Of the Book

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By Daniel Bortz

On August 16, we will mark the first day of Elul, the last Hebrew month of the year before Tishrei and the High Holidays. Jewish mystics have long lauded this month as having a unique spiritual power, different to all the others. They explain the letters of “Elul” as an acronym for a verse from the Song of Songs: Ani Le’dodi Ve’dodi Li—I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me.

While Rosh Hashanah is likened to a time when the commoners of a village are able to approach the palace and crown their King for another year of leadership, the month of Elul represents a time when the King himself leaves his palace and ventures into the fields to visit his people. In a spiritual sense this means that G-d makes His presence more accessible to us, drawing our hearts closer to Him during this month. Unlike in the palace where only those who are worthy are allowed to enter the innermost chambers, in Elul—in the field—any and all can connect with the King, regardless of spiritual standing.

But how do we tap in to the spiritual potential of this month?

A student at Boston University enrolled in a Philosophy course. One class, as students were taking their seats, their professor stood at his podium in silence. Minutes ticked by, and the professor wasn’t saying a word! Everyone looked at each other confused, thinking their professor had lost his mind. Finally, after much uncomfortable silence, the professor asked the class: “Do you hear that?” Now, they were certain that he was crazy, for no one had said a word and thus there was nothing to hear. The professor repeated his question. This student began to wonder at what the teacher might be referring to. Come to think of it, I never heard the humming of the fan in this room before. The student spoke up: “I can hear the humming of the fan?” “Excellent,” said the professor. “It was always there, but when all of you were busy talking, you never noticed it. All of you are dismissed, have a great day.” Everyone jumped out of their seats, ecstatic to leave early. But this student remained seated, bewildered. He approached his teacher, who explained: “We’re always so busy talking, moving and being distracted, that we never just take a second to stop and hear the sound of our own soul.”

Judaism describes the spiritual essence we each possess—our soul—as an extremely powerful Divine energy. So how do we fail to feel this force within us?

We need to take a moment out of our frenetic day and leave our phones, TV and the latest gossip to reflect on life’s meaning. This is why prayer was instituted, and why Shabbat is so important. We’re forced to transition from our immersion in materiality and triviality for a moment in time to instead spend time on reflecting on our purpose in life and on what’s truly important.

It’s important to notice the subtleties in life. As one great Rabbi said, if you can’t stop and gaze at a painting, appreciating its intricacies and its message, then meditating on G-d will be a struggle.

This month, we’re given a special opportunity to connect with our Judaism and spiritual side in a much easier fashion than usual. This experience is known as Teshuva. Improperly translated as “repentance,” it really means “return.” May we all take advantage of this auspicious time, returning to the natural state of our souls, one of appreciation, gratitude, reflection and sensitivity to the subtle wondrousness of the world around us.

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