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.
We are deep into the month of Elul, the last month of the year. We believe that while we have an opportunity for an audience with Hashem throughout the year, in this month, He is even more accessible. Yeshaya HaNavi taught us “Dirshu Hashem behimatzeo kerauhu bihiyoso karov,” call out to Hashem when He is found, call Him when He is close. The Gemara understands this to be describing the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but the Meiri (Chibbur ha-Teshuvah, p. 250) writes that this pasuk is referring to Hashem’s increased accessibility during the entire month of Elul.
The Alter Rebbe would describe that all year long the King sits in His palace and we can seek a meeting or get our message across through an agent. However, in Elul, the King is in the field, He leaves His palace and comes around to see us, hear from us and be available to us.
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. Yet, when our rabbis sought to provide an image, when they looked for a verse that would capture the theme, the energy of this time of year, 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 you 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, we all need to remember: 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?
A few years ago, I saw someone around minyan during the week when I hadn’t seen him coming often before. I met with him about something else and took the liberty of praising him and telling him how great it has been to see him around. I asked him, “if you don’t mind, would you tell me what motivated you to start coming?” He explained that recently he had suffered a terrible disappointment in his life. Something he was longing for and had been seriously invested in didn’t work out and left him back at square one. He was so mad, so angry, so devastated that he got in his car to go for a drive just to clear his head and cool off.
As he was driving around he started screaming at God – how could you? Why would you do this to me? Where have you been?! It was with those last words that it suddenly struck him – where have YOU been, that is exactly what God is wondering about him. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed not with anger or disappointment towards God, but with a sense of how disappointed God must be with him for cutting Him out of his life. At that moment, while still driving around in his car, he decided he was going to start showing up more, talking to Hashem more, showing God a little more love.
Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – this is the month of reciprocal love. Start showing God some love and you will see and feel Him loving you back.
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 beracha 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. The question is, do we show Him love in return?