Reviewing Our Service of G‑d

Elul is a month of reckoning, when we take stock of all the aspects of our divine service over the previous year. The Rebbe Rayatz once compared1 this to a storekeeper taking inventory from time to time.

Elul is also a month of preparation for the coming year. By reviewing our conduct and compensating for any defi­ciencies in the previous year’s service of G‑d, we ensure a more consistent record for the coming year.

As part of this dual process of stocktaking and preparation, Elul is marked by heightened attention to the three elements of divine service — the study of Torah, avodah (prayer), and deeds of kindness — which are the “pillars upon which the world stands.”2 The connection between Elul and these three modes of divine service is reflected in the name of the month;3 “Elul is an acronym for a number of four-word phrases from the Tanach associated with each of these three modes.

Our Rabbis4 relate the phrase,5 Inah L'Yodo V'Samti Luch (a reference to the cities of refuge established for the unintentional manslaughterer), to Torah study, because “the words of Torah are a refuge.”6 They relate the phrase,7 Ani Ledoidi V'Dodi Li (“I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine”), to prayer, for in prayer our relationship with G‑d finds expression. And in reference to deeds of kindness, the Sages cite the phrase,8 Ish L'Rei'eihu U'Matonois L'Evyonim (“[Sending portions] each man to his friend and gifts to the poor”).

Illuminating Our Divine Service with the Light of Teshuvah

Inevitably, in taking stock of our efforts throughout the year, we discover shortcomings, thus establishing a connection between the month of Elul and teshuvah, a process which requires “regret for the past and positive resolves for the future.”9 Our Rabbis highlight the connection between Elul and the drive toward teshuvah by citing the acronym for the name Elul that is formed by the initials of a fourth Biblical phrase,10 Oomul Hashem Elokecha Es Levavcha V'Es Levav Zareicha (“[The L‑rd, your G‑d, will circumcise] your heart and the hearts of your descendants”).

Teshuvah is not only a compensation for deficiencies in our divine service. It is also, in itself, a positive spiritual impulse that enhances our relationship with G‑d.11 Our Sages allude to this concept in their statement,12 “One hour of teshuvah and good deeds in this world is superior to the en­tire life of the World to Come.” If the only function of teshuvah was to compensate for past faults, the order of the word­ing in the mishnah would have been reversed, with “good deeds” preceding “teshuvah”.

This would imply that a person’s life work is the performance of good deeds, with teshuvah operating only when there is a need to compensate for faults. By placing teshuvah first, the mishnah indicates that the service of G‑d through teshuvah takes precedence. For it is the prelude of teshuvah that “makes our deeds ‘good’ and grants them luminous”;13 it endows them with a superior level of good than they possessed in their own right. And in the same way, the intense yearning for a connection with G‑d which characterizes the drive to teshuvah, invigorates every aspect of our observance of the Torah.

An Unchanging Bond of Oneness

The fact that teshuvah is characterized by a desire to cleave to G‑d demonstrates that it relates to a state of G‑dliness — and a state of the soul — in which the possibility of separateness exists. Hence teshuvah is a soul’s response to its descent into our world where G‑d’s Presence is concealed and in which our spiritual endeavors are beset by challenges.

This framework of separateness does not affect the essence of G‑d, as the Torah states,14 “There is nothing else.” He is the totality of existence; there is nothing apart from Him.15

And because man’s soul is “truly a part of G‑d,”16 nothing is beyond his reach, and he too can reach the level at which there is no need for teshuvah. The Baal Shem Tov teaches,17 “Whenever you grasp part of the essence of an entity, you grasp it in its entirety.” Since “Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one,”18 G‑d’s essence in its entirety is reflected within every Jewish soul.

The level at which teshuvah is not necessary finds expres­sion in a constant and singleminded dedication to G‑d. At this level, a person does not need to rise above the challenges of our worldly existence. Instead, his life is one of simple connection which does not allow for any possibility of separation.

Serving G‑d as Part of One’s Nature

One of the fundamental principles of the Torah is that G‑d endows man with free will:19 “Behold, I have placed be­fore you life and good, death and evil.... Choose life!”20

Free will is a unique divine gift which elevates man above all other creatures.21 However, the fact that a person must choose between possibilities indicates that he is operating within a framework that is — in terms of its internal logic — separate from G‑d. When, however, a person recognizes the core of his existence, and thus identifies as “a part of G‑d,” he has only one desire — to fulfill G‑d’s will. Nothing else can even come to mind.

He does not go through a process of intellectual stocktak­ing which results in the decision to do good; he does not think about the matter at all. Instead, in the language of our Sages,22 he “bows naturally,” as a spontaneous response. His individual will and identity have undergone a complete metamorphosis: they are now utterly unified with G‑d. He has no thought or desire to do anything that is not in keeping with G‑d’s will.

Mankind as a whole will experience this level of connec­tion in the Era of the Redemption, when “I will remove the spirit of impurity from the world.”23 At that time, the G‑dliness which permeates the world will be revealed: “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d like the waters that cover the ocean bed.”24 In this setting of manifest G‑dliness, man’s natural, spontaneous desire will be to obey G‑d’s will.

Although this experience of connection will reach its complete fulfillment only in the Era of the Redemption, it can also find expression, in microcosm, in our age. Now, already, every individual has the potential to experience a personal redemption from the obstacles that inhibit the overt expres­sion of his G‑dly core.

Elul and Redemption

The possibility of such a connection with G‑d is reflected in the name Elul, which is also an acronym for a fifth phrase,25 [Az Yashir Moshe U'vnei Yisroel Es Hashira Hazos] L'Hashem Vayomru Leimor Ashira — “[Then Moshe and the Children of Israel sang this song] to G‑d and they spoke, saying, ‘I shall sing....’ ” (In this passage, the letters Elul are found in reverse order.) Our Sages26 explain that this verse uses what is literally the future tense, in allusion to the ultimate revelation to be realized during the Era of the Redemption with the Resurrection of the Dead, at which time G‑d’s essence will be revealed throughout the world.

The connection to G‑d which characterizes redemption — itself a means of serving G‑d — is not distinct from the other four modes of divine service that are stressed during Elul. Through Torah, prayer, deeds of lovingkindness and particularly, through teshuvah, one connects with his essential source — the level at which “Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one.” These four modes of divine service together enable an individual to connect to G‑d in the singleminded approach characteristic of redemption.

A Catalyst For the Redemption

Singleminded, wholehearted service of G‑d is rewarded most completely by the opportunity to continue serving G‑d in this manner. The Mishnah expresses this concept in the statement,27 “The reward for a mitzvah is — a mitzvah”; the reward for fulfilling one mitzvah is the opportunity to per­form another. In a life dedicated to one goal, connection with G‑d, there can be nothing more rewarding than the perform­ance of a mitzvah, an act which strengthens this connection.

The ultimate Redemption will be the result of a total commitment to Torah and mitzvos in the present age. In that era this commitment will reach its fullest expression and, moreover, will continue to advance. For “the righteous have no rest, neither in this world, nor in the World to Come; as it is written,28 ‘They shall go from strength to strength, and ap­pear before G‑d in Zion.’ ”29

Adapted from the Sichos of Shabbos Parshas Re’eh, 5749