Rabbi Sholom Kesselman
The fear is palpable; the mood, tense. A sense of dread hangs over every community like a thick grey cloud. It is the month of Elul and only a few short weeks before the awesome Day of Judgment. Soon, all will have to stand before G-d to have their every deed examined; who knows what fate lies in store. Will it be life, sustenance, health and blessing? Or – G-d forbid – the opposite? Only one thing can save us now, and that is teshuvah (repentance). Only crying to G-d with great remorse for all the wrong that we have done; only begging Him for mercy, could turn things around and bring about a favorable judgment.
This is the sense one gets when reading stories and memoirs from days bygone about the month of Elul. There was real fear surrounding the Yom Hadin, and the days leading up to it were filled with trepidation, apprehension, tears, and a tense seriousness. Elul was a difficult month, a month when G-d was all “business” and certainly not “smiling” or making “small talk.” It was a month of teshuvah and teshuvah meant crying, remorse, bitterness, and begging for mercy.
However, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya and founder of the Chabad movement, revealed an entirely new perspective on Elul. He rescued the month from the ranks of the gloomy and dreary, and restored it to its rightful place among the glorious, joyful, and bright.
The Baal HaTanya has a famous discourse on Elul that begins with the verse “אני לדודי ודודי לי” (“I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.”) He points out that the first letters of each of these words spells out אלול (Elul). The immediate implication is that Elul is first and foremost a time of “love,” when a Jew can come all that much closer to his Beloved (G-d) and vice versa. He then goes on to quote from kabbalistic sources that during this month the י”ג מדות הרחמים – the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy – shine down upon us and the world, making it a time of infinite G-dly mercy.
This revelation is so special that it leads the Baal HaTanya to ask the following question: Why are the days of Elul not considered a yom tov? After all, if there is such a great influx of G-dly light into the world, shouldn’t these days be considered holy and special just like a yom tov?
He answers this question with a parable, one that by now has become quite famous and almost synonymous with Elul – that of the “king in the field.”
Before a king enters his city, its inhabitants go out to greet him and receive him in the field. At that time, anyone who so desires is granted permission [and can] approach him and greet him. He receives them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all…
A king lives in a royal palace. There, he is revealed in all his glory and is surrounded by royalty, wealth, and power. This king inspires awe in all that come before him. However, in the palace, he is inaccessible. To see the king, one must wait months for an appointment, and even then only the elite of society can expect to be granted an audience. The simple ordinary citizens would never dream of entering the palace to be given time with the king.
But every so often, the king comes out into the field. There, he appears relatively ordinary, lacking most of the pomp and circumstance that usually accompanies him. This king doesn’t inspire awe – rather the opposite. His disposition is inviting and welcoming, and his casualness makes him approachable to all like at no other time. Here all people, especially the simple and ordinary citizens, feel like they too can approach him, and the king receives them all graciously.
The message here is stunning. Elul is a time when G-d comes out to mingle and get close. He makes himself fully accessible and reaches out to all with a cheerful demeanor and shining, radiant face. This is not a distant “businesslike” King who is harsh and demanding, rather He’s a loving, merciful King who is doing all He can to make Himself available to His subjects. It might not be a yom tov because the King is revealed in a casual state, but this comes with a tremendous upside. It is a month of closeness and bonding like no other.
Yes, it’s a month of teshuvah, but teshuvah in its essence isn’t necessarily crying and remorse. Teshuvah means returning and coming close. It is a Jew returning to G-d and strengthening his commitment and bond with Him. G-d wants this teshuvah and closeness even more than we do and so he comes out to us in an effort to reach out and invite us to reconnect and return to Him.
When one takes a look at the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Siman 128, a very similar picture of Elul emerges:
From Rosh Hodesh Elul until after Yom Kippur is a time of (Divine) favor. Although, throughout the entire year, the Holy One, blessed be He, accepts the repentance of those who return to Him wholeheartedly, in any case, these days (between the 1st of Elul and Yom Kippur) are more special have been set aside for repentance, because they are days of mercy and favor… Rabbi Isaac Luria may his memory be a blessing wrote: … “that this month is like a place of refuge, a time of favor when (G-d) accepts (our) repentance on the sins done throughout the year…”
Here, too, it is clear that these are days of favor and mercy; they are like a city of refuge and a time when G-d wants and readily accepts our repentance.
A further point: Rosh Hashanah is the time when we crown Hashem as King of the universe. A king, we are told, must be crowned by the people, and it is they who must accept him and instate him as their ruler. The same is true of Hashem on Rosh Hashanah; He needs us to crown him and accept him as our King, and He cannot do it alone. (Without this, He is a Despot, but not a King.)
This is in fact the essential theme of Rosh Hashanah and what our service on that day is all about. The Talmud tells us: “G-d asks the Jewish people, please say before Me verses of kingship so that I may become King over you. And how is this indeed achieved? Through the blowing of the Shofar.”
G-d needs us. He is asking us to please crown Him as King, and the sounding of the Shofar is like the blowing of trumpets that signals the inauguration of the King.
The month of Elul, then, is G-d’s month of campaigning. He comes out to us in the field because He needs us. He is wooing us in an effort to win our support, so that come Rosh Hashanah, we will indeed choose Him and proclaim Him as our King.
So this Elul, let’s make sure we smile back at G-d. Let’s accept his invitation to connect and truly return to Him with love, joy, warmth, and devotion. “Let us be to our beloved and He will be to us.” He is a kind and merciful king and will surely inscribe and seal us all for a year of life and blessing. So smile and be happy – it’s Elul.