Friday, August 17, 2012

Happy Rosh Chodesh Elul!

“Hashem is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? Hashem is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” So begins Psalm 27, which is traditionally recited every day of the month of Elul, through Simchat Torah (or Yom Kippur, depending on the custom of one's community).

It’s a beautiful psalm, well worth going back to on a regular basis. There’s a lot of yearning in Psalm 27: the psalmist expressing his love for God, and his yearning to be close to God. Which, on the face of things, might seem a little strange: after all, the month of Elul is the long build-up to the High Holidays, which are the time of year we tend to associate with aspects of God like judge, arbiter of life and death, reckoner of our merits and misdeeds-- not really the warm, fuzzy aspects of the divine. And yet here we have this tradition of reciting Psalm 27, and references to it in traditional texts often cite medieval midrashim that the name of the month of Elul is actually an acronym for a famous quote from Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is for me.”).

What brings these disparate things together is the midrash which tells us that Moshe Rabeinu (our teacher Moses) ascended Mount Sinai to get the Torah on 1 Elul. He remained up there for forty days and forty nights, coming down with the commandments on Yom Kippur. So, amid all of the judgment and the reckoning of the High Holidays, there’s actually this undercurrent of the love of God and Israel-- after all, we routinely compare the giving of the Torah to the wedding of God and Israel. And we traditionally wear white on Yom Kippur, just like bride and groom traditionally wear white under the chuppah.

The love and the judgment might still seem like a strange mix, but think about it: your spouse is the person you trust to see you best, and to call you on your behavior when you’re off base. And your spouse is also the person you trust to always forgive you, so long as you are willing to talk it out, make amends, and take responsibility. Your spouse is the person whose judgment you trust, and whom you can permit to judge you without fearing that their judgment means a loss of love and respect for you (judging without being judge-y, if you will): that’s part of the intimacy of a mature, thoughtful relationship.

Psalm 27 is kind of a reminder to us to contextualize the High Holidays: on the High Holiday, God will take an accounting of how you have held up your part of the obligations of the relationship. But that relationship isn’t limited to the High Holidays: and the rest of the year, we can also call to account God, for how He’s held up His part of the obligations of the relationship. Maybe the reason that the relationship has held up for so very long is that we’re both endlessly willing to forgive one another.

The last line of Psalm 27 says, “Put your hope in Hashem: be strong, make your heart strong, and put your hope in Hashem.” Maybe as a well-placed and well-timed reminder that both we and God have a lot to forgive each other for, and working at such a relationship is difficult, and requires both patience and considerable time and inner strength.


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