Elul: The Month of Self-Discovery


Elul is not just the pre-festive month. If you skip Elul and don’t give it any special attention, you might suddenly find yourself unprepared at Rosh Hashanah. Just like Friday prepares for the coming Shabbat, so too, Elul, the sixth month from Nisan, is an essential preparation for the seventh month of Tishrei in particular, and for the coming year in general.

I Am for My Beloved

It is a well-known fact that the initials of the phrase, “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me” (אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי) spell out “Elul” (אֶלוּל). This means that it is an appropriate time to arouse ourselves to approach God. If “I am for [i.e., towards] my Beloved” by doing teshuvah (repentance) and good deeds then, “my Beloved [will be] for me.” A lesser known fact is that the rest of the allusion is that the final letters of that very same phrase are four letters yud (י), which hint at the forty days (4 times 10, the numerical value of yud) of compassion and forgiveness that begin on the first day of Elul and conclude on Yom Kippur, when “I” and “My Beloved” unite as one. These were the final set of forty days that Moses spent on Mt. Sinai, at the end of which he descended with the second Tablets of the Covenant.

This allusion brings us to the letter with which the month of Elul was created, which indeed, is the letter yud, in whose path we will now step out towards the coming month.

In the verse “I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me,” it all begins with “I.” The month of Elul is the most appropriate month for personal soul-searching and trying to present our personal “balance-sheet” towards the end of the Jewish year. Yet, beyond all of our personal accounts—regarding what we have done during the past year—we are liable to reveal that we have gotten lost in the overall tally… there are so many things that we have dealt with, we have scattered in every direction, but where were we really, where is our “I”? The urgent task of Elul is to find our lost “I,” to rehabilitate our personality and to take it to a renewed meeting with God, “I am for my Beloved.” But, how do we do that?

Flee to a City of Refuge

In Chassidic writings it is explained that Elul is the “city of refuge” of the year.[1] What is a city of refuge? When someone commits involuntary manslaughter, he is obligated to flee from his regular location and reach a city of refuge, where he must now settle. Outside the city of refuge he lives in fear of his life (exposed to possible injury and death at the hands of the “blood avenger”). This is how every one of us should feel, to a certain extent, when the month of Elul arrives. We look in all directions in shock: Oh my goodness, what have I done? Who have I (almost) killed? Myself. I must immediately find myself a protected space where I can hide out, renew my proper way of living, and rediscover my true self.

But, where is the soul’s city of refuge? We need to reach the root of the soul. The verse states, “Flee to your place”[2]—i.e., to one’s initial starting point. This point is represented by the letter yud, the smallest of all the letters of the alef-bet, whose form is exactly like a concentrated point. One might do a “guided imagery” exercise: begin by peeling away all the layers of one’s personality, all the unwanted baggage that has accumulated over the years, until we return to our mother’s womb. But, that’s not enough, we need to go even further back in time, until we reach the seminal point from which we were born (more precisely, the fetus is created from the meeting between the father’s seed and the ovum, but for the time being we are focusing on the fertilizing power of the seed, which represents the essence of the soul, according to Kabbalah)—this drop of seed is represented by the letter yud. If we continue further, we can identify the source of that drop itself as, “the drop of the son in his father’s mind” (as Chassidut phrases it[3]). This point is the most fundamental root of a child, even before that drop becomes a separate entity that leaves on its long journey to create a fetus and a complete human being.

Physical reality is parallel to spiritual reality. Even our soul follows a similar journey until it appears in our familiar personality. The fundamental kernel of our soul is also in “the mind of the father”—i.e., in God, the Creator’s thought (where even the term “thought” is a borrowed expression and is not the same as what we know as “thought”). This root is the letter yud of the soul, and there is the city of refuge where we escape to. However much we have diverted from the path of life and have gotten lost, once we reach the source of our soul we can renew our “I” from it.

Compassionate Father

Our journey to the source―to the root of our soul―has brought us to a rendezvous with our Father, “Our Father; compassionate Father.” As deep as we might dig into ourselves, we will never find our lost identity until we recognize the existence of our most fundamental soul root that is incorporated within the Almighty. Indeed, we usually approach God as “King” (as in the formulation of the blessings, “Our God, King of the universe”). But, in Elul we meet Him first and foremost as a good Father. There is a famous allegory that states that in Elul “the King is in the field”—however, the special thing about this state is that when the king is in the field, he does not appear with his usual formal attire, rather he shows a smiling face to everyone, allowing all to approach him without any special preparation—exactly like a compassionate father.[4] Only when we arrive at Rosh Hashanah, will God be revealed as a king in his palace (and then we stand before Him in awe, accepting upon ourselves the yoke of His sovereignty). The relationship reaches its climax on Yom Kippur when we are most like a married couple, as we say in the Yom Kippur prayers, “We are Your [beloved] wife and You are our [darling] husband.”[5]

The month of Elul directly follows the month of Av (אָב). In Av (especially at the beginning of the month) we cannot sense God’s revealed compassion, but in Elul, God is revealed to us “Like a Father (אַב), who has mercy on His children.”[6] This is how Elul bridges between Av and Tishrei, and with its energy we can begin the new year from the beginning; indeed, the word “In the beginning” (בְּרֵאשִׁית) is a permutation of the letters “Av-Tishrei” (אַב תִּשְׁרֵי). In other words, in Elul we begin to hear the roar of the lion that is the mazal (zodiac sign) of the month of Av, of which the verse states, “A lion roars; who does not fear?”[7] The word “lion” (אַרְיֵה) is an acronym of “Elul” (אֶלוּל), “Rosh Hashanah” (רֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה), “Yom Kippur” (יוֹם כִּיפּוּר) and “Hoshanah Rabbah” (הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּה), the four days of judgment on which we are in awe of God.[8]

“I” from “Nothing”

The letter yud has the great honor of being the first letter of God’s Essential Name; in fact, when each of the letters of the Name are spelled in full (יו”ד ה”א וא”ו ה”א), there are also ten letters to the Name, where 10 is the numerical value of the letter yud. As such, the letter yud represents the sefirah of wisdom, which is referred to as “Father” (אַבָּא), in the same way as an individual’s soul represents the yud of the soul’s source within their father.

The significance of the sefirah of wisdom is not identical to wisdom as we usually understand it as intellectual talent or one’s total knowledge. Wisdom is not intellect, but a higher plane of the soul where we experience the actual flash of innovation, the general energy that later becomes a well-defined and conceivable idea in our intellectual comprehension (and since wisdom is a plane of the psyche that is not intellectually tangible, it is in fact a vessel for the appearance of the light of faith, and also the amazing and incomprehensible ability for self-sacrifice).[9]

The letter yud is the only letter that hangs in the air (i.e., above the line of text), and does not rest on stable ground like all the other letters of the alef-bet, because wisdom appears from above as if it hovers in the air, until it descends and materializes below. In this form one can envision the entire world as hanging in the air and beginning to be created from above downwards, as in the verse, “He suspends the earth on nothing” (תֹּלֶה אֶרֶץ עַל בְּלִימָה).[10]

[More precisely: in the script of the Torah the letter yud is not just a plain drop of ink, but a “drawn point,” with its upper part―the “cusp of the yud”―turning upwards. This cusp indicates the hidden root of wisdom itself, before it is revealed. In Kabbalistic terms, the root of wisdom is in the “latent wisdom of the crown.” In the human psyche, in Chassidic terms, this is the “power of the intellect,” from which the lightning-like flashes of wisdom exude, above which is “the primordial intellect.” Latent wisdom is an “undrawn point,” that completely lacks dimensions.]

In order to expose the root of our souls, which corresponds to the sefirah of wisdom and to the letter yud, an inner power of the soul is required—the power of selflessness, which relates to standing before God feeling like a zero-dimensional point. In great righteous individuals, their selflessness is at a very high level, like Moses, who said of himself, “And we are what [i.e., ‘nothing’].”[11] We too can “savor” something of the level of the righteous (mainly by just learning about it), but the main service of the average individual is to reach “selflessness” at the basic level that everyone can achieve—recognition of the fact that I am created anew, ex-nihilo, at every moment, and without the Divine “nothingness” that flows through me and vitalizes me, I am nothing (and the more one meditates on this, the more tangible this recognition becomes).[12] In short, in order to find our genuine, rectified self, we need to nullify our egos and sense the Divine “nothingness”; this is how our new self is born from the hidden root of the soul that is within our compassionate Father.

From the Head to the Arm

So far, we have delved into the hidden root of the soul as if we had entered the incomprehensible point of the letter yud. But, our journey must not end here. Of course, the letter yud is just one point that hangs in the air, but this point gradually develops. The fundamental development of every letter is revealed in its “filling”; in this case, the filling of the letter yud is yud-vav-dalet (י-ו-ד). These three letters represent the development of the yud from a zero-dimensional point (practically speaking, every point we see on paper has dimensions, otherwise we wouldn’t see it, but the yud represents a dimensionless abstract point). The vav is that very same point when it is elongated downwards (until it reaches the earth, at long last), becoming a longitudinal line. The letter dalet has a longitudinal line and a latitudinal line, which together form a two-dimensional area. This development of “point, line, area” is the basic outline for any process of realizing an idea from potential into actuality, and in our psyches too, we must break out of the root point (yud), strive for contact with reality like a dispatched arrow (vav), and realize it in practice in all of space (dalet).

There is a clear phenomenon of this three stage structure of yud-vav-dalet in the way someone expresses themselves (via the “vestments of the soul”): the point of the yud is thought, the line of the vav is the voice of speech (which expresses thought), while the area of the dalet is concrete action. However, if we look closely at the name of the letter yud (יוּד) we will see that it contains the word “hand” (יָד). The form of the letter yud is like a head, the wisdom and thought in the mind, but the head needs to collaborate with the hand’s power of action and to the ten fingers of the hand (like the numerical value of the yud[13]) that grant us our amazing power of creativity. This is how Kabbalah[14] interprets the verse, “Open your hands…” (פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת יָדֶךָ): open the letter yud and turn it into an active hand. Indeed, the special talent of the month of Elul is the sense of action, which is also referred to as the sense of rectification—to teach us that wisdom must be expressed by rectifying the world through concrete actions and it cannot suffice with abstract philosophical ideas. Similarly, to the other extreme, only by connecting to the point of pure wisdom can one clarify reality and correctly utilize the power of action.

If the yud corresponds to the sefirah of wisdom, the initial core of revelation, then after wisdom has been developed and revealed, the yud itself is filled, eventually reaching the practical sefirah of kingdom (the tenth in line of all the sefirot).[15]

Operation Tefillin for a Good Year

The correct connection between the head and the hand is explicitly expressed in the mitzvah of tefillin, which we attach to our hands and heads, thus joining our thought-filled heads with our hands that itch for action. We attach the hand tefillin to the left arm; indeed, the body limb that “regulates” the month of Elul is the left arm. The left arm is nearest the heart (so that the hand tefillin actually sit upon the heart) – because just as we speak through the point of wisdom that rests in the mind, so too there is the inner point of the heart (and these two points “compete” with each other to determine which is more essential and innate). The tefillin also connect this point to the sense of action in the hand. The letter yud itself appears in the tefillin in the special knot in the form of a yud that is made in the strap that is closest to the hand tefillin, so that the hand is close to the yud.

The word “tefillin” (תְּפִילִין) is in the plural and its singular form is “tefillah” (תְּפִלָה) which is identical to the word for “prayer.” Indeed, there is a strong connection between tefillin and prayer, since there is an emphasis on wearing tefillin especially during prayer times. In depth, tefillin alludes to two types of prayer: “hand prayer,” which is a natural type of prayer that stems directly from the heart (perhaps our hands will move of their own accord during such a prayer). Usually, this is a short, direct prayer, like the shortest prayer in the Torah, “God, please heal her, please.”[16] And there is a “head prayer,” a prayer that stems from long in-depth mindful meditation (as generally encouraged in Chabad Chassidut; the prayer of a true, profound servant of God). But, even the “head prayer” does not ignore the heart, since the aim of mental meditation is eventually to touch and “move” the innermost point of the heart (just as the law is that one should take care that the hand tefillin should always be worn when the head tefillin is worn[17]). The strong connection between the head and the hand is alluded to in the numerical equivalence of “head hand” (רֹאשׁ יָד), which equals “prayer” (תְּפִלָה), the singular of tefillin, as mentioned above.

When attaching the tefillin, the order is that first we attach the hand tefillin and afterwards the head. In our context, first comes Elul, whose principle service is action, i.e., the talent for rectification (rectifying my ego), corresponding to the left hand, an aspect of the hand tefillin. Afterwards, comes the month of Tishrei, which begins with the “Head of the Year” (רֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה), which represents the head tefillin.[18] However, even during Elul we prepare ourselves for the head tefillah, by connecting to the point of wisdom and selflessness of the letter yud. In this way, tefillin is not just an external accessory that is placed upon the head, but it penetrates, as it were, into the head, becoming the Jewish royal crown, of which is said, “And all the peoples of the world will see that God’s Name is called upon you and they will be in awe of you—this refers to the ‘tefillin’ in the head.”[19]

The tefillin campaign was the first campaign initiated by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and there is no better time than the month of Elul to go out in the street and give more and more Jews the opportunity to participate in this mitzvah. The Rebbe emphasized the special importance of the mitzvah of tefillin in guarding our soldiers and granting them victory over the enemy, as indicated in the verse, “And of Gad he said: “Blessed is He Who grants expanse to Gad; he dwells like a lion, tearing the arm [of his prey, together] with the head”—this is in merit of the tefillin which are placed on the arm and the head.[20] Indeed, the tribe of Israel associated with Elul is the tribe of Gad!

After a good dose of prayer and tefillin, in the head and in the heart, we will accept God’s yoke upon us this coming Rosh Hashanah, and we can already wish you all, ketivah vechatimah tovah— May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

[1]  The Arizal teaches that, “The initial letters of the words [referring to a case of involuntary manslaughter], ‘[God] brought it about by his hand, I will make [a place for you to which he shall flee]’ ([וְהָאֱלֹהִים] אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ [מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה]) are Elul (אלול), to allude to the fact that God in His loving-kindness has made and ordered the month of Elul, for all those who have sinned throughout the year to return then and to do teshuvah (repentance)” (Sha’ar Hapesukim, Parashat Mishpatim).

[2] Numbers 24:11; see Zohar III 288b.

[3] See Tanya ch. 2.

[4] The allegory as explained in Likutei Torah, Parashat Re’eh 32:1, beginning “I am for my Beloved.

[5] See our article in Hebrew, “Our Father, Our King, Our Beloved.”

[6] Psalms 103:13.

[7] Amos 3:8.

[8] Shnei Luchot Habrit, beginning of Tractate Rosh Hashanah.

[9] See for example, Tanya ch. 18.

[10] Job 26:6. The numerical value of this phrase equals 913, the numerical value of “In the beginning” (בְּרֵאשִׁית).

[11] Exodus 16:7-8.

[12] See also our book in Hebrew, “The Inner Dimension” on Parashat Vayeshev.

[13] This is especially true when we consider the numerical value of two “hands” (יָד יָד) which produce a numerical value of 28, the value of “power” (כֹּחַ).

[14] Pri Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Hazemirot ch. 5.

[15] Numerically speaking, this level is reached when the letter yud in its simplest form (י) is added to its filled name (יוּד) together with the filling of the filling (יוד וו דלת); the sum of all three together equals 496, the numerical value of “kingdom” (מַלְכוּת).

[16] Numbers 12:13.

[17] Menachot 36a; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 28:2.

[18] Similarly, the word Tishrei (תִּשְׁרֵי) can be read as an acronym for “head tefillin” (תְּפִילִין שֶׁל רֹאשׁ) with an additional yud (י) to represent the yud that we acquire during the month of Elul .

[19] Berachot 6a. This awe not only relates to the anti-Semitism of this world, but also to the spiritual prosecutors of the Jewish People whose mouths are closed on Rosh Hashanah and we are written and sealed in the book of the completely righteous. Thus these Days of Awe are days when the fear of the Jewish People is upon everyone.

[20] Rabeinu Bachye on Numbers 32:32 in the name of the Midrash. Halachot Ketanot Larosh, Hilchot Tefillin, siman 15. When Gad was born, the verse states, “And Leah said, Gad is coming and she called his name Gad” (Genesis 30:11), this can be seen as an allusion to the month of Av [(אב) the permutation of the word “coming” (בא)] followed by Elul, which is associated with Gad. “Gad is coming” (בא גד) has a numerical value of 10, relating once more to the month of Elul whose letter is yud, which equals 10.