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t’s well known that the word Elul can be read as an acronym for the pasuk in Shir Hashirim (6:3), “Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li — I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” But an anecdote I recently came across provides an arresting insight into the message behind that acronym.

Rav Mordechai Zilberberg, a rav in Bnei Brak, related that a man was once accompanying Rav Shach home from davening during Elul when the Rosh Yeshivah paused to ask a question, seemingly to himself: “The letters of ‘Elul’ form a four-word acronym. But who says it’s an acronym for ‘Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li’? Maybe it’s ‘Ani l’Dizengoff v’Dizengoff li’?” (The Rosh Yeshivah often used “Dizengoff,” the street infamously associated with Tel Aviv nightlife, as a catch-all word representing decadent secular culture).

In fact, said Rav Shach in answer to his own question, Elul is an open-ended acronym, with no fixed meaning. All it represents is the phrase, “Ani l…, v’… li,” or “I am to [blank] and [blank] is to me.” During the month of Elul, it is up to each individual Jew to fill in those blanks by deciding with Whom or what he wishes to have a yedidus, a special, intimate relationship. This is a time, he explained, when each Jew stands at a crossroads, deciding upon which of two life paths to embark — one leading to a deep bond with Hashem, the other in pursuit of any of the ideals or goals that the world chases after. 

That Elul is a time for deciding what kind of relationship one wants with his Creator can be seen from the mutuality expressed in “Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li,” reflecting a symbiosis between my dod, my beloved, and me. To speak of my unilateral feelings for Him is wonderful, but it’s not a statement of relationship. Only when I can speak bilaterally, confident that those feelings are reflected back by Him, is there a relationship.

Indeed, the choice of the word dod itself expresses this mutuality. It’s a palindrome, which can be read identically from front to back and vice versa, just as my bond of love with the Almighty reflects back and forth between us.

The sounding of the shofar with which we’ve begun each day during Elul, too, captures the theme of relationship inherent over the past month. One of the connotations of teruah is that of rei’us — friendship, because through it, we express our love for Him. And that is why, as the brachah in the Rosh Hashanah Shemoneh Esreh concludes, “shomeia kol teruas amo Yisrael b’rachamim — He hears the sound of His people’s teruah with compassion.”

EACH MORNING AND EVENING, we recite L’Dovid Hashem Ori, which is suffused from beginning to end with thoughts and feelings of bitachon. Why do we bracket each day of Elul, as it were, with our reliance and trust in Hashem? Because although fear, love, and submission are ways we relate to Hashem, it is bitachon — the deeply internalized knowledge that in the past, present, and future, He carries me and bestows only goodness upon me, and I turn to Him for every worry and need — that is the actual relationship.  

But relationships are tough, especially at the outset.

The Arizal, the Yesod v’Shoresh HaAvodah, and others, see an allusion to Elul in the pasuk (Devarim 21:13) always read as the month begins: U’vachsah es avihah v’es imah yerach yamim, mandating that when a Jewish soldier has taken a female captive for a wife, she must, among other things, first weep for an entire month over her father and mother. That month, they say, alludes to Elul.

Yet the Gemara (Yevamos 48) records a dispute regarding the reason for her tears, with Rabi Akiva holding that she cries over the idols she had previously worshipped, and Rabi Elazar seeing it as mourning over her severed connection to her non-Jewish parents. And if that is the nature of this bout of crying, what connection could it have to Elul?

It would be understandable were these tears of teshuvah, but the tears of the yefas toar are in fact cries of longing for her past and the trauma inherent in the disconnection from it.

And that’s the point. During Elul, as I go about deciding on the quality and extent of my relationship with Hashem, it dawns on me that a move toward Him necessarily means a move away from whatever else I’ve been emotionally tied into — two steps toward Him are perforce two steps away from that other. If I’ve decided to pledge my loyalty to Him, then I’m engaged in what at first feels like a betrayal of whatever else I’ve placed my trust in and given my heart to.

That process can be deeply wrenching. It can trigger feelings of loss of identity. A former smoker recently told me that part of the difficulty of kicking the habit is the palpable sense of losing a real part of one’s identity. It’s the same for any ideology or addictive behavior or deeply engrossing pastime.

Sports teams, political movements, marketers — they’re all so good at making us feel we belong to something larger to which we must give ourselves over. Yet if I’m now pledging all of me — ani — l’Dodi, that means leaving behind, at least for now, the part of my ani still wedded to the things that just yesterday excited me.

That can bring tears of pain, of confusion, of loss of self, of floating in limbo, disoriented, neither here nor there.

But those, too, are tears of teshuvah. And with them, we are ready to stand before Hashem on Rosh Hashanah.

Interpreting a passage in Rabbeinu Yonah’s Yesod Hateshuvah, South Fallsburg rosh yeshivah Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel explains that there is a form of teshuvah that precedes the conventional teshuvah, yet is intended specifically for one who, in Rabbeinu Yonah’s words, “is first coming to take shelter under the wings of the Shechinah and to enter into the ways of teshuvah.”

The goal of the first stage is to transform from a rasha into a tzaddik, which can occur even instantaneously, by his resolving to draw near to Hashem and discard the mountain of sin that has kept him distant until now. As the Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:6) describes the transformation: “Just yesterday, he was hated before Hashem, reviled, distant, and abominable; and today, he is beloved, and cherished, close, and a dear friend.”

The second stage is that of actual teshuvah, atoning for and uprooting sin, and thatis the focus of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, culminating with Yom Hakippurim.

This first stage is that of “pre-teshuvah,” which is the very essence of Rosh Hashanah, on which day we are judged not on future actions or on past deeds. Only one’s personal status as a tzaddik or rasha at the moment of judgment is taken into account.

Although we don’t say Vidui on Rosh Hashanah, it ushers in the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah in its role as this time for the teshuvah preceding teshuvah, when, as Rabbeinu Yonah states, “one casts off all his aveiros  as if he was born that very day.” Hence the minhag of Tashlich, recited at river’s edge while invoking the pasuk that speaks of Hashem casting our sins into the depths of the sea.

Elul is for pondering whether we have the inner strength to make a break from our prior attachments, for summoning the courage and daring to take on a new identity — that of a dod and even a tzaddik — and to bear the emotional turmoil it may require, even as the past failures are still intact. But these last days of Elul can help us into an exalted Rosh Hashanah and be zocheh b’din.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 726. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com