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Notes from Moishe House

Elul and Teshuva

Dr Raphael Zarum


That's me taking these notes on coronium in the bottom right. :o)

Elul is the build-up to Rosh Hashana. The historical basis of the pilgrimage festivals is well-known, but what happened in the first Elul?

Is אֶלוּל a Jewish word? No. These month names aren't in the Torah; they're Babylonian. Jews take the best bits of other people's culture, and swallow them, though we don't know where they come from half the time. As a result, the rabbis had no problem flying high on the word.

First idea: The king is in the field

This is a Chassidic idea from the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. In ancient times, when the king would visit a certain town, the royal court would walk in a big procession through the town and meet the elders. But they would take ages to get there, and on the way walk through all the villages and fields. And this would be the best chance ordinary people would have to meet them.

Rosh Hashana is not the best time to get close to G-d. As the King walks through the Jewish roads during Elul, you can meet Him. The Lubavitcher Rebbe based this on the slightly older idea that Elul is about Israel's relationship with G-d. This was a radical idea: that you get close to G-d not on Rosh Hashana when you're in your best finery, and everyone is in shul, but the previous month, when you are in your jeans, and going about your everyday life.

"All may greet the King in the field before he is received formally in the town"—Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi [1745-1823], Sichot, Parshas Re'eh.

Song of Songs.

Song of Solomon 6:3 שיר ו ג
I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine: the shepherd among the roses. אני לדודי ודודי לי הרעה בשושנים׃

The love between Israel and G-d is reciprocal.

A lot of Chassidism is subjective, not objective—like love. The rabbis take something they know full well isn't Jewish and imbue it with spirituality, and endows it with meaning.

Were it not... לוּלֵא

Psalm 27 is said twice a day right through Elul. It includes the line:

Psalms 27:13-27:14 תהילים כז יג־תהילים כז יד
Were it not for my faith that I shall see the LORD's goodness in the land of the living... Hope in the LORD: be strong and of good courage, and hope in the LORD. לׄולׄאׄ האמנתי לראות בטוב ה׳ בארץ חיים׃ קוה אל ה׳ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה׳׃

What is the meaning of the pause in the psalm? It's the seeds of doubt: not doubt in G-d, but doubt in yourself. For a few moments, the possibility opens up. לוּלֵא has dots on it (though you'll probably have to increase the font size to see them above :o)). לוּלֵא is אֶלוּל backwards. Approach 1 is being close to G-d. But what if you don't feel close? That's the לוּלֵא approach. Hope to G-d is hoping that you believe. If you have questions about G-d, tell Him. That's what davening is about: a conversation, working out the problems of your relationship with G-d.

If you thought the first approach was wacky; the second one puts the word backwards! But that's okay, because you can create the meaning.

If you don't keep anything of Judaism there's no challenge. You have to have a structure, but then endow it with all the meaning you can. This is why every culture which has spirituality develops ritual around it. And in our case that is in the form of words.

What does this month represent in history?

Moshe spent 120 days on Mt Sinai—forty days in three batches. These 120 days are relived each year.

The story begins with the Exodus from Egypt on 15 Nissan; this is Pesach. Then the 49 days of the Omer correspond to the journey to Sinai. Then on 6 Sivan—שבועות—was the Day of Revelation.

The day after, G-d tells Moshe to ascend Mt Sinai, which no one has done yet. Moshe climbs first thing in the morning—sensible in the Sinai!—and spends forty days learning the fine print of the Law. He comes back down again with the Two Tablets... only to discover the people dancing around the Golden Calf. This event happened on 17 Tammuz, and is the oldest origin of this fast.

After he's smashed the Tablets and destroyed the Calf, G-d calls him up again. No one's sure what he does up there for the next forty days. He asks to see G-d's glory. (Maimonides waxes philosophical about this.)

The second forty days ends on 29 Av. He descends to carve the second set of stone tablets. There is disagreement about whether anyone saw him this time—as then he goes back up for a third forty days. This time G-d teaches him now to repent: how to fix the relationship with G-d. We are now in a second marriage with G-d, after Israel committed adultery around the Golden Calf.

Moses now comes down on 10 Tishrei, his face glowing, with the second set of Tablets. The people last saw him eighty days ago, in displeasure. But now they saw him smiling, and knew they'd been forgiven. And this became the day of forgiveness for all of history: יוֹם כִּיפוּר.

Then, on 11 Tishrei, Moses finally gets to tell the people what he learned during the first forty days. According to סֵפֶר הַמוֹעַדִים, he tells people they are going to build a house for G-d. And what do people after יוֹם כִּיפוּר nowadays? Start building their succahs!

The whole of the summer recapitulates history.

Here are the verses from the start of the third set of forty days in the Torah:

Exodus 34:1-34:10 שמות לד א־שמות לד י

And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first: and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tables, which you broke.1 Then be ready in the morning, and ascend Mt Sinai in the morning, and present yourself there to me on the mountaintop.2 No person shall come up with you, neither let any man be seen anywhere on the mount; neither let the flocks nor herds feed before that mount.3

So he hewed two tablets of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and ascended Mt Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone.4 Then the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed in the name of the LORD:5

The LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed: "The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,6 and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation."

And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. He said, "If now I have found grace in Your sight, LORD, let my LORD please go among us; for it is a stiffnecked people: pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance."

[G-d] said, "Behold, I make a covenant: before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among whom you are are shall see the work of the LORD: for it is a awesome thing that I will do with you."7

ויאמר ה׳ אל משה פסל לך שני לחת אבנים כראשנים וכתבתי על הלחת את הדברים אשר היו על הלחת הראשנים אשר שברת׃ והיה נכון לבקר ועלית בבקר אל הר סיני ונצבת לי שם על ראש ההר׃ ואיש לא יעלה עמך וגם איש אל ירא בכל ההר גם הצאן והבקר אל ירעו אל מול ההר ההוא׃ ויפסל שני לחת אבנים כראשנים וישכם משה בבקר ויעל אל הר סיני כאשר צוה ה׳ אתו ויקח בידו שני לחת אבנים׃ וירד ה׳ בענן ויתיצב עמו שם ויקרא בשם ה׳׃ ויעבר ה׳ על פניו ויקרא ה׳ ה׳ אל רחום וחנון ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת׃ נצר חסד לאלפים נשא עון ופשע וחטאה ונקה לא ינקה פקד עון אבות על בנים ועל בני בנים על שלשים ועל רבעים׃ וימהר משה ויקד ארצה וישתחו׃ ויאמר אם נא מצאתי חן בעיניך אדני ילך נא אדני בקרבנו כי עם קשה ערף הוא וסלחת לעוננו ולחטאתנו ונחלתנו׃ ויאמר הנה אנכי כרת ברית נגד כל עמך אעשה נפלאת אשר לא נבראו בכל הארץ ובכל הגוים וראה כל העם אשר אתה בקרבו את מעשה ה׳ כי נורא הוא אשר אני עשה עמך׃

If you get in touch with these ten verses, they describe what we are going through now.

1. There's the relationship you inherit for your Judaism, and this only lasts so long, to after your Barmitzvah. Then there's the relationship you make for yourself, and that's what's going on here.

2. I know you screwed up last time, but you can come back.

3. Rashi explains [based on Midrash Tanchuma]: Look how different this is to the first time around. The first time, there were trumpets, and the whole people watching. This time, it's quiet: you screwed up, this time it's your personal journey: your adult Judaism, not the bells and whistles of your barmitzvah. No one knows what you're really like. Just you and G-d.

Also, the revelation at Sinai that you learn about at Cheder wasn't the real one; it only lasted forty days. This is the real one. Relationships aren't about saying "I love you", they're about conversations late at night.

4. This time he has to hack out the tablets himself, and carry them up. Is Judaism a perfect truth given to you from Heaven, or something you make, something you bring into your relationship with G-d, on which G-d then writes.

5. G-d talks in the name of G-d! (According to one interpretation.)

6. The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. We treat this as magic: Say it enough times on Yom Kippur and it will work! This שיעור isn't long enough to explain the whole of this, but consider the first two attributes: aren't they the same? It's saying: I am G-d before you sinned, and G-d, the same, after: In real relationships, sins aren't really forgotten. But G-d does.

7. The most miraculous, wonderful thing is that G-d is in a relationship with us and will never leave: no matter how much we screw up, G-d will always wait for us to come home, even though it takes a thousand years.

What happened to the other tablets, the broken ones? Some say they got put in the Ark.

Deuteronomy 10:2 דברים י ב
I will write on the tablets the words that were in the first tables which you broke, and you shall put them in the Ark. ואכתב על הלחת את הדברים אשר היו על הלחת הראשנים אשר שברת ושמתם בארון׃

What is this "them"? It's not clear whether it's the first tablets or the second.

Bava Batra 14b

From where does Rabbi Meir derive that the broken Tablets were placed in the Ark?

From the בְּרַייתָא taught by Rav Yosef; for Rav Yosef taught the following בְּרַייתָא: "[the first Tablets] which you broke, and you should put them" teaches that the Tablets and the Broken Tablets were both put in the Ark.

And for the other one [R. Yehudah]?

The phrase is required for the teaching of Reish Lakish who said said. "[the first Tablets] which you broke": הַקָדוֹש בָּרוּך הוּא said to Moshe "yesher koach [your strength will be true to its mark] that you broke them!"

הכי נמי אלא שברי לוחות דמונחין בארון מנא ליה נפקא ליה מדתני רב יוסף דתני רב יוסף אשר שברת ושמתם מלמד שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון ואידך ההוא מיבעי ליה לכדריש לקיש דאמר ר״ל אשר שברת אמר לו הקב״ה למשה יישר כחך ששברת׃

Note: Rashi brings this as the last Rashi in the Torah. Moses is not remembered for bringing the Torah but for being a necessary iconoclast! Sometimes divorce is good; sometimes breaking up is right. And you can't fix a relatoinship unless you address it. You can't leave your broken Tablets at the foot of Mt Sinai; you have to take your history with you.

The Polish Kabbalist R. Nathan Shapiro points out ארון לוחות ושברי לוחות spells Elul. In fact the wording in the Talmud is in reverse: שהלוחות ושברי לוחות מונחין בארון. This hints yet again towards the implications of לוּלֵא.

In Ellul we relive Moses' journey and we carry the weight of two sets of tablets. It is a humbling and private journey. G-d strengthens us for being broken.


As an aside on the Two Tablets: The Two Tablets were made of sapphire. We know this because when the first tablets were made (Ex. 24:10), it says that Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu and the seventy elders "saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone," so obviously this was what they were made from.

Mt Sinai was on three levels: there's G-d up there, and the people down there, and Moses and the elders got to go halfway. One Chassidic rebbe said trying to perceive G-d in your head is like trying to grasp an idea in your hand. You can never reach G-d, but you can get above your normal level a bit, and look up. You see your ceiling looking up, but your ceiling is the floor of the next level up. You can't see G-d, but you can get faint intimations that there is something up there.

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