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 אני לדודי ודודי לי
(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 the 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
lets 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: דודי לי ואני לו
(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. It 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 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.