How classic is the scene, played out endlessly in movies, of the estranged couple who walk away from one another. At some point, the man turns around, wanting to call her name, ask for another chance, beg for forgiveness. He is about to speak, but her back is turned. She is getting farther and farther away. He tells himself that it's too late; she just doesn't care. So he turns away from her.
Seconds later, she turns to look at him. She doesn't want things to end. She wants to say something but can't garner the courage. She sees only his back so she convinces herself that he must not care. So she, too, continues to walk away.
The Zohar explains that at the beginning of Elul, we are achor el achor, meaning "back to back," and by the end of Elul, we are panim el panim, meaning "face to face." As is well-known, the Hebrew letters that make the word "Elul" — an aleph, lamed, vav and lamed — are an acronym for the phrase (from the biblical Song of Songs): Ani l'dodi v'dodi li, which means, "I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me."
This beautiful and romantic phrase represents our relationship with our Creator, which is often paralleled to that of a husband and wife, a bride and a groom, in our individual lives.
The fact that we are described as back to back, and then face to face, is an incredible lesson. Often, when we feel angry, hurt, abandoned — whatever the root of our pain may be — we turn our back. When our back is turned, we have no idea of the state of the other. And it is often easier to believe that we are not the only one with a turned back.
It is easier to think the other is also turned around — that the other isn't facing us at all, because if that's the case, then even if we turn around it won't help, so why bother? Why make that first move only to turn around and see the back of the other?
It makes sense.
After all, Elul follows the month of Av. The most painful of all the months in the year, with Tisha B'Av, the ninth of the month, representing the most destructive day in the entire Jewish calendar. So it is understandable that we might be a bit apprehensive. We have just come out of mourning, and it takes time to be able to turn around again.
But it is the month of Elul that teaches us the necessity of being willing to face our fears. As Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi describes it, the month of Elul is when the King is in the field, our Creator is readily accessible, and no matter how we may feel, He has never had His back turned.
All we need to do is turn ourselves around to realize that He is there and waiting for us. The "back to back" that we experience in the beginning of the month is based on our assumptions, our misperceptions.
Only when we turn around do we realize the truth — the inner essence — and then we are "face to face," which does not only mean that we can finally look at each other, but more so, that we can look in each other, for the root of the word for "face," panim, is the same as pnimiyut, which means "innerness."
This is why Elul is the month where we focus on teshuvah — on working on ourselves and asking forgiveness for what we did wrong. To do that, we need to be able to stand face to face — first with ourselves, then with others.
Elul teaches us that if we truly want to make changes in our lives, if we want to become better, healthier, more productive people, we need to begin by turning around. Once we see that we are not alone, we can then strive to reach the state where we can say: "I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me."
Sara Esther Crispe is editor of TheJewishWoman.org and leads exploratory writing workshops in the Lower Merion area. She can be reached at crispespeaking@ yahoo.com.