God, atone for your people Israel who You redeemed. (Devarim 21:8
Ani l’dodi v’dodi lee. “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me” (Shir
HaShirim 6:3), are four of the most beautiful words every composed by a
human. On the surface of it, they describe an intense love between a man and
woman, but on a deeper level, it is a description of the deep love that God
has for His people, and His people have for Him.
The rabbis explain that the when the first letters of each of the Hebrew
words mentioned above—Aleph-Lamed--Vav-Lamed—are brought together, they
spell ‘Elul,’ the Jewish month we just began this week. As it is well known,
being the month right before Rosh Hashanah, it is the time of year when God
comes closer to us, and that we are supposed to come closer to Him.
But what’s really going on?
What happens in life when a person falls in love with someone, but the
feelings aren’t mutual? Usually, the person in love tries to convince the
person he loves to love him or her back. He or she tries to prove why a
relationship with him or her is a mutually beneficial enterprise, and, right
or wrong, often without success.
It is a different story if two people love each other, but they presently
don’t feel that love. They may currently be angry at each other, the result
of which is that their feelings of anger overshadows their feelings of love.
To feel that love again may be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry.” In fact, it
is nothing short of wondrous how quickly anger can dissolve into love with
the right words or gesture. Feelings of love are like a river that wants
nothing more than to be able to keep flowing. And, if it wasn’t for
obstructions, they’d be able to do exactly that.
Hence, to get a dammed up river to flow again, it is not a question of
finding water and bringing it to the river bed. That would be a difficult
and probably expensive project. Rather, it is only a question of removing
that which blocks the flow of the river, usually a much easier and less
This is what the words, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me” mean.
They say that just as we love God, God already loves us, and just as God
loves us, we already love Him. A mutual love already exists, and we’d know
this too if we could only remove the obstacles that interfere with that flow
of love, the goal of this month, of Elul Zman.
This is what the Rambam teaches when answering the question: How does one
come to love God?
When one contemplates His actions and His wondrous and great creations and
sees in them His wisdom, that it has no limit and no end, immediately he
will love and praise Him, and desire tremendously to know His great Name.
(Yad Chazakah, Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2)
“Immediately,” says the Rambam, “he will love . . .” as if to say, once the
obstacles are removed from one’s heart, one naturally feels love of God,
like a river that naturally flows downstream once the dam has been removed.
And, to do that, says the Rambam, one need only create a sense of awe and
appreciation for God Himself, which naturally results from appreciating life
and Creation for what it is.
Another good analogy is clothing. When some people get dressed in the
morning, it is to enhance their personal presentation. They like themselves,
and enjoy being who they are, and have just learned how to use clothing to
feel that even more.
Other people, on the other hand, are always trying to be someone else.
Usually, they are not content with themselves and spend their time and money
trying to mold themselves into the type of person they are not, but idolize.
After many years of approaching life this way, they lose sight of who they
really are and have a difficult time being only themselves, even when being
so is beneficial to them as well.
To return to who they really are, they have to do some soul searching,
meaning the essence of who they are. We can dress up our bodies and make
them look completely different, but our souls are outside of our domain of
influence. We may be able to blemish them through sins, but we cannot change
their nature at all. On the soul level, we are who we are, and that’s the
For many people who become ba’alei teshuvah, that is, who return to Judaism
after being away from it, or never having lived according to Torah, the
process is also one of self-discovery. In the secular world, there is a lot
of material competition, that often ‘convinces’ people to live lifestyles
that do not really fit their souls. It may bother them on some level, but
lacking any known viable alternative, they tow the party line.
However, when they discover Torah and focus more on being good people than
‘accepted’ people, which allows them to shed layers of lifestyle in pursuit
of their inner being, they start to feel more themselves. Self-acceptance
all of a sudden becomes easier, and often a lot less expensive.
Until, that is, they move into the religious world which has its own ideals
and forms of competition, and they are forced, once again, and often to
their chagrin, ‘to be’ someone, or something, that they just aren’t yet, or
ever will be. But acceptance into any society comes with a price, and as a
result, all of us end up being a little different on the outside than we
are, in essence, on the inside.
But, though you can fool yourself some of the time, other people a lot of
the time, you can’t fool God any of the time. He knows who we really are,
and who we’re meant to be. He’s not interested in having a relationship with
any frauds, just with the real people, the real ‘dodi.’
Thus, for us to approach God during this time means for us to first become
who we really are. God says to us, “Become who you are in essence, and then
we can meet and share our love with one another.” Relationship with a false
personality is a false relationship, and if people have difficulty
maintaining such a relationship, then certainly having one with God is
The goal of this time can be summed by a single verse:
I am my prayer, to You, God, at a fitting time . . . (Tehillim 69:14)
Traditionally, the words are translated, “As for me, let my prayer come to
You, God, at a fitting time,” but they can literally be read as I have
written. For this is the goal of any person, to become his prayer, that is,
for his very presence to speak on his behalf to God, something that can only
happen when, as the Talmud says, one’s inside is as one’s outside.
That’s the beauty of it all. To become so sincere about oneself itself is
the journey to God; the closeness happens on its own. By becoming who we are
in essence, nothing more and nothing less, we will find ourselves before
God. And, once we find ourselves before God, we will know that we have, at
long last, found ourselves as well.
We will have done teshuvah. We will have atoned for ourselves. We will feel
redeemed in the ultimate sense of the idea.