The name of this month of Elul can be seen as an acronym for the phrase
אֲנִ֤י לְדוֹדִי֙ וְדוֹדִ֣י לִ֔י
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3)
One would normally expect the month leading up to the Day of Judgment and the Day for Atonement to be less about love and more about Awe – after all these are the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. Indeed the Maharal of Prague Judah Loewe ben Bezalel (1520 – 1609) wrote of this month “All the month of Elul, before eating and sleeping, a person should look into their soul and search their deeds, that they may make confession.”
While the awe is appropriate, and a certain fearfulness will facilitate our search of our souls in order to repent, the idea that this is done within the context of love, of the love between God and us, is a powerful one. The work of Elul is not about punishment, not a negative self-loathing, but is about closeness to the love for God and the love of God. We are actively searching for a positive relationship, which will help us to live better, to be better, and we do this under the compassionate gaze of God.
There is a myth that Judaism is not a religion of love – that the “God of the Old Testament” is all about war and vengeance. That is simply not true, but a polemic designed to misinform and miscast the Hebrew bible in order for other traditions to look somehow nicer.
“The God of the Old Testament” – the God of the Hebrew Bible – is all about love. We are commanded in the Hebrew bible to love God, to love other people –whoever they might be and however distant from our own group – and indeed to love ourselves. This is not a thoughtless and sentimental love, but love as action, love that shows itself in how we behave, love that changes us and changes the world.
The month of Elul, which might be misunderstood to be a month of fear and trembling for what is to come, is connected in Midrash not just with love, but the love from Song of Songs – the total immersive and uncritical feelings of two lovers wrapped up in each other. That one of the lovers is us, and the other is God, tells us a great deal of how confident rabbinic Judaism is in the compassionate and supportive care God is offering us. We only need to make that first step.