After a 40-year sojourn in the desert, the Jewish people were almost ready to enter the land of Israel. Before handing the baton over to Joshua, who would lead the nation to the Promised Land, Moses addressed the Jewish people. In his weeks-long talk, Moses exhorted the people to remain loyal to God and the teachings of His Torah, and reviewed mitzvot contained in the preceding books.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shoftim, one of the mitzvot Moses reiterates is the City of Refuge:
“You shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess… Whoever strikes his fellow [to death] unintentionally… he shall flee to one of these cities, and live.” (Deuteronomy 19)
We have just entered Elul, the final month of the Hebrew calendar. During this month we take stock of the past year, its ups and downs, and resolve to improve our future actions. This is in preparation for the start of the new year — Rosh Hashanah — and the following month of holy days and festivals.
Our sages teach that the Hebrew word “Elul” is an acronym for “Ina Leyado Vesamti Lecha” (Exodus 21:13), a verse referring to these cities of refuge.
Everything in Torah is divinely significant, down to a word’s spelling. The month of Elul is a “city of refuge” in time. Regardless of one’s negative actions over the past year, Elul is a refuge for all who desire to return to God. This is accomplished by firmly resolving to better oneself, immersing in Torah study and increasing in mitzvot.
Actually, Elul is an acronym for a few more passages in scripture. One of them appears in the Song of Songs, where King Solomon describes the love between God and the Jewish people, using the metaphor of the love between husband and wife. The verse (6:3) states: “Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li,” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The first letters of each word in this passage spell out the name of this month, Elul.
Elul’s acronym signifies the intense love between God and the Jewish people, which comes to the surface during this month.
The first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, illustrated this time period with the following parable:
“Before a king enters his city, its inhabitants go out to greet him and receive him in the field. At that time, anyone who so desires is granted permission [and can] approach him and greet him. He receives them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all…”
A field is an uninhabited place, bereft of human presence; a city is the very symbol of habitation. A person in a field is free of the inhibitions imposed by the presence of others and therefore sometimes conducts himself there improperly. A field thus symbolizes a low spiritual level. Yet in Elul, the King goes out to the field: God is present regardless of a person’s spiritual standing. A Jew can thus make a proper reckoning knowing that God’s mercy is shining at this time. He has faith that he will be pardoned and accepted back.
Elul, then, is the time when a Jew, as he is, can come close to God, for God has made the first step and come to him. At such a time every Jew can grasp Godliness. All that is necessary is that he desires to do so: He must go out to the “field” to welcome the king. When he does so, he is assured the king will receive him “pleasantly and with a smiling countenance” — and a good and sweet year results. PJC
Rabbi Yossi Feller is the co-director of Chabad of Cranberry Township. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.