We find ourselves in the middle of the moth of Elul. This sixth month of the Jewish year immediately precedes the Norim Yoraim (The Days of Awe), or what is commonly known as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, respectively. In Hebrew, Elul is spelled “aleph, lamed, vav, lamed,” which is often viewed as an acronym of the phrase “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li”, or “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” These romantic words come to us from the Song of Songs, which we can find in our tradition’s canon thanks in large part to Rabbi Akiva, who saw in the Song of Songs more than just a love poem. He saw a proclamation of love between God and His people. If God is our beloved, what does it mean in a modern manner, with our contemporary set of sensibilities, to love God? This is a question for reflection that we can all ask ourselves during the contemplative month of Elul. As I have personally been studying Torah, pondering my own life, and the lives I see and hear of all around me, I have come to a realization: There is a Divine plan at work, but we tend to resist following it.
We can see history of this resistance of Divine wisdom if we look at this past week’s parshah, Ki Tavo. God tells the people, “And I have led you forty years in the wilderness; your clothes are not waxen old upon you, and thy shoe is not waxen old upon thy foot…” (Deut. 19:4). God tells the people that he has led them in a roundabout manner for forty long years, not because it was the most direct route to the Promised Land, but because He knew that the people of Israel needed time to learn before they were to enter Canaan. There is an Aggadic anecdote in the Talmud that speaks to this exact plan. God took care of the people’s basic needs (see the clothes and shoes above), so that they would have time to study Torah, and take to heart the words of God without the worries of what psychology’s Maslow would refer to as the most basic of physiological needs. The Talmudic story gets interesting due to the fact that it claims that when the Canaanites first caught wind that the people of Israel were about to enter into the land, they burned newly planted seeds, uprooted trees, and destroyed buildings. Essentially, the Canaanites were akin to an angry tenant who, upon notice of eviction, figured they would trash the place. God of course knew of this, and decided to lead the people of Israel on a forty-year trek that would force the Canaanites to repair and rebuild what they had damaged. After all, God had promised Abraham for his descendants “eretz z’vat chalav u’dvash”—a land flowing with milk and honey.
As we can see above, God had a plan to make the lives of the people of Israel better, and He wanted to keep his promise. Not only was He working “behind the scenes,” but He was also using the allotted time to guide and educate the people. If you read the Prophets of the Nevi’im, you are quite aware that God’s teachings were not always first and foremost on the minds of the people once they got comfortable in their new milk and honey-laden digs. God often expressed his abandonment pains through the Prophets. After all of the teaching and the warning, the people still were led astray by false prophets and idols.
Fast forward to today. We are living in a divided society wherein the warnings and teachings of the learned are ignored, and false prophets fill the airwaves. We are distracted by bumper stickers, flags, and the colors of a party. We are worshipping empty heads, and people have found their gods in the senseless noise of it all. Back to our original question; what does it mean to love God? I believe it is our responsibility as Jews to step back and seriously consider this query. If you believe, as the Kabbalists (and myself) do, you know that Divinity is in every person, affixed there during the thunderous shattering of creation. When a pharaoh sits on the throne and stokes the fires of hatred in order to dim inner lights, we must resist.
I grew up, as many, or at least most of us, probably did, believing in our land as the greatest in the world. There is no doubt that drastic changes have occurred. We have become distracted, led astray by the yetzer hara (evil inclination) that has been pushed to the forefront of the body politic by a boy-king who worships only himself. It is time for us to remember why we were led through the wilderness for all those years. If loving God is loving the world that God created, and every thing that God created, why are we falling short? Today, there exist many gods that one can worship, but the relationship with the gods of the monetary and material will always be unidirectional; they will never love you back. Is it time to hold a mirror up to ourselves, and truly reflect (pun intended).
Can we find our way back to God, whatever He or She means to you? I believe we can, but only if we are willing to find our way back to love, for there will we find Him or Her—and there will we find the purpose that is hidden just beyond the profane. I challenge all of us–dare to delve into the holy this New Year, and we can begin to change the world. There is a plan, and I pray that we allow Divine work to be done. As the ancient cry of the shofar rings out this month and beyond, may we pray that it cuts through the noise of our current world, and may we answer its call with reflection which leads to redemption and reconciliation with the true nature of the Divine.