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Leaving "Lulei-Land"

By: Rabbi Eitan Mayer

This week, we marked the 1st day of the month of Elul, the month which precedes Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom KippurElul is the time when all of us begin to hear that bat kol, that disembodied heavenly voice, which calls us to self-searching and repentance. The shofar speaks to each of us personally, intimately, and we each interpret its message individually. The arrival of Elul always makes me feel like someone’s calling me, although at first I don’t always recognize that voice. In some years, I feel like it’s been a long time since I last heard it.

But what does the name “Elul” mean? Our tradition teaches us that names express the essence of a thing. What does the word “Elul” mean? What is the essence of “Elul”?

The traditional and most widely known meaning of “Elul” is that the letters which spell it form an acronym for a verse in the Song of Songs whose words begin with those letters: alef, lamed, vav, lamed: Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li” -- “I belong to my Beloved, and He belongs to me.” Elul marks the renewal of our romance with God. We’re on the rebound -- from the spiritual low of Tisha Be-Av, the day of our greatest distance from God, the day on which we wonder whether He has abandoned us.

It takes us seven weeks, seven haftarot of consolation, to make the emotional and spiritual transition. Just after Tisha Be-Av, we need a double-dose of consolation -- “Nachamu, nachamu ami” -- but by the end of those seven weeks, we are ready to express a double measure of spiritual joy at our renewed relationship with God -- “Sos asis ba-Shem.” We climb from the nethermost nadir of Tisha Be-Av to the spiritual apogee of Rosh Ha-Shanah, the day on which we confidently and joyfully proclaim that God remains Master of the World.

Experiencing Elul as the time of “Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li” changes the whole emotional tone of what we are accustomed to calling the “Days of Awe.” Instead of anticipating only trepidation and trembling, we prepare ourselves to sing and celebrate our newly re-established closeness with God. We feel the urge, as the Talmud notes, to sing Hallel on Rosh Ha-Shanah, as on every other festival, but we are sobered by the recollection that the Book of Life and Death is opened and inscribed on this day. We don’t sing Hallel -- but we’d love to. We say “Avinu Malkenu” because we don’t feel God’s presence merely as the omnipotent king, but also as the loving, affectionate father. He is our Beloved, and we are His. Elul.

But perhaps there is another hint in the word “Elul” as well, another disembodied voice calling to us during Elul. This voice is not the voice of God -- it is our own voice, our own deepest consciousness calling. Because the very opposite of the word “Elul” is the word “Lule´,” lamed vav lamed alef. “Elul” reversed, “Elul” backwards, is “Lule´.” “Lule´” is a combination of two words: “Lu,” meaning “if only,” and “Lo,” meaning “no.” “Lule´” means “if only things weren’t the way they are.”

Often, it seems that the rest of the year is not merely not Elul, but in fact the very opposite of Elul. Instead of Elul, we find ourselves living through eleven months of “Lule´.” If only I weren’t the person I am. If only I had better habits and routines. If only I were more talented, had a better job. If only I had better luck, if only I had more money. If only I were smarter. If only I were more patient with people. If only I knew more. If only I had been born into a different family, or at a different time, or in a different country. If only I were more confident, more sincere. If only I felt more inspired more often. If only I had made a different decision twenty years ago, or just yesterday. If only I had more time, or more energy. If only I had different friends, then I could be different, too. If only I could understand my kids, or my spouse, or my parents, and if only they could understand me. If only I had had a better life, better relationships, then I wouldn’t be cynical or hesitate to try to change things. “Lule´.”

If not for all the things holding me back, then I could really be different. If not for all of the circumstances of my life, all of the routines and expectations which circumscribe me and now shackle me, then I could really achieve, then I could accomplish. If not for… If only… Would that things were different… “Lule´.”

Elul comes to tell us that we’ve got it all backwards. We’re stuck in “Lule´-Land,” in a place where no matter where we turn, we’re confronted and reproached by what could have been. So often, the knowledge of what perfection looks like, or something closer to perfection than what we have, can paralyze us. So often, the tyranny of the “shoulds” prevents us from appreciating what we have and who we are. It prevents us from doing much to improve, because we will always fall short of what our fantasies conjure up. Life begins to look like a straitjacket of facts-on-the-ground in which we are restrained, powerless, rather than a series of choices and opportunities over which we have control. We’re transfixed by the vision of an imaginary life parallel to ours in which things turn out better than in our reality. Wistfully, we wish we could step into that parallel dimension and take up that imaginary life.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming. But if the next step we take is to neglect moving forward in our own lives because they will never scintillate with the glitter of our fantasies, or because we fool ourselves into thinking that circumstances of the present and decisions of the past have irrevocably hemmed us in, then our dreams have become obstacles to us rather than visions of what we should reach for.

Elul is the time when we cast aside the lure of the “Lule´-life” and awaken to our own reality. It is the time when we claim that reality and take responsibility for it. The only way in which we can re-establish our connection with the estranged God of Tisha Be-Av is to first re-establish our connection with ourselves, to acknowledge our gifts and accept our trials. Elul is the time when we swallow the painful, lonely realization that we alone are responsible for ourselves, captains of our destiny, as the cliche goes, rather than prisoners of our fate. Elul is when we accept that “Lule´” has it all backwards, that it looks at life from the wrong direction.

The Midrash (PDRE 46) tells us that the shofar-call of Elul, the herald of God’s approach on Rosh Ha-Shanah, reminds us of God’s call to Moshe to ascend Sinai. After the Golden Calf, God had rejected His people and condemned them to death. But Moshe refused to cooperate: insistently, implacably, heroically, Moshe bargained for our forgiveness. And Rosh Chodesh Elul was the day on which his relentless hammering on the heavenly door finally forced the portal open. Rosh Chodesh was the day on which Moshe was invited to ascend to receive the second Tablets and the renewal of the covenant. Rosh Chodesh was the day on which Moshe forced God, so to speak, to relinquish His own “Lule´,” to accept that the Jewish people were not what He had fantasized they might be, that they were imperfect and flawed. Moshe insisted on forgiveness for us precisely by emphasizing that we are “am keshei oref,” a stubborn nation, because he saw that the only path to forgiveness was to breach the barrier of God’s too-lofty expectations of His people. Elul is the reverse of “Lule´” not only for us, but also for God; Elul is the month not only for us to forgive ourselves for being imperfect, but also for God to do so as well, for God to extend a second chance to us despite our having stumbled, for Him to make His own painful reckoning and decide that He desires us despite our weaknesses.

The Midrash does not tell us precisely what the shofar symbolizes: does it remind us of God’s invitation to Moshe to ascend to Him, or does it re-enact not God’s call to Moshe, but Moshe’s call to God? I would suggest that the voice of the shofar of Elul symbolizes both: both God’s call to us to ascend to Him, as well as our call to God to demand an invitation to ascend, as Moshe did before us. In the words of Isaiah, “Kol omer ‘kera!’” -- “A voice calls out to me and tells me, ‘Call out!’” God calls out to us to invite us to call out to Him. We respond every morning and evening of “Elul” with Psalm 27, Le-David: “Shema, Hashem, koli ekra!” “God, hear me, hear my voice calling out.” “Koli ekra,” “Hear me calling to my own voice”; my voice has been silent for so long and needs to be summoned.

This month of Elul, may we all take part in the romantic fantasy of “Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li.” May we respond to the alarm of the shofar by awakening from the paralyzing blandishments of the life of “Lule´” and experiencing a true Elul. May we enjoy a month of spiritual ascent toward Rosh Ha-Shanah, and may we greet the Days of Awe with not only supplication and expiation, but with confidence, with celebration, and with joy.

 Shabbat Shalom




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