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Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. Not only is this a month known to crossword puzzle fans, it is also the month which precedes Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year’s.
Traditionally, the beginning of Elul marks the start of people’s spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which follows 10 days later. I suppose that this writing marks the beginning of my own preparation. I start with the ancient rabbinic notion that the four Hebrew letter which make up the word Elul, are actually an acronym for the words I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, found in Song of Songs 6:3.
From the very outset, this approach invites us to see renewal and repentance as functions of love. Jewish guilt is perhaps more famous, and how that came to be, why Jews are often reticent to speak of love as a spiritual or theological category, and the misguided notion popular among many Jews that love is “a Christian thing”, are all important questions to be explored at some other time. For now though, let’s simply go with the altogether beautiful and entirely traditional notion that it all begins with love.
On this, the first day of Elul, as we prepare for the year ahead, we assert that as the year turns, we can return to who we most want to be, that we can renew our sense of self and purpose, that relationships, both with people and with God, can be rekindled and that atonement is always possible, because of love. If we can live fully aware of the love that is available to us and give love in return, we will find the strength we need to accomplish the rest.
As pretty as that all sounds – and it is pretty, it also requires effort and support. The support may come from friends, it may come through prayer and meditation, and it may come through the wisdom of wise teachers. I recently opened a new book which contains such wisdom and it’s one worth checking out for yourself.
Truthfully, it’s a new edition of a rather old book, and like the best of all such projects, it manages to provide the grounding and security of something ancient, with the freshness and beauty of something brand new. It is the newly published Koren Rosh HaShana Mahzor (prayerbook) with introduction, translation and commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth i.e. Chief Orthodox Rabbi of British Jewry.
Whether this becomes one’s Mahzor of choice for the holiday or not, the wise comments and poetic translations in this volume offer a powerful tool for reconnecting to the love and intimacy referred to in Song of Songs 6:3 – the love and intimacy which are always there for us, if we open ourselves to them.
From the opening words of his introduction, Rabbi Sacks offers a simultaneously bold and humble approach to the holidays, one which celebrates human dignity and power, while also embracing the vulnerability which we all feel, at least from time to time. He honors both the need to belong to those who love us – for them to yearn for us, love us and support us, and the importance of our loving them – yearning for them, loving them and supporting them.
For Rabbi Sacks, the notion that we are our beloveds’ and our beloveds are ours, is not simply a point of entry into the holiday season, but a worldview which suffuses meaning into the entire process of repentance, renewal and rebirth. It is both a goal which we can attain and a promise upon which we can rely. What a wonderful way to begin getting ready for a blessed new year.