Elul: The Heart of the Matter

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Now, in the Hebrew month of Elul which precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is the time to get to the heart of the matter. This is a time of awakening ourselves (aided by the sound of the shofar every morning but Shabbat) to the task of a thorough personal accounting, from the year that is ending, of our deeds, our relationships and our souls.  Elul is also seen as a map to our inner heart potentially serving as the key to the depth and power of our inner heart. The Hebrew letters that make the word “Elul,” 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 sacred song has been thought of as analogous to the love between a married couple, our relationship to the Divine and our relationship to keeping the Sabbath. I think it can also symbolize our relationship with the self we hope we can become, the marriage of who we have been and who we strive to be.

At the start of of Elul, according to the Zohar we are achor el achor, meaning “back to back.” The work of the month is to be panim el panim, “face to face.” In a year that has perhaps been difficult in our personal and professional lives, our country’s political life and a challenge to hopes for peace and repair of our planet, we are, appropriately, deeply discouraged. Hopeless, that our prayers have not been heard, we turn away from our dialogue with the Divine presence we define as God. But we also turn away from ourselves, in despair, turning our backs on our goals and dreams.

My Elul prayer for us all is that during these strange and dispiriting times that we do not also become disheartened. Instead of losing heart, we must use this opportunity our tradition provides to do an “about face.” May our reflections, re-evaluations and dreams during all the days of Elul and the yamim noraim 5777, provide us with humility, insight and optimism for the year ahead and always.

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