I know . . . I know, that this is a time for personal contemplation preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The month of Elul is a time of atonement in preparation for the High Holidays. The month of Elul is also an exceptionally opportune time for penitence. This ambiance of repentance develops through the month of Elul to the days of selichot, to Rosh Hashanah, and finally to Yom Kippur.
The name of the month spelled Alef-Lamed-Vav-Lamed) is an acronym of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” or “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine,” a direct quote from the Song of Songs where King Solomon portrays G-d as the “Beloved” and the Jewish people as the “I.” During the First Exile in Babylon when the Jewish people substituted Aramaic (the vernacular of the at the time) in place of Hebrew, they adopted the Babylonian names for the months. In Aramaic the word Elul means “search,” which is fitting, since this is a time of year when we are expected to search our hearts.
The selichot and the shofar blowing during the month of Elul are a wake-up call to stir us from our complacency. They are also a call a call to repentance. Who among us can ignore the earsplitting blast of the shofar in its different cadences?
Three Jewish traditions ascribedifferent events to the month of Elul: (1) it is the time that Moshe stayed on Mount Sinai while cutting the second set of tablets for G-d to again engrave the Commandments after the sin of the Golden Calf. (He ascended on Rosh Chodesh Elul and descended on the 10th of Tishri, at the end of Yom Kippur, when we complete the Ten Days of Penitence). (2) Another tradition holds that Elul is the beginning of a period of 40 days that Moshe prayed for G-d to forgive us after the sin of the Golden Calf, after which the Lord inscribed the Ten Commandments on the second set of tablets(3) Although we are commanded to feel as though each and every one of us stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, it sometimes becomes difficult for me to imagine myself elbow to elbow with three million people standing at the foot of a medium-sized mountain whose peak was on fire and the rumbling mixture of thunder and the voice of G-d shattered our ears. What is easier for me to contemplate is that during this month the word “Omnipresent” takes on a more propitious meaning. “Omnipresent” means ubiquitous, all-pervading, universal, ever-present, pervasive, and all over. Although G-d is always “Omnipresent” I truly love the tradition that holds that the Lord leaves his heavenely palace and walks among us mortals during this month, a tradition which helps me recall an incident from the time I was eight years old, sitting next to my father during the rabbi’s drasha on Yom Kippur.
Elul is a time to begin the process of asking forgiveness for injustices done to other people. According to Jewish tradition, G-d cannot forgive us for sins committed against another person until we have first obtained forgiveness from the person we have wronged. This is not as easy a task as you might think, if you have never done it. Barely had the rabbi begun his sermon when several of the congregants sitting near the rear began to talk, not in loud voices, but loud enough to compete with the rabbi speaking at the amud where the sefer Torahs were lying. Unfortunately for me, in those days many drachot were still given in Yiddish and only later, between musaf and mincha, did my father find the time to translate to me what the rabbi had to say.
As it turned out, upon being disturbed by the private conversation going on, the rabbi abandoned whatever his prepared drasha was about. Roughly translated, he thundered to the kahal: “G-d is forgiving but DON’T take your fellow man for granted!” What he said resonated with everybody sitting there but only now, in my early seventies, do I reflect heavily on those words and I am bothered by something. Yes, Rabbi Cohen was right—about never taking the forgiveness of our fellow man for granted—but I wonder if we have any right to take Hashem’s forgiveness as axiomatic.
A central part of the selichot service is the frequent reading of the “Thirteen Attributes (of G-d),” a list of the Lord’s thirteen qualities of mercy that were revealed to Moshe after the sin of the Golden Calf. Now something interesting happens. The name “Ha-shem” is recited twice as the first two attributes. Then follow the others: merciful, gracious, long-suffering, abundant in goodness, truth, keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, forgiving transgression, forgiving sin, and ONE who cleanses. Why is “Ha-shem” recited two times as an attribute? There are many names in Hebrew for HIM/HER. etc., but we cling most often to the mysterious Tetragrammaton—the four-letter Name of G-d (which we often call “Ha-shem”) which is the Name used when G-d is displaying the characteristic of mercy. But why “Hashem” twice? I checked through a small section of the Gemara (in English, of course) and read that this double pronouncement signifies that G-d is merciful BEFORE a person sins but is also merciful AFTER a person sins.
So, on the one hand perhaps we can assume that G-d is usually forgiving but taking this attribute for granted leaves me uneasy. We are commanded not to take the Name of the Lord in vain. By the same yardstick, I don’t believe that we can automatically assume that G-d will always forgive us. As the settlers in Gush Katif, righteous people by any yardstick, painfully learned, sometimes the answer is NO.