Thoughts in Elul

This is the month before the Days of Awe.  Called Elul, the Sages saw the name of the month as referencing ‘Ani Ldodi Vdodi Li’ – using the first letters of the phrase from the Song of Songs as referring to the month of Elul.  And what is this phrase and why did the Rabbis use it?  It is a phrase that means, ‘I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.’  Our Sages teach that the Song of Songs is simply an allegory for God’s love for the Jewish people and the Jewish people’s love for God.  In terms of this verse, we are all both the beloved of God and people who  love God.

It’s hard to know what that means, sometimes.  What does it mean when we say that God loves us?  We might think that it means that we are protected from harm.  We know that this is not the case.  We get sick.  We have accidents.  There is evil in the world.  This is not protection.  As well, it is challenging to grasp an individual concept of ‘loving God.’  How can I love something that I can not sense with my own senses?

These are the challenges of the religious person, especially the religious person who is not fundamentalist and who does not call misfortunes ‘afflictions of love by God’ – a common way to dismiss suffering.  Nor does the non-fundamentalist say that the suffering is somehow ‘God’s plan.’  Personally, I don’t believe that.  There is too much randomness in the world to sense that we either have a guarantee of no harm coming to us or that somehow everything is God’s plan.

What loving God means, and what God’s love means, is in my mind akin to a keel on a boat.  God keeps us grounded with the assurance that truth and justice matters, that there is a right way to do things and that the lessons of our people over the past 4500 years are lessons that have given comfort, allowed us to question and challenge God and each other, and has given rise to a people that calls itself ‘Israel’ – we who wrestle with God and win.

For us to show love for God is to internalize the great middot – the great measures of what it means to be a person of holiness.  Notice that holiness is not the same as believing in a God of such and such a nature.  It is about doing.  It is about being.  It is about the measures of seeking righteousness in all things, of honesty and integrity, of forgiveness and forgiving.  It is about taking all you know about being a righteous person and making those things our own keels.  Our keels ultimately end up matching God’s keel.  And, when that happens, we may be moving in unknown directions but we are still moving forward in holiness.  And moving in holiness is the way we love God and, I believe that in some fashion, God smiles upon us.