentance educes from Above an arousal of "my Beloved is mine" - in Elul! Subsequently, a third, more intense expression of the Thirteen Attributes of Compassion shines forth on Rosh Hashanah, culminating on Yom Kippur.

Adapted from a discourse on Re'eh 5739-1979

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