Love in the time of Elul

I confess there’s something that’s always bothered me about this time of year, when we put such a big emphasis on reflecting on our mistakes. Why only now? Isn’t this something we should be doing all year? As a community, we certainly do plenty of it, through the very act of constantly challenging one another.

We don’t wait for the month of Elul to expose our communal failures. We do it every day on Facebook, on blogs, in our community papers, in letters to the editors, at our Shabbat tables, at conferences and anywhere else we come into contact with Jews with whom we disagree.

The essence of this time of year, however, is very personal, and it calls for repentance — the notion that after we identify our mistakes of the past year, we must repent to God and to those we have hurt.

But if we have to repent, why wait a whole year? 

Wouldn’t it be better to ask for forgiveness promptly, while the mistakes are still fresh in everyone’s mind and before they have a chance to fester?

This is why the year-end ritual is often not taken seriously, with many people asking for mechilla (forgiveness) just to be safe, without being exactly sure how they messed up.

I understand the religious timing. The 40 days that comprise the month of Elul and the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur symbolize the 40 days some 3,300 years ago at Sinai when our ancestors wondered if God would ever forgive them for their fling with the Golden Calf.

When Moses came down from the mountain on the day that is now Yom Kippur to announce that God had indeed forgiven the Jews and given them a second chance (and a second set of tablets), it gave these 40 days a halo of Divine goodwill.

“During the month of Elul, G-d is more accessible, so to speak,” Rabbi Yossi Marcus writes on “During the rest of the year He is like a king sitting in his palace, receiving guests by appointment only. … Not so during Elul. Then the King is ‘out in the field.’ He’s in a good mood and anyone can come and talk to him. The protocol of the palace is discarded.

“Elul is the time when we are given a leg up, a Divine boost, in our spiritual careers.”

I get that, but it still bothers me. First, God can’t forgive us for our sins against other people, and those people are always available if we want to seek forgiveness. And two, as far as our sins against God, shouldn’t an all-powerful Creator always be in the field to listen to our pleas and help our “spiritual careers”?

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that we took more of a yearlong approach to the spiritual staples of Elul and the High Holy Days. What, then, could we focus on at this time of year? What spiritual staple could we add? 

I would vote for love.

Yes, love.

It’s a word Christians use religiously, but Jews evidently find too shmaltzy and nebulous.

But here’s the point: Until we remind ourselves of what and why and whom we love, we can’t truly repent and, ultimately, renew ourselves, which is the highest purpose of the High Holy Days. Love elevates and deepens the whole process.

The more we love, the better we repent, the deeper we renew.

We can deepen our love in countless areas. There is our love for the gifts God has given us; our love for the world He has created, with all its imperfections; our love for our people and our story, with all our imperfections; our love for our family, our Torah, our friends, our community, our soul mates, and the needy stranger; our love for repairing the world.

Just as we delve into Torah study, we can delve into love. We can study what our Sages, holy books and commentators say about love. We can contemplate the unique power of this commandment and why it’s a lot more complicated than just saying or thinking, “I love you.” 

By developing a deeper spiritual and intellectual attachment to love, we may also find it easier to ask for forgiveness as well as to forgive.

Of course, the more we refine and practice love, the less we’ll hurt people and have to ask for forgiveness in the first place. 

Elul itself suggests love. In Hebrew, the word is also an acronym for “I am my Beloved and my Beloved is mine” (“Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”), the famous quote from Song of Songs 6:3, where the Beloved is God and the “I” is the Jewish people. What better way to honor the month of Elul than through a reaffirmation of our love for all God has given us, including love itself?

Jews are very good at the tough stuff — the criticism, the tough love, the arguing, even the diligent davening. Maybe what we need now, in preparation for the hard work of repentance, is to immerse ourselves in the even harder work of internalizing that elusive and transcendent commandment we call love.

How could God not love that? 

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Ready for Judgment?

This week ushers in Elul, the month when Jews traditionally prepare for the High Holidays. In anticipation of the Day of Judgment, we judge ourselves, conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). The Torah portion Re’eh can serve as a checklist for forgiveness, repentance and renewing our lives. Its various laws and themes each suggest avenues for real and lasting change:

Blessing and Curse

The power to choose is staggering — and inescapable. Will we align ourselves with mitzvot and blessings or rebellion and curses? It might seem that our choices are not so stark, or that we can remain safely in “neutral territory.” But Deuteronomy asserts that, on some level, the options we face will incline us either toward life and blessings or toward death and curses. How will you choose life this year?

You Are on a Journey

The Israelites stand at the Jordan, a minor crossing that will take them into the Promised Land. So it is with the small changes of teshuvah (repentance). Turning to God is ein klein drei (one small turn), and yet it covers an immeasurable distance: “As far as East is from West” (Psalms 103:12). What is the Jordan that you need to cross?

Destroy Idolatry

Trying to repent while holding onto sin is, in Maimonides’ image, like immersing in the mikvah (ritual bath) while holding onto a snake. Sin, harm, idolatry and temptation must be relinquished. Is there anyone or anything in your life that is corrupting and corrosive to you spiritually?

Create a Spiritual Home

In Deuteronomy, Jerusalem is established as the central spiritual home. Each of us needs to create centralized places for spiritual focus. Which synagogue will be the locus of your spiritual work this year? Where in your home will you pray, eat mindfully and create rituals, as the Israelites did in Jerusalem?

Choose a Leader Worth Following

It is a mistake, we know, to follow those who desecrate God’s name or ask us to violate divine principles, no matter how charismatic or successful they appear. We need to guard against the tendency to add to, or take away from, the Torah. Checking an idea or opinion against the Word of God is a good test to prove its spiritual worth. Who are your spiritual mentors? How will you filter and assess advice this year?

Your Body Is Holy

Repentance isn’t an abnegation of the body in favor of the soul. Repentance requires the elevation of both body and soul. The laws in Re’eh, like those for Yom Kippur, include restrictions on food and skin care. Many sins are committed through the body, but the solution is to love the body more, not less. How will your honor your body this year?

Tithe to the Temple and the Poor

Bonding to God without supporting community is an incomplete Jewish spiritual expression. What have you done this year, and can you do next year, to create a regular structure and percentage by which you will support a local synagogue and the needy?

Forgive Debts

Re’eh talks about forgiving monetary debts. Elul is the time of year when we tear up the IOU on emotional debts. What grudge, expectation or righteous indignation can you let go of to enter the New Year lighter?

Love Freedom More Than Security

The servant who would rather remain with his master than go out into the world is an extreme example, but all of us have, at one time or another, chosen security over freedom. A familiar sin can seem appealing compared to the unknown, open territory of a changed life. Repentance is a daring act because it requires that we abandon comfortable behaviors and predictable consequences. Is there a destructive pattern in your life that “feels like home,” which you are now willing to give up?

Give First — and Best — to God

Many people give tzedakah (charity) based on how much money is left over at the end of the year. Or we give so much of ourselves at the office that we have little energy to offer family or volunteer organizations. What if, as Re’eh instructs, we paid godly causes first? What if we gave the best that we have — materially and spiritually — to what is most holy, rather than what is most pressing or lucrative?

Honor Tradition Throughout the Year

Re’eh reviews the three pilgrimage festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. How might the themes and observances of those holidays support your cheshbon hanefesh? How does each holiday represent a pilgrimage back to yourself, as well as back to Jerusalem? What holiday observances will you engage in again, or newly, this year?

May you find inspiration in Torah, as step by step, inquiry by inquiry, you prepare to enter the High Holidays.