Parshat Re’eh is always read on the Shabbat before the month of Elul, or on Rosh Chodesh Elul itself.

Our sages1 say that the word Elul is an acronym for, "Ina l'yado v'samti l'cha," which is from a verse that talks about one who killed inadvertently. The words mean that G‑d "caused it to come to his hand, and I will give to you [a place to flee to].”2

The law is that if a person kills someone inadvertently, he must flee to the safety of a sanctuary city, lest he be killed by the "avenger of blood," a relative of the one who was killed. He flees there, first to await trial, and then, if he is found to have killed inadvertently, he is exiled to the city of refuge until the Kohen Gadol passes away. The exile atones for his inadvertent killing, because "exile is an atonement."3

The words in the verse that make the acronym Elul is not the part about inadvertently killing, but rather, the part of the verse that speaks of his merit. G‑d "caused it to come to his hand," and the part about his atonement, "And I will give you" a place to flee to.

These cities of refuge operated wherever the Jewish people were in the desert4 (during the 40 years they were there), in Israel, and across the Jordan, which was technically outside of Israel.

The general function of a city of refuge was to save the body of the person who killed someone inadvertently. But what about his soul? How does his soul get atonement? The sin is a grave one, and it's true that it was inadvertent, but he took a life, and the rule is, that one must atone for an inadvertent sin as well.5

Why must one atone for an inadvertent sin? How does a Jew come to sin at all, when it goes against his nature? A Jew, by the nature of his soul and even his body, wouldn't sin. Therefore, he would never put himself in a situation that he would come to sin. He would naturally run away from it. Just as a person wouldn't jump into a fire by mistake since it's totally against his nature. That is why, "No sin will be caused for the righteous,"6 as Rashi7 explains. "No sin will chance before him inadvertently," because it is totally against our nature.

Why, then, does he sin? It is only because his animal soul is overpowering8 him, blocking the G‑dly soul and his natural instincts. The animal soul schleps him to do all kinds of things that the animal is attracted to. And since he allowed his animal soul to gain power over him, and perhaps he even feeds the beast with his bad habits, he is liable and needs atonement.

The atonement for both body and soul is through the city of refuge, which is exile, and "exile is an atonement."

The city of refuge also helps someone who murdered intentionally. As our sages say, "Both the inadvertent and the intentional [killer] first go to the city of refuge."9 The intentional murderer is protected from the "avenger of blood," until he is called to trial. And most likely, he will be found innocent, as it is known10 that if a court would sentence someone to death once in seven years, it would be called a murderous court.

However, until he would be taken to trial, he would have time to do teshuvah.

When it comes to teshuvah, there is an advantage now, in the times of exile, over the era of the Temple. In Temple times, even if a person would do teshuvah, he would still get the punishment.

The Noda B'Yehuda11 explains that teshuvah is in the heart. The judges, however, could only judge according to what they saw. Since there was no way to see what was in his heart, and they were obligated to follow through with the punishment.

But that was then. However, 40 years prior to the destruction of the Temple, the courts stopped hearing capital cases.12 The only way for those cases to come to justice is through divine judgment, meaning that guilty part receives the punishment of death from on high. And since G‑d knows what is in his heart, teshuvah helps.

This acronym of Elul is telling us that this month is a city of refuge in time, and we should use it well by taking an account of the past and doing teshuvah for all of our sins. In a sense, every sin is akin to spilling blood. With every sin, one takes life away from his G‑dly soul, from G‑d, and gives it to the animal soul, to the evil inclination.

The month of Elul is the city of refuge. One should flee there and exile himself there. Meaning, he should separate himself from his sinful ways, from his desires, his bad tendencies and his wrong conclusions, and flee to the month of Elul and live there. This means that he resolves to settle there and to live in the way of the month of Elul, taking an account of his life and doing teshuvah. Then "exile is an atonement."

This will atone not only for the inadvertent sins, but also for the intentional ones.

And even if he is not yet able to do teshuvah from love, which "turns sins into merits," at least he can do teshuvah from fear. It doesn't matter what inspires him to do teshuvah, whether it's the month of Elul, the upcoming High Holidays or the broken relationship between him and G‑d. Every sin constitutes a blemish in that relationship, and if he will think about this, how his relationship with G‑d is broken, it will surely bring him to do teshuvah from fear, which "turns intentional sins into [the category of] unintentional."13

This doesn't mean that he must suffer, by torturing himself or fasting. On the contrary, a person who has to be in a city of refuge is not required to torture himself or fast; the exile itself is the atonement.

In the city of refuge, they provide for him everything that he was accustomed to having. As the verse says,14 "And he should live.” We do things that give him life."15 This is why "a student who is exiled, we exile his teacher with him."16 Even though his teacher is far beyond him in knowledge and understanding, he nevertheless "gives him life," which means, that he will motivate him to do teshuvah and mend his relationship with G‑d, the source of life.

Fleeing to the city of refuge, Elul, saves him from the "avenger of blood." Who is the avenger of blood? It is the Satan, who is the evil inclination, who seduces the person to sin in the first place. He lodges the complaint, he is the prosecutor, and “he is the angel of death.”17

What is the Satan's complaint? "So-and-so killed the soul, he killed the G‑dly soul that is in him, he is spilling the blood of the Holy One and giving it to the empty one."

How can he save himself? He should flee to the city of refuge, and there he will be protected from the avenger of blood, until the day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah. And even if his sin was intentional, he has the ability to do teshuvah before the day of judgment.

G‑d is saying to the Jewish people,18 "I am giving you a month. If you will use this time to rid yourselves of your bad habits and tendencies, 'and flee there,'19 if you will flee into the ways and tendencies of Elul, in order to remain there, then you will be able to repair everything that was not right, from the beginning until now, and you will automatically be saved from the avenger of blood. And through doing teshuvah, first teshuvah out of fear, which turns them into unintentional [sins], and then teshuvah out of love, which turns them into merits, you will be inscribed and sealed in the book of Tzadikim, for a good and sweet year."20