|Image shamelessly copied from my blogging mentor Rebecca Einstein Schorr|
Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the month that brings us to the doorstep of the most sacred days in the Jewish calendar, outside of the regular and profound holiness of Shabbat. Yamim Nora’im, or Days of Awe, begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and end at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, ten days later.
Today also happens to be my eleventh wedding anniversary. Eleven years ago, August 19th fell on the Rosh Hodesh Elul, as well.*
Aleph, lamed, vav, lamed. These are the Hebrew letters that spell the name of the month Elul. Which, in turn, forms an acrostic for “Ani ledodi vedodi li.” I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine: words from Tanakh, the Bible, Song of Songs. A passionate poem of love, manifestly describing the relationship of two human lovers, it was read by the sages of our tradition as an allegory, describing the relationship between God and God’s beloved Israel. Passages from Song of Songs are also traditionally sung at a wedding.
Return, the literal translation of teshuvah, repentance, is the central theme of the season that begins today. It being my anniversary, my thoughts naturally return to that day in August 2001 when I became my beloved’s and he became mine, in holiness, in faith, in the presence of God and our community. I remember the joy of that day, and also the innocence of it. Not only my own, though that was notable, for although Alec and I had known each other over five years by the time we married, had been in a serious relationship with each other for much of that time, and had already helped each other navigate several difficult life passages together, I had no idea of the depth of challenges yet to come that would test us and our love for one another.
But that was still several years off. As we stood under our huppa, and rejoiced with so many of our dearest friends and family, and flew off to our honeymoon in the Canadian Maritimes (without anyone asking us to take off our shoes or remove liquids from our luggage) a terrible and tremendous loss of innocence loomed for our country, indeed for much of the world. Three weeks later, the world changed, dramatically.
It still amazes me to consider how much has changed since Rosh Hodesh Elul 5761, that August day in 2001. We all have lost so much—individually, as a society, both materially and spiritually—and yet, ineluctably, we have gained. Babies have been born, degrees earned, milestones achieved. Some battles for justice have been won, and new ones taken up. Technology and human knowledge advance at an incredible pace, and yet, at the same time, poverty increases, and freedom by some measures diminishes. Tens of thousands of people still die in hospitals every year because someone neglected to use soap and water between patients; others die because they have no access to medical care in the first place. We gain insight, and yet we continue to have the same arguments with our loved ones, over and over again, about matters large and small. Nation still lifts up sword against nation; every time, humanity and the universe sustain wounds that may never heal, and a path to peace grows ever more elusive. We have gained, and we have lost, greatly.
So here we are, again, at the beginning of this season of repentance, and we are asked, commanded, even, to “return.” Return to our true selves. Return to some sort of original purity. “Renew our days as of old,” we pray.
Is return possible? What would that even look like?
We do not wish to give up some of the ways in which we have changed over time, our increased discernment, even wisdom, hard-won by experience. We cannot erase our scars or others’, though we might wish to. There are things we can never take back, or give back.
When I think of “return” in the context of teshuvah, in the context of Rosh Hodesh Elul, I think, perhaps inevitably, of the words “Ani ledodi vedodi li,” I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. There are so many ways in which we cannot recapture our lost innocence. But today I think there is at least one way in which we can. It is the way of love. Of rekindled passion, and compassion. Of renewed hopes.
Just as a long-married couple can, through love and generosity, remorse and forgiveness, feel again the joy and gratitude and excitement they felt on their wedding day at the sheer wonder and blessing of the connection they share, so can we return to the wonder we experienced "of old," with God, however we understand God. Our relationship with God, after all, mirrors our relationship with the rest of creation: the earth and its inhabitants, humanity, the universe. We can return, in love, in compassion, in our commitment to tikkun olam—to making the world a better place. We can return, through forgiveness and love, to a version of ourselves and our relationships that we may have thought lost.
Jewish tradition encourages us to do this every day, every moment: live each day as if it may be your last—because it may be! But as this becomes difficult and exhausting, as we are imperfect and forgetful, our tradition gives us a big wake-up call each year. With the blast of the shofar, with the new moon, with Rosh Hodesh Elul. we are called to return. We are called to return to our beloved: family and friends, God, our self.
Here is the task, and the promise, of our season of repentance. How will you return? We have 40 days to figure it out.
*Alec and I were married on the 30th of Av, which fell yesterday on this year's secular calendar, but it was, nevertheless, Rosh Hodesh Elul, which is always a two-day celebration.
This post is part of #BlogElul, created and organized by Ima on (and off) the Bima, who writes:
The Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the High Holy Days, is traditionally a time of renewal and reflection. It offers a chance for spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe. It is traditional to begin one’s preparation for the High Holy Days during this month with the Selichot, the prayers of forgiveness. We look to begin the year with a clean slate, starting anew, refreshed.