One of the beautiful and famous allusions of the month of Elul is the acronym of its letters to read, “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li”, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” When we place the love between bride and groom, the Nation of Israel and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, as the title of the month of Elul, the entire service of repentance in this month takes on a new, deeper meaning.
The connection between the Nation of Israel – and every individual Jew – to G-d, is like the connection between a bride and a groom who are deeply devoted to each other. The difference between “I love” and “I am devoted to” is great. “I love” can be conditional, based on the lover’s self-interest. Devotion, on the other hand, is an expression of pure love, focused only on the recipient of the love – unconditional love.
A famous hassidic story gives us deeper insight into the depths of the loving relationship with G-d that should be the focal point of our Elul service:
Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhansk once sent one of his pupils to watch how a simple bartender would ask forgiveness of G-d in a most unusual rendition of kaparot.
Late at night, after the last of the drinkers had left his bar, the Jewish bartender asked his wife to bring him his notebook. He began to leaf through the pages, reading all his sins of the past year. “On this day I did that, and on that day I sinned with this” etc. etc. After he finished reading, he broke into tears and heartfelt sighs. “Oy, Master of the Universe, last year I repented and promised to be good and not to sink once more into foolishness. And in the end, what did I do? I am full of sins.” And once again he sighed from the depths of his heart.
Then he turned again to his wife and asked her to bring him a second notebook. He began to read, “On this day I went to the forest to bring wood, and hooligans attacked me and broke my bones. On that day, my daughter died, on this day another catastrophe befell me.” And he continued to read aloud all the hardships and sorrow that he had suffered during that year. And once again he cried and said, “Oy, Master of the Universe, last year, I explicitly requested from You a year of blessing, life and peace. I trusted you and believed that it would be so. And in the end, what did I get?”
After he finished crying, he said, “Today is Erev Yom Kippur, and we must make up. Master of the Universe, let us agree that You owe me nothing and I owe You nothing.” And he took the two notebooks, bound them together and encircled his head with them three times, reciting the words for kaparot …”this is my atonement…” and threw the notebooks outside.
This wonderful hassidic story highlights the directness and mutuality enjoyed by the simple Jew with G-d. (In the simple point of our souls, all of us are simple Jews). Just as we must beg forgiveness from the Creator, so we often feel that it is He Who should ask forgiveness from us. (Our Sages even use expressions that imply that G-d regrets creating the evil inclination and even says, “Bring atonement for me”).
Accordingly, we can understand the verse, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me” as “I ask forgiveness from my beloved and my beloved asks forgiveness of me.” Specifically when we feel love and connection to G-d, our sensitivity to those things that we did that were improper and did not express our love for Him intensifies. Thus, when we seek to renew the loving bond between us, we turn to G-d to ask for His forgiveness and ‘hear’ that He is also sorry for the distance between us, regrets it and even asks our forgiveness. This is how to restore peace in the home. One asks for forgiveness and the spouse responds with his own apology and desire to rectify the situation.
We can take this one step farther, for if there is mutual request for forgiveness here, there is also the need to accept the request and forgive each other. Thus we can explain the expression of love, “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me,” as “I forgive my beloved and my beloved forgives me.” In the explanation of this verse above, we first asked for forgiveness. But at this deeper level, even before we ask G-d to forgive us, we already forgive Him. If the purpose of the forgiveness is to renew the love between us, then our approach to our spouse is: ‘I truly and unconditionally love you and forgive you for the pain that you have caused me until now.’ If we are not prepared to forgive pre-emptively and without pre-conditions, how can we ask for forgiveness?
These two explanations are actually the two sides of our faces when we turn to G-d in the month of Elul: One side stems from love. We turn to G-d from within an experience of the pure arousal of love: It makes no difference what transpired between us until now, we forgive Him for everything that caused us sorrow. All that we want is to renew the love between us. The forgiveness with which we turn to G-d elicits a response in kind toward us. G-d turns to us, unconditionally forgiving us even before we ask for forgiveness.
The second side is the side of might and fear. One of the expressions of fear is sensitivity toward others – fear of marring the relationship between us. This side is more sensitive to the pain that we have caused our spouse and feels sorry about it. Thus we turn from the depths of our hearts to ask G-d for forgiveness. Here, as well, our heartfelt request elicits the same response. Our loving spouse, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, turns to us and also asks for our forgiveness.
This is the deep meaning of the Selichot/Forgiveness prayers, which are always referred to in plural form. We forgive G-d and He forgives us. This type of forgiving is not saturated with trepidation. Instead, it is an awakening of the renewal of love, as in the beginning of one of the Selichot prayers on Rosh Hashanah Eve: “Please awaken Your previous love, that you loved your congregation…”
May we merit the renewal of our love and be written and sealed for a good and sweet year!