We often picture God this time of year as a judge, sitting at His bench, waiting to catch us, judge us and hold us accountable. Not only is this not a healthy and constructive image, it is not the image our rabbis and our tradition want us to have.
Our rabbis list many acronyms for Elul. In fact, I saw one list of 55 different pesukim or parts of pesukim in Tanach that have words beginning with aleph, lamed, vav, lamed. However, the most famous is the pasuk in Shir HaShirim – ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me, a sense of reciprocal love with Hashem. Our rabbis did not want us to live this month gripped with fear and paralyzed by fright. The image they painted is not one of a strict judge seeking to exact justice.
When they sought to provide an image, when they looked for a verse, of the 55 in Tanach they could have chosen from, almost all selected ani l’dodi v’dodi li. The Mishna Berura and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, two works on Halacha, quote it. The Avudraham emphasizes that it is this acronym that best conveys the sentiment of this time of year, a deep and profound sense of love.
Our rabbis chose a pasuk from Shir HaShirim, the ultimate love story describing the yearning, longing, love and affection between Hashem and His people. Note that Shir HaShirim is not the story of our boundless love and dedication for Hashem. Nor is it the story of Hashem’s unconditional love and affection for us. It is ani l’dodi v’dodi li, it is the story of reciprocal love, of give and take, of two parties both invested in the relationship with each other.
We don’t talk about this often enough and perhaps it is because another religion essentially stole it from us and put it on bumper stickers everywhere, but we need to know – Hashem loves us. He doesn’t just know we exist. He isn’t just aware of every detail of our lives and He doesn’t just involve Himself in our lives. He thinks about us, cares about us, craves a relationship with us, and most of all, He loves us.
Hashem loves us means He isn’t looking to catch us or punish us. He wants what is best for us. He roots and cheers for us. He wants us to succeed and He wants us to be happy. Hashem knows all of our faults and shortcomings. He is aware of our mistakes and our challenges, and yet He loves us. He is never jealous of us, He is never competing with us and He is never tired of us. He simply loves us. What He wants in return is to be loved by us as well.
We sometimes struggle to feel Hashem’s love or to feel His presence in our lives and if you are going through a difficult time, that is certainly understandable. But nevertheless, even then: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – Elul is all about reciprocity. Hashem relates to us as a reflection of how we relate to Him. We want to count on Him, but can He count on us? We wish He would talk to us, but do we sincerely talk to Him? We want Him to think of us but how often do we think of Him?
In the mid-1920’s, a chassid approached the Imrei Emes, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter of Ger: “Rebbe, I am traveling to Paris on a ten day business trip. Would the Rebbe give me a bracha (blessing) that I be successful in my venture?”
After a warm blessing the Rebbe continued to make his own request. “In Paris they sell an exclusive cigar brand that is reputed to be the best in all of Western Europe. I would appreciate if you would find that brand and bring me back a box.” The chassid was puzzled by the request, but responded enthusiastically.
“Of course, Rebbe! No problem. I will find out which is the best brand in all of France and bring you back two boxes!” The men went on his trip and indeed returned two weeks later. He visited the Rebbe to thank him for his blessing. “Do you have the cigars?” asked the Rebbe.
The man blushed. “Rebbe, you have to forgive me. When I was in Paris, I was so immersed in business that I totally forgot about your request. But do not worry. On the way back I made a special stop in Belgium and got you the best Belgian cigar available. I was assured that it is of equal quality to the French cigar if not better!”
The Rebbe shook his head. “My dear chassid, I did not need cigars. The reason I asked you to get me the cigars while you were in France is because I wanted those cigars to be on your mind. In that manner you would remember during your stay there that you have a Rebbe.”
Hashem gives us lots of mitzvos, asked us to do many things. He doesn’t need our mitzvos. He gives them to us because He wants us to have Him on our minds, to think about Him, to care about Him, to love Him.
Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – Hashem loves us so much. He showers us with blessing. If we would only take the time each day to think about it. If we would only make the effort to keep a gratitude journal we would recognize how much goodness, how many blessings we receive that far surpass what we deserve. Hashem loves us. Do we show Him love in return?