The upcoming month of Elul is a time of preparation for entering the new year, a time of counting our way toward the 10 days of turning and introspection that invites each of us to frame our own journey in the light of our collective one.
The rabbis teach that the very name of this month echoes the words of the "Song of Songs," as each of the four Hebrew letters of Elul echoes the first letters: "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine."
Elul is a month for discovery of the loves that open our hearts to one another, to our tradition, to holiness and to the Source of all, the Holy Blessed One.
Parsha Re'eh reintroduces Moses' enumeration of the laws that will frame the Israelites' success — or failure — as they build a new society in their "promised land." The opening of the portion clearly sets forth the dichotomous options: "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of your God … "
For many modern readers, the rigid listing of desired, forbidden and punishable behaviors takes us into the heart of an unappealing religious fundamentalism. Yet as the text continues, we discover that the clear boundaries about tithing and laws of release acknowledge the inevitable inequities in all societies. "If there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand … "
The laws then describe the desired observance of the pilgrimage festivals.
This linking of ritual and ethical behaviors (what to eat and how, when and how to release slaves) with the norms that create community (when and how to observe festivals and holy days) brings us to the essential question posed by the month of Elul. What's love got to do with it?
Everything. The Torah is God's love letter to humanity. Every year, we reopen the Torah scroll, and week after week, we attempt to discover, decipher and decode the words, as well as the desire behind the words that our ancestors have so lovingly handed down to us. In Deuteronomy, Moses attempts to compose a final version of his understanding of God's message to the difficult but ever-beloved people.
This portion, which includes serious challenges to our modern sensibilities, draws us back again and again because it also acknowledges what is basest and best in our nature: "Give readily and have no regrets when you do so, … for there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land."
This year, Rosh Chodesh Elul falls on Tuesday, Aug. 11. Each day of this month invites us to explore, anew, the possibilities for love in our lives. I pose these questions to you in advance of this important date: How might we use these last days of summer to increase love in our homes? How might we, over the course of these days, open our hearts to the neglected in our community? How might we use this month to deepen our love for Judaism, which always challenges us even as it renews and delights?
Let us use this month to rediscover the love that has been waiting for us to claim as our own.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: [email protected]