First Steps in Elul

Everyone knows the verse
in Shir Hashirim (6:3) that is used to interpret the name of this month that
precedes the High Holy Days. The letters which spell Elul in Hebrew correspond
to the first letters in each word of the passage: יל ידודו ידודל ינא
“I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” “My beloved” refers to
G-d. The passage seems to relate to the dynamic process of the love between G-d
and the Jewish people. It starts off: “I am to my beloved,” as though to
teach us that our role in that process is to take the first step, to take the
initiative to be close to G-d, and that G-d’s role is to respond. But that’s
not Elul. That’s not the special relationship between G-d and the Jewish
People which sets Elul apart from the rest of the year. Indeed, it’s the very
opposite of the spirit of this time which precedes the awesome and glorious
visitation of our Father and King.

There is a famous midrash which says that neither G-d nor the
Jewish people are willing to accept full responsibility for taking the
initiative in the inner process of fulfilling their eternal love. G-d says, “Return
to me and I will return to you.” It’s up to you to take the first step. I
know that it is hard, but it is for sake of that effort that I placed you in the
world. You can be sure that I will reciprocate. The Jewish people say, “Return
us, G-d, to you, and we will return.” We are so weak, so easily distracted by
the anxieties and burdens, pleasures and suffering that is our lot in this
world. You take the first step. Inspire us. Lift us above our pettiness, our
fears and misguided desires. We know that You are the only One. You can count on
our love. Just give us a hand.” This argument goes on the whole year long. It’s
only in Elul that it is resolved, because in Elul G-d let’s down and allows
His love to show. In Elul G-d takes the first step. But, then, what about that
verse in Shir Hashirim? It doesn’t seem to be talking about Elul at all. There’s
another verse which would seem to be more appropriate: ול ינאו יל ידוד “My
beloved is to me and I am to Him”. (Shir Hashirim 2:16) “My beloved is to
me,” i.e., G-d takes the first step. “And I am to Him”: we reciprocate.
But there are two problems with that. First of all, this isn’t the verse that
is traditionally identified with Elul. And, then, of course, the first letters
of the words don’t match the spelling of the name Elul. So it seems that there’s
only one way out: we have to reexamine the meaning of the verse. I cannot mean
what we thought it did.

There are two kinds of initiative that G-d wants from us. He
wants us to overcome our weaknesses and to triumph over the difficulties that
induce apathy and spiritual indifference. That’s the initiative that G-d
reciprocates by revealing His love. But there’s another kind of initiative
which, in a sense, is even more basic, because it is an initiative we have to
take to receive His love, even in this time of year when His love overpowers His
restraint and He takes the first step. We have to open our eyes to receive Him.
We have to make whatever adjustments in our thinking and attitude that is
required to recognize His Presence when He arrives. We have to be sure that we
will be aware of Him when, all of a sudden, He is near us. This is the
initiative of Elul. We may not have the inner strength to dedicate ourselves to
G-d in the active way of a real initiative. But at least we can quiet ourselves
and open ourselves to recognize the majesty and receive the love that He gives
so freely in Elul.

This, then, is the initiative which is suggested in our
verse. The love which G-d shows in Elul is the love which is fulfilled in
forgiveness (Yom Kippur), the Divine love which restores our freedom and awakens
us to the possibility of changing our ways. So we would not expect it to be an
overpowering love, a love which takes away our freedom by addressing the soul so
forcefully that it and subdues all our powers of self-restraint and inhibition,
a revelation that dispels in a flash the blindness and ignorance that
accumulates in the course of a lifetime of distractions. Even when G-d bestows
His life, He leaves it to us to accept it. And that’s what we have to work on
in Elul.