Friday, September 4, 2015
"Ani LeDodi, V'Dodi Li," "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me," sings King Solomon in a famous verse of Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs.1 In Hebrew, the initial four letters of this phrase spell a new word: ELUL, the name of the sixth month of the Jewish calendar, the month we're in right now. The month of Elul is a month of love, when, after the breakup period during the months of Tammuz and Av, HaShem is extra sweet to us to help us back into our relationship with Him. This time of special closeness comes before the serious days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, when we take stock of our relationships with HaShem and with each other. After being forgiven on Yom Kippur, HaShem and the Jews finally consumate their love in the sukkah, a kind of honeymoon suite, during the year-end holiday of Sukkot.
The month of Elul is also known as the month of the besulah (the virgin), symbolizing the Jewish people as a bride, and HaShem as our groom.2 The book of Shir HaShirim is actually a love song about a bride and a groom who have been separated but seek to reunite. Traditionally, the song is understood to be about the love between HaShem and the Jewish people. But I think the story of an estranged bride and groom can also represent any relationship where people have become separated but want to get back together, like one Jew with another. In Elul, it's time to make up, and as in any relationship, there are two ways to do that. One is to look back at your mistakes and apologize, which we do from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur. But in Elul we do it the other way, by being a little nicer to our beloved, showing them a little more sweet.
In the month of the Elul, "the King is in the field," the parable goes - HaShem comes out to meet all the Jewish people, whoever we are, wherever we are, to draw us closer to Him.3 It's an act of great kindness for the King to make Himself available to everyone in this way. During the rest of the year G-d is in His palace, as it were, and without a special pass we can't get close to Him. But HaShem doesn't only come out to see us for our sake, G-d comes because He wants the relationship too. HaShem is not a stoic, unfeeling King, but a warm and loving King, even a King with a sense of humor. When the sixth month of Elul ends and the seventh month of Tishrei begins, on Rosh HaShanah, HaShem enters the palace, and the Jews again crown G-d as our beloved King. But if you get close to HaShem in the field, you might see the King wink at you from beneath the crown.
The first seven months of the Jewish calendar, from Nissan to Tishrei, parallel other time periods in Jewish life. Each week we go through a seven day cycle - six days of work and preparation for the seventh day of Shabbat. Like Elul, the sixth month, Friday, the sixth day, is also a time when we need a little more kindness from HaShem and from each other. After a long week of ups and downs, and many mistakes, on Friday we somehow have to put everything together for Shabbat. Preparing the meals, finalizing the guest list, doing the laundry, cleaning the house. On the sixth day of the week we might need to cut a few corners and give each other some slack as we hurry to prepare for the holy seventh day. Once the sun goes down, it's Shabbat, the special day of rest, but hopefully we can still feel the love within the holiness.
Part of the reason why Jews celebrate Shabbat is because we believe that, on a bigger scale, the world is going through another sequence of seven time periods. According to Jewish tradition, there will be six millennia, six thousands years, of effort and preparation for a seventh millennium of peace and tranquility. We're now in the year 5775 on the Jewish calendar, and many religious Jews believe that the great Shabbat will start soon. For the Jewish people, for all people, and for HaShem, it's been a long "week" with many ups and downs, big and little mistakes. And there's still a lot to do to prepare for the worldwide Shabbat, a lot of pieces to put together. So as in the month of Elul and on Friday, we might need some slack from HaShem and from each other to have everything ready on time.
The cycle of seven "days" in Jewish life also happens on the scale of generations. As I've explained in the first five posts of Achdus Now, the Jewish world today is characterized by some sharp divisions. That's not wrong, it's an essential part of the seven-day cycle. When making a braided challah for Shabbat each week, at some point you need to split the dough into separate pieces - it's a necessary part of the process. But the next step is to put those pieces together, and in the end we have a beautiful braided challah. Without the division, the final united challah wouldn't be nearly as beautiful. I believe it's now time for the Jewish people to take the sixth step, to combine our separate parts into one beautiful whole.
The work of achdus is about connection, joining together different parts. Orthodox "and" Reform, Diaspora "and" Israeli, women "and" men, combining these seemingly opposing parts of the Jewish world. In Hebrew grammar, the connective word "and" is simply the sixth letter of the alphabet, the letter "vav," which actually looks like a link. In contrast, the fifth letter of the alphabet, the letter "hey," is one of few Hebrew letters that has separate parts, implying division. While the previous generation was focused on and defined by differences, the task of the Jewish world today, for a new generation devoted to unity, is to focus on joining together the parts that were previously separate. Each of us might be good separate, but when we come together we're even better.
As in the month of Elul, when HaShem is very sweet with us to help us to reconnect to Him, in a generation of unity we might need a little honey to rejoin the various parts of the Jewish family. There has been a lot of hurt between the different groups in the Jewish world over the years, so we all need some extra love to get over our differences and come together again. And, as on Friday when we have to hurry and give ourselves slack to get everything done on time, an achdus generation might need to be lenient and forgiving. It's been a long week, and though we haven't been perfect in how we've treated each other, it's time to put all of our pieces back together.
We haven't been perfect to each other, and we haven't been perfect to HaShem. But at some point in every relationship, we realize that our partner is not perfect, yet there's still something about him or her that makes them perfect for us. At Mt. Sinai we signed a kesubah (marriage contract) with G-d that obligated us to do every commandment to the last detail. But that wasn't why HaShem fell for us at Sinai. HaShem loved us then because we had achieved achdus, we were living together as one people in peace. If the Jewish people can come together again in unity, we wouldn't be perfect, but we still might be perfect to HaShem.
So ultimately the task of achdus is about more than connecting one Jew with another Jew, it's about connecting all of the Jewish people with G-d. There's a "vav" in that famous verse of Shir HaShirim, and it connects two different parts of the phrase. "Ani LeDodi," "I am for my beloved," could be understood as each Jew being for their fellow Jews, "and" then "Dodi Li," "my Beloved is for me." The Jewish people are HaShem's bride, but we're only beautiful to G-d if all of our pieces are braided together as one. That's how we looked at Mt. Sinai, and it's how our ancestors looked after they repented and reconnected with HaShem in the month of Elul. Step one is for each Jew to love their fellows, and in step two the King will show His love for us.
1 Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) 6:3↩
2 "The Month of Elul According to Sefer Yetzirah", Gal Einai, www.inner.org, http://www.inner.org/times/elul/elul.htm↩