Friday, September 5, 2008

What Is Elul?

"What's an Elul?" "How come I never heard of that?" Well, Elul is a month; and it's a real beauty. Here's the idea: The Hebraic calendar has various periods of heightened spiritual sensitivity and awareness. We can always connect with Yahweh; but some days are more propitious than others. Some days there's clearer reception.

Think of it this way: If I'm in a room, and I can’t see, there may be two reasons: either my eyes are closed, or the light is off. Or, perhaps, both factors might be true; my eyes are closed and the light is off. We can use this as a metaphor for our own awareness of the Divine. Left to its own devices, the world is 'dark'; it seems shallow and disconnected. There's no 'light' to see.

So, we need two factors. First, I have to open my eyes. After all, it's common enough (at least superficially) to go through life with eyes shut to spiritual light. So I have to open myself up to the presence of Yahweh within reality.

But, I can only appreciate holiness that's revealed in my orbit; I still need the light to be turned on. When Yahweh shines the light, and I open my eyes, the relationship flourishes. I am like the prodigal, sitting in his pig-sty, until "coming to my senses."

Thankfully, Yahweh always emanates holiness for us to appreciate. But there are levels and gradations to that, too. On Shabbat, for example, Yahweh projects an otherworldly sense of Himself -- if we can only manage to connect, to 'open our eyes,' to internalize it. Other Holidays established by Yahweh for all mankind are also 'holy moments' -- rarefied phases when we can achieve levels of connectedness that might be unavailable on a regular Tuesday.

Elul is a similar period of intense Divine revelation. This is the gift of Yahweh to us, enabling us to properly approach the High Holidays.

But the question begs to be asked: The calendar's other holy moments all seem to be Shabbat or Festivals (Yom Tov). Those days -- days when we don't work, when we're focused on the set-apart reading of Torah; worshipping in an assembly with other believers, the seder, the shofar etc. -- they are the days of cosmic revelation. Why doesn't Elul have any holidays?

Why is Elul a normal month if the Divine projection is indeed so awesome?

Here’s an answer: When you think about it, this itself (the normalcy of the month) reveals its true power. When people are cocooned in spirituality, swathed in the beauty of an appointed Festival, they are primed for a consecrated experience. Being centered on Yahweh fits into the groove of the day. On the other hand, mundane life seems shut to our experience of Yahweh's presence. Holiness doesn't fit very comfortably where compartmentalizing is the order of the day.

Yet, Yahweh is infinite, without boundaries. We don't accept the idea that Yahweh can't reach us in our normal lives. It must simply take a deeper, more potent revelation to reach us at that uninviting level.

Think about it: We measure a lamp's potency by how far it can project light. It takes more power to project illumination far from the source. The same applies to those who follow Torah and by extention the One who reveals Torah to us. Revelation to those in meditation does not take as much 'potency' as revelation to those in a disconnected state.

Yahweh grants us this special boon because we need it; we're about to face the High Holidays. So Yahweh -- mercifully -- gives us a month of inspiration. We need our mundane lives transformed. We need to transcend material life's shallowness, rising up to connect with its latent sanctity.

Yahweh comes to us, in our blinding vortex of physical life, to touch us, to inspire us. Yahweh gives us a little zetz in the kishkes (poke in the ribs), to wake us up -- to recognize our own need for meaning, for holiness, for Him.

In order to appreciate the High Holidays, we have to step away from our own self-absorption. We have to recognize our limitations and yearn for connection with our Maker.

Elul is a time when Yahweh helps us to find that inner longing, selflessness and holiness. But it takes a step from us; Yahweh prompts us, but we've got to take a step. The scriptural 'Song of Songs' is all a metaphor for this (two-way) yearning between the ultimate Lover and us. One of the verses there (6:3) says it succinctly: "Ani l'dodi v'dodi lee" -- I am to my Beloved (Yahweh) and my Beloved is to me.

Our tradition notes that these four Hebrew words form the acronym 'Elul,' because this is Elul's theme. Elul is the time to find that yearning within. That's why it's traditional to blow the shofar every day of Elul; the pristine call of the shofar reflects the soul's cry for meaning.

You can do it; now’s the time. Yahweh helps you to find that inner love, especially this month. You've just got to take a step to greet your Beloved -- do a mitzvah, attend a class, just take a step. And don't forget teshuvah; repentance with resolve to "go and sin no more."

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