Rosh Hodesh Elul 2020
Finding our way back
From the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, we will be adding Mizmor 27 to our tefillot twice a day.
The Shulchan Arukh (128:2) records the reason we do this is because of the opening words of this perek of Tehillim. Basing it on the Midrash that states “‘The Lord is my light’ – on Rosh Hashana, ‘and my salvation’ – on Yom Kippur; ‘For He will hide me in His shelter (b’sukko)’ – this alludes to Sukkot.”
When reading this perek of Tehillim we seem to encounter a dissonance between the beginning and the end. We first encounter the psalmist being strong in his faith. He writes knowingly of Hashem’s light and salvation, assured of his protection from Hashem.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is my life’s strength, whom shall I dread? (27:1) … my adversaries and my enemies against me-they stumbled and fell.(27:2)… If a camp encamps against me, my heart shall not fear (27:3)”
Yet as we continue reading it seems that this unwavering faith seems to slowly decline, he seems to become seized by fear and doubt.
“Do not hide Your presence from me (27:9). You were my help; do not forsake me and do not abandon me (27:9)… Do not deliver me to the desires of my adversaries (27:12)”
What happened in just a few pesukim that turned the psalmist’s confidence to uncertainty?
“One thing I ask of the Lord; that is what I shall seek: That I dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life….( 27:4)
This request is an echo of an earlier appeal in perek 23 “May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for length of day ( 23:6).” Perek 23 is a declaration of complete trust; here the psalmist shows no sign of uncertainty at all. He ends this short mizmor of Tehillim with full confidence that the benevolence of Hashem, this situation of receiving His complete protection, will continue forever.
The supplication at the end of perek 23 and the beginning of our perek, 27, is a seemingly impossible request; this is the sort of claim made by man in the height of his joy and when all is well in his life. At this point in one’s life, when all seems good he has a strong sense of God’s closeness and of His complete protection. Unfortunately, most don’t merit experiencing this on a permanent, ongoing basis. These feelings are suited to intermittent moments in one’s life.
However the ability to declare “I shall fear no evil, for You are with me ( 23:4).” “ whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened (27:1) ? ” is the recognition that a person’s confidence and stability flow from their great faith in God. That even once the moment of joy and security has passed the belief in Hashem will carry them through.
We see this as Mizmor 27 continues, the certainty begins to wane and the Psalmist seems to be plagued with insecurity and doubt. Gone are the declarations of faith and assured protection only to be replaced with requests for said protection. “One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek-that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple every morning (27:4)”. Here we see the realization that all may not continue smoothly and we move towards requesting that if bad were to take place, protection be given.
And finally, we move on from dread of what may befall the author to the actualization of those fears. “Do not deliver me to the desires of my adversaries, for false witnesses and speakers of evil have risen against me (27:12)”. He begs Hashem for protection, the desperation evident in his pleas. His once secure world has disappeared and he declares “ Had I not believed in seeing the good of the Lord in the land of the living!”. Rashi explains that the author is realizing that without faith in Hashem those who are rising against him would have surely destroyed him already. Even now, from the depths of his fear he holds onto his faith in Hashem.
Until finally with the conclusion of this Perek the Psalmist states “Hope for the Lord, be strong and He will give your heart courage, and hope for the Lord ( 27:14)”. On these words the Ibn Ezra tells us to wait for Hashem, at the first and at the last- at every stage wait for Hashem to strengthen your heart.
The journey the Psalmist takes us on during this perek of Tehillim mimics the journey of life, its ups and downs, its moments of clarity and confusion. There are periods of complete trust and unadulterated joy, periods of uncertainty and periods of hardship and crisis when we find ourselves facing an enemy alone.
The Psalmist’s ability to interweave these three periods and integrate them with faith in G-d resonates with us during the month of Elul when we stand on the brink of the Days of Awe. At all times we come back to expressing our faith in G-d. During times of joy it’s God who is to be credited; when fear and doubt besiege us we turn to G-d in prayer and supplication and in times of crisis, we maintain our faith that once more G-d with pull us through.
We make the journey through the month of Elul with the comforting words of the Shiva D’nechemtah Haftorot guiding us from the pits of destruction in Av, to the awe inspiring days of Tishrei. The set of seven Haftorot taken from words of Yishayahu famously begin the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av with the opening line of “ Nachamu Nachamu Ami…( Isaiah 40:1-3)” Hashem Himself is comforting us, assuring us through the words of the prophet that we are not alone and even while exiled and with our cities destroyed we have not been abandoned. The structure of the consolation given over these weeks is built to grow continuously stronger.
Before the destruction and subsequent exile Hashem was calling us to return to Him, sending Navi after Navi to try persuade us to curb our rebellious ways. And yet we, the stiff-necked nation that we are, didn’t heed the call for teshuvah. We continued to act against G-d and our fellow man and subsequently saw the destruction of both our temples and the exile from our home. And now during this month of repentance Hashem is guiding us back to Him through the comforting words of the Navi, “Shake yourselves from the dust, arise, sit down, O Jerusalem; free yourself of the bands of your neck, O captive daughter of Zion ( Isaiah 52:2)” .
Hashem is letting us know that despite another Tisha B’Av having come and gone and our still being in exile, our relationship remains. We are still His people and He is still waiting for us.
A few short weeks ago we read Eicha, The heart wrenching cry of Yirmiyahu, that has reverberated throughout the years of Jewish history, every generation in turn adding their heartache and pain to his echoing cry, “Turn us to You, O Lord, and we shall be turned” (Eikha 5:21). We beg every year for Hashem to turn us back to Him, to bring our hearts back inline with his. Eicha Rabba tells us that Hashem answers us “Return to Me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” (Eikha Rabba 5, 21).
The key to returning home to the embrace of Hashem is hinted at in the name of this month.
The name Elul- is often explained by acronyms given for various attributes of the month.
“אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־לְבָֽבְךָ֖ וְאֶת־לְבַ֣ב (Devarim 30:6)” “And the Lord will circumcise thy heart and the heart of thy seed”
“אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י (Shir HaShirim 6:3)” “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”
“ אִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֔הוּ וּמַתָּנ֖וֹת לָֽאֶבְיֹנִֽים (Esther 9:22):” “One to another and gifts to the poor”
If you take the first letter of each word it spells Elul. These three verses refer to Teshuvah- repentance, Tefillah-prayer, and Tzedakah-charity, which we know when practiced diligently can overthrow an evil decree. We have to be the one’s to begin the process of returning back to Hashem, He is inviting us back, and we just need to heed the call. Once we begin the process then, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: My son, Open up for me an opening of repentance like the eye of a needle, and in turn I will open up an opening for you through which wagons can enter. (Shir Hashirim Rabba 5, 2)
If we can implement the messages of the month of Elul, then Hashem is waiting for us, He will open the eye of the needle big enough for us all to walk back through. The tiny opening will give way to the opening of the gates of the “house of the Lord”, to a rebuilt Yerushalayim.
We are the ones who can undo the sins of our past, Hashem is guiding us back to Him, comforting us and strengthening us as we go. The words that we will say twice daily from Mizmor 27 remind us that although our relationship with Hashem at times may seem distant and far from the glory days of dwelling in His house, we need only to “Hope for the Lord, be strong and He will give (our) heart courage( Tehillim 27:14)” and Hashem will help us return.