Elul is a month of reckoning, when we take stock of all the
aspects of our divine service over the previous year. The Rebbe
Rayatz once compared (1) this to a storekeeper taking inventory
from time to time.
Elul is also a month of preparation for the coming year.
By reviewing our conduct and compensating for any deficiencies
in the previous year's service of G-d, we ensure a more
consistent record for the coming year.
As part of this dual process of stocktaking and preparation, Elul
is marked by heightened attention to the three elements of divine
- the study of Torah,
- avodah (prayer), and
- deeds of kindness - which are the "pillars upon which the
world stands." (2)
The connection between Elul and these three modes of divine
service is reflected in the name of the month; (3) "Elul" an
acronym for a number of four-word phrases from the Tanach
associated with each of these three modes.
Our Rabbis (4) relate the phrase, (5) Ina L'yado Vesamti sham
(a reference to the cities of refuge established for the
unintentional manslaughterer), to Torah study, because "the
words of Torah are a refuge." (6)
They relate the phrase, (7) Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Lee
("I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine"), to prayer, for
in prayer our relationship with G-d finds expression.
And in reference to deeds of kindness, the Sages cite the
phrase, (8) Ish L're'ehu U'Matanot L'Evyonim ("[Sending portions]
each man to his friend and gifts to the poor").
[All of the above have the Letters Alef Lamed Vav Lamed as the
first letter of the word, which are the same letters of Elul.]
Illuminating Our Divine Service with the Light of Teshuvah
Inevitably, in taking stock of our efforts throughout the year,
we discover shortcomings, thus establishing a connection between
the month of Elul and teshuvah, a process which requires "regret
for the past and positive resolves for the future." (9)
Our Rabbis highlight the connection between Elul and the drive
toward teshuvah by citing the acronym for the name Elul that is
formed by the initials of a fourth Biblical phrase, (10) Es
Levavcha V'es Levav ("[The L-rd, your G-d, will circumcise] your
heart and the hearts of your descendants").
Teshuvah is not only a compensation for deficiencies in our
divine service. It is also, in itself, a positive spiritual
impulse that enhances our relationship with G-d. (11)
Our Sages allude to this concept in their statement, (12)
"One hour of teshuvah and good deeds in this world is superior
to the entire life of the World to Come."
If the only function of teshuvah was to compensate for past
faults, the order of the wording in the mishnah would have been
reversed, with "good deeds" preceding "teshuvah".
This would imply that a person's life work is the performance of
good deeds, with teshuvah operating only when there is a need to
compensate for faults.
By placing teshuvah first, the mishnah indicates that the service
of G-d through teshuvah takes precedence.
For it is the prelude of teshuvah that "makes our deeds 'good'
and grants them luminous"; (13) it endows them with a superior
level of good than they possessed in their own right.
And in the same way, the intense yearning for a connection with
G-d which characterizes the drive to teshuvah, invigorates every
aspect of our observance of the Torah.
An Unchanging Bond of Oneness
The fact that teshuvah is characterized by a desire to cleave
to G-d demonstrates that it relates to a state of G-dliness - and
a state of the soul - in which the possibility of separateness
Hence teshuvah is a soul's response to its descent into
our world where G-d's Presence is concealed and in which our
spiritual endeavors are beset by challenges.
This framework of separateness does not affect the essence of
G-d, as the Torah states, (14) "There is nothing else." He is
the totality of existence; there is nothing apart from Him. (15)
And because man's soul is "truly a part of G-d," (16) nothing is
beyond his reach, and he too can reach the level at which there
is no need for teshuvah.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches, (17) "Whenever you grasp part of
the essence of an entity, you grasp it in its entirety."
Since "Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one," (18)
G-d's essence in its entirety is reflected within every Jewish
The level at which teshuvah is not necessary finds expression in
a constant and singleminded dedication to G-d.
At this level, a person does not need to rise above the
challenges of our worldly existence. Instead, his life is one
of simple connection which does not allow for any possibility of
Serving G-d as Part of One's Nature
One of the fundamental principles of the Torah is that G-d endows
man with free will: (19) "Behold, I have placed before you life
and good, death and evil.... Choose life!" (20)
Free will is a unique divine gift which elevates man above all
other creatures. (21)
However, the fact that a person must choose between possibilities
indicates that he is operating within a framework that is - in
terms of its internal logic - separate from G-d.
When, however, a person recognizes the core of his existence,
and thus identifies as "a part of G-d," he has only one desire -
to fulfill G-d's will. Nothing else can even come to mind.
He does not go through a process of intellectual stocktaking
which results in the decision to do good; he does not think about
the matter at all.
Instead, in the language of our Sages, (22) he "bows naturally,"
as a spontaneous response. His individual will and identity have
undergone a complete metamorphosis: they are now utterly unified
with G-d. He has no thought or desire to do anything that is not
in keeping with G-d's will.
Mankind as a whole will experience this level of connection in
the Era of the Redemption, when "I will remove the spirit of
impurity from the world." (23)
At that time, the G-dliness which permeates the world will be
revealed: "The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d
like the waters that cover the ocean bed." (24)
In this setting of manifest G-dliness, man's natural, spontaneous
desire will be to obey G-d's will.
Although this experience of connection will reach its complete
fulfillment only in the Era of the Redemption, it can also find
expression, in microcosm, in our age.
Now, already, every individual has the potential to experience
a personal redemption from the obstacles that inhibit the overt
expression of his G-dly core.
Elul and Redemption
The possibility of such a connection with G-d is reflected in
the name Elul, which is also an acronym for a fifth phrase, (25)
Vayomru Lemor Ashira L'Hashem - "[Then Moshe and the Children of
Israel sang this song] to G-d and they spoke, saying, 'I shall
(In this passage, the letters Elul are found in reverse order.)
Our Sages (26) explain that this verse uses what is literally the
future tense, in allusion to the ultimate revelation to be
realized during the Era of the Redemption with the Resurrection
of the Dead, at which time G-d's essence will be revealed
throughout the world.
The connection to G-d which characterizes redemption - itself a
means of serving G-d - is not distinct from the other four modes
of divine service that are stressed during Elul.
Through Torah, prayer, deeds of lovingkindness and particularly,
through teshuvah, one connects with his essential source - the
level at which "Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one."
These four modes of divine service together enable an individual
to connect to G-d in the singleminded approach characteristic of
A Catalyst For the Redemption
Singleminded, wholehearted service of G-d is rewarded most
completely by the opportunity to continue serving G-d in this
manner. The Mishnah expresses this concept in the statement, (27)
"The reward for a mitzvah is - a mitzvah"; the reward for
fulfilling one mitzvah is the opportunity to perform another.
In a life dedicated to one goal, connection with G-d, there can
be nothing more rewarding than the performance of a mitzvah, an
act which strengthens this connection.
The ultimate Redemption will be the result of a total commitment
to Torah and mitzvos in the present age. In that era this
commitment will reach its fullest expression and, moreover,
will continue to advance. For "the righteous have no rest,
neither in this world, nor in the World to Come; as it is
written, (28) 'They shall go from strength to strength, and
appear before G-d in Zion.'" (29)
- Sefer HaMaamarim Yiddish, p. 75.
- Avos 1:2.
- A name reflects the fundamental nature of an entity and
reveals its life-force (Tanya, Shaar HaYichud VehaEmunah,
ch. 1). Although the names of the months are of
Babylonian origin (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 1:2;
Bereishis Rabbah 48:9), they have been lent significance
by the fact that they are mentioned in the Tanach
(Nechemiah 6:9 regarding Elul; see also Likkutei Sichos,
Vol. XIX, p. 162; Vol. XXIII, pp. 214-15) and have been
incorporated into our Torah practice.
- Pri Etz Chayim, Shaar Rosh HaShanah, sec. 1; Mateh
Ephraim, sec. 581; Elef LaMateh, sec. 1.
- Shmos 21:13.
- Makkos 10a.
- Shir HaShirim 6:3.
- Esther 9:22.
- Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 2:2.
- Devarim 30:6.
- Generally, teshuvah is associated with repentance in the
wake of sin which, indeed, impels one more strongly
toward teshuvah to the degree that one is aware of the
distance created by sin. There is, however, a dimension
of teshuvah which is relevant to every Jew, even one who
has never tasted sin. (See the essay entitled "Teshuvah -
Return, Not Repentance," in Vol. I of the present series,
p. 33ff.). Accordingly, the concept of Elul as a month
of teshuvah is universally relevant.
- Avos 4:17.
- See Likkutei Torah, Mattos 82a.
- Devarim 4:39.
- See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXV, p. 202, which explains
that the verse (Devarim 3:35), "There is nothing else
apart from Him" implies that "together with Him" there is
the possibility for existence - i.e., other entities can
exist - but their existence reflects His Being.
- Tanya, ch. 2. The Hebrew word mamash ("truly") also
connotes tangible materiality (cf. the end of Rashi's
comment on Shmos 10:21). In the above phrase, the two
meanings are complementary: when the "part of G-d" (viz.,
the soul) becomes enclothed in the tangible materiality
of the body, its essence as "truly a part of G-d" can be
revealed. See Igros Kodesh (Letters) of the Rebbe Rayatz,
Vol. IV, p. 404.
- Addenda to Keser Shem Tov, sec. 127.
- Zohar III, 73a.
- Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 5:3.
- Devarim 30:15.
- Rambam, loc. cit., sec. 1.
- Jerusalem Talmud, Berachos 2:4.
- Zechariah 13:2.
- Yeshayahu 11:9, quoted by the Rambam at the climax of his
discussion of the Era of the Redemption in the Mishneh
- Shmos 15:1-2.
- Sanhedrin 91b.
- Avos 4:2.
- Tehillim 84:8.
- The end of Tractate Berachos.