We are now in the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Elul is spelled thus in Hebrew:
Aleph – Lamed – Vav – Lamed
There is a tradition dating from ancient times that Elul is an acronym for a passage from Song of Songs:
I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. – Song of Songs 6:3
But that raises the question: what on earth can a piece of erotic poetry teach us about this time of year?
Song of Songs is a long love poem, and it is usually associated with springtime. However, at this time of year opposite the springtime, we read it as an analogy: it is also an expression of the longing of Israel and God for one another.
I can hear the screech of brakes through my modem. Some of you, my readers, are thinking, “Oh! I cannot stand it when she does that God-talk!” So let’s talk about that.
There’s a lot of God-talk during this season and the upcoming High Holy Days. If you are the sort of rational person who finds that off-putting, it’s a tough time of year to be Jewish. So here’s an idea: try hearing “God” and all those metaphors for God as “Mystery.”
As chaotic and mean as this world often is, occasionally goodness breaks through the fog of chaos and meanness. That goodness is a Mystery to us: we experience it in the love of a little dog, the kindness of a stranger, the patter of unexpected rain in a drought.
We sometimes also experience Mystery in moments of terror and grief: a natural disaster, a tragic loss, an experience of fathomless pain.
The common element between these two is that human hearts cry out “WHY?” at them, and it seems as if the question has no rational answer. That’s the moment when we can step out of the rational world and into something my old theology professor Langdon Gilkey used to call “the theological circle.” That which we call “God” is the answer to the “WHY?” poured from the human heart.
So try substituting “Mystery” for “God” and see if it helps.
OK – let’s get back to that acronym and the love poem! This is the time of year when we explore the mysteries of existence, the questions and the secrets in our hearts. The sages connected the letters of Elul with the Song of Songs because this is the time of year that we search out our connections to the Mystery that is God, and they believed that the Mystery of God was searching for us, too. Like lovers, we and the Mystery at the heart of the universe are searching for one another, hoping for a reunion that will heal our hearts.
I wish you a good journey through this month of Elul!