Spiritual Theme for August – Elul: In Between, Love and All

By Rabbi David

On July 15, I saw the first Christmas tree in a retail store. Not that Christmas decor is likely to sell much to this rabbi, but it jolted me. Its early appearance punctuated the topsy-turvy sense of this time – the off-kilter, “just plain weird” feel of so much nowadays.

I confess to feeling that way approaching these High Holy Days. They come “exactly on time” Jewishly, but oddly early in secular solar time. Aren’t we just barely halfway into summer?

Usually the High Holy Days stretch into October. Some years, frost chills the sukkah and we wear scarves outside at Simchat Torah. This year’s High Holy Days begin on Labor Day, and they’ll be done before autumn.

It’s just plain weird – and there’s a lot of “just plain weird” to go around. Consider:

  • Pre-covid, most of us instinctively sensed the community’s “feel.” Over the last 16 months, some were very “present” digitally and emotionally. Some were less present. Some moved; some disappeared and are just now re-emerging. Others are new, from both near and far (welcome!), who’ve never been to TBE’s physical home.
  • By Rosh Hashanah, New York might be a beacon of safety from covid-19, or tip toward a new wave. Most likely, we’ll be in between – still far safer than most, but watchful.
  • By Rosh Hashanah, Western wildfires that darkened our skies with ash might be doused by welcome rains, or explode under another climate-change heat dome. Most likely, the fires will be in between – neither cataclysmic nor totally over.
  • By Rosh Hashanah, the U.S. government might be resolved on reforms to health care, climate change, infrastructure, voting rights, the economy and more. Or, the government might be mired in toxic gridlock. Most likely, it’ll be somewhere in between.

As it happens, all of this in-between and “just plain weird” aligns with our Jewish spiritual calendar. The month of Elul, which begins this year in early August, itself is an in-between time. Elul stands between summer’s height and the autumn ahead, between the year that was and the new year about to begin, between how we’ve been and how we’re called to become.

Elul rouses us back to awareness with the first shofar blasts, the first echoes of ancient High Holy Day tunes, and the slow shift of sunlight. It’s in-between and, yes, “just plain weird.”

And amidst it all, Elul encodes love. Elul is a Hebrew acronym for Ani l’dodi v’dodi li / “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3). Love is an emotion of unique depth, height and closeness. Elul emphasizes love’s sense of emotional proximity to ourselves, each other and everything important in spiritual life.

It’s chutzpah to claim that love can pair well with in-between and “just plain weird.” After all,  love seems easier when we feel safe and secure. Maybe that’s exactly why Elul calls us back to love, our highest values and deepest care, precisely when so much feels tentative and tenuous.

It’ll take daring. It’ll take courage. It’ll take resilience. It’ll take strength. (Might strength be our upcoming High Holy Day theme?) But the effort is worthwhile: the planet needs it, our country needs it, our precious community needs it, and the ancient call to renew ourselves depends on it.

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