Sunday, August 31, 2008

Elul: Jews Prepare to Meet the Eternal

Living with two calendars is interesting.

Last night I dreamed that it was the beginning of the Month of Elul, the sixth month in the Hebrew calendar. In my dream, the Engineering Geek and I were wandering through what was clearly our synagogue--although not as I have ever seen it before--looking for an alternative entrance to attend S'lichot--the penitential service that precedes Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). In my dream, I was not feeling the least bit frustrated with our search. Patiently, my hand securely covered by the EG's, we tried unnoticed corridors, unused doors, and then a hatch that led to the offices. I remember thinking without amazement that I had never seen some of these places in the synagogue before. We were in no hurry; it seemed that we knew we would get there, and at the right time, too. Because it was time. Time for Jews to meet G-d. Somehow, in the dream, there was a sense of preparation in the atmosphere. Somehow, I got the sense that it was the same feel as when the EG and I were preparing for our wedding. I looked down and realized that I was dressed in voluminous, luminous white, just as I was when I stood under the Chuppah at our wedding. In my heart I felt a calm sense of joy. It was time for Jews to meet G-d.

When I awoke this morning, I realized that last night was the dark of the moon, though it was not obvious to us because the clouds had lowered over our mountain. When I checked the calendar I saw that today is Rosh Chodesh Elul--the New Moon that marks the head of the month of Elul. I was not surprised. After all, I already knew that, somewhere deep down in my subconscious mind. That knowledge had percolated up, a slow seep, to make itself known at the proper time, on the correct night, in my dreams.

Although I have taken them seriously for more than twenty years, I don't believe I really understood the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur until I was married to the Engineering Geek during the season of Shavuot. I always thought of Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of the Torah, as the joyous holy day when Israel meets G-d. Shavuot, coming at the end of the first harvest, bespeaks ripening promise; the symbols associated with it are those of marriage and fertility.

The High Holy Days, on the other hand, seemed to be about ashes and endings; my dreams, year after year, were filled with death and destruction. During the Une-taneh-tokef--the prayer about the nexus of life and death brought near during the Days of Awe--I would look up and see the round faces of children behind barbed wire, and behind them, smoke and ashes rising from the Nazi fires; and I would flee from the sanctuary, shaking, to warm myself in the sun and reassure myself that the world was still as ordinary as I had seen it upon awakening that morning.

As Elul began in the first year of our marriage, I expected the apocalyptic dreams to begin, the dread of life and death to come anew. And it didn't. Instead, I dreamed of comfort and trust, of great burdens cast aside amidst the chanting of Kol Nidre. I would wake up in the arms of my husband, my hand securely covered by his, the beating of his living heart against my cheek.

The month of Elul spelled in Hebrew recalls a verse from the Song of Songs: Ani l'dodi v'dodi li--I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine. Elul is the beginning of the season of return in which Jews consider the vows and the promises made during the previous year, a time of recounting one's successes and failures in the never-quite-completed process of becoming a mensch, a real human being. It is a time for taking responsibility for choices made, of opportunities taken and opportunities squandered. This is the process of t'shuvah, of returning again to the path of becoming the people we were born to be.
And further, Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and the ten days leading up to the Day of Atonement--all of this is preparation for the great and joyous fast of Yom Kippur, the meeting day of Israel with the Eternal One, the Creator Space and Time.

For me, the change in understanding all goes back to preparing for my wedding. The preparations were all intended to help me bring my best self to my husband, and he to me. That is the purpose of the festive new and special clothes, the mikveh, the holy separation and the wedding day fast. That is the reason for the celebration afterwards. One wants the beloved to see and love that which is best within us.

So now, although I certainly understand that the awesome power of the High Holy Days is an evoking of the nexus of life and death, I also understand that the preparations that begin with Elul are about preparing to choose life as we read on Yom Kippur:

"See, I have set before you life and death, a blessing and a curse;
Choose life, that you and your children may live."
--Parashat Nitzavim

Being a real human being means having the capacity and the power to make choices between good and evil. A real human being knows that she has been endowed with free will--the knowledge of good and evil--so that we must make choices between them. The preparations of Elul--the turning again towards life--starts with self-examination. This self-examination is not intended to break us down; rather it is about sifting through our previous choices and identifying those that were made rightly. It is about seeing clearly the wrong choices so that we do not continue in those paths, but can turn towards the paths that are good.
It is about preparing to bring the best within ourselves forward to that Holy moment when Israel meets with her Beloved.

And ultimately it is about love. For in love, a person wants to give what is good, what is most holy, to the beloved. And to be received with the same.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for these thoughts. Your dream was amazing. I love the link you made between the month of Elul and preparation for marriage.

It is my brother's Auf Ruf tomorrow and I am leading the service. Your words inspired me to write what I needed for the sermon.

Thank you.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


Mazel Tov to your brother and his bride! May the Auf Ruf and the wedding be moments of joy and sweetness!