Elul is the month of repentance, when assessment is made of the past year’s service to G‑d. It serves as a spiritual “city of refuge” where atonement for wrongdoing may be found, and it is a time when G‑d makes Himself accessible to all Jews on whatever spiritual level they may be.

Elul is the month immediately preceding Tishrei, and it serves as the spiritual preparation to the Days of Awe, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is the month of repentance, when an honest cheshbon hanefesh, soul-reckoning, is made of the past year. Just as a businessman makes an assessment of his business to determine how to run it more smoothly and successfully, so a Jew in the month of Elul assesses his past year’s spiritual service to G‑d.1

Elul is month of spiritual stock-taking

Although a Jew must review his efforts in Torah and mitzvos more than once a year — every night concerning the day’s activities, before Shabbos concerning the past week, and before Rosh Chodesh about the past month — those reviews are unlike the general appraisement that takes place during Elul. A businessman, to return to our example, makes an extensive overview of his concerns only occasionally. He cannot do so every day, for then he will never be able to begin anything. Instead, before each new venture, he will make a particular appraisal of the future prospects of that venture. An overall assessment of the entire business is made only from time to time.

So, too, with a Jew’s “business,” Torah and mitzvos. The different soul-reckonings made throughout the year concern that particular time span — the day, week or month. The cheshbon hanefesh to determine one’s overall spiritual standing is made only once a year, during the month of Elul.

Elul is the time chosen for such an assessment because in it, G‑d’s thirteen attributes of mercy are revealed.2 This is necessary because a soul-reckoning can sometimes have an undesirable effect. Realizing his low spiritual state, a Jew, despairing of any chance of betterment, may see no use in trying to improve himself.3 To avoid this type of problem, the yearly stock-taking is left for the month of Elul, when G‑d’s thirteen attributes of mercy are revealed, a revelation which helps a Jew attain the proper love and awe of G‑d regardless of his present spiritual state.

“Awe and love of G‑d,” the Alter Rebbe writes,4 “cannot be established and implanted in the heart of man through his own efforts alone, but together with the divine light which descends from above.” In other words, a Jew can possess complete awe and love only when aided by G‑d. In Elul, the revelation of G‑d’s attributes of mercy arouses the awe and love of G‑d each Jew will feel in the year to come. It is for this reason that a proper cheshbon hanefesh, without any undesirable consequences, can take place only in Elul.

Yet, the days of Elul are regular weekdays, unlike Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur when the thirteen attributes of mercy are also revealed. How can a Jew accomplish the service of Elul while preoccupied with his mundane, everyday pursuits?5

The King in the field

The Alter Rebbe resolves this difficulty with his parable of “the king in the field.”6 Before the king reaches the city to enter his palace, he passes through a field. The inhabitants of the city go out to greet him there, and he receives them all graciously and shows a benign countenance to all. Every one may approach him and present their requests. When the king is residing in his palace, however, only a select few may enter. And even they cannot enter without first passing through many antechambers, with the guards of each antechamber checking to determine if they are worthy of entering the king’s presence. It is a different protocol than when the king is in the field, when every one can approach him at will and petition him freely.

This is the idea of the month of Elul. G‑d, the Supreme King of kings, is then in the “field” and every Jew can approach Him freely. The same King who is normally in His palace — when much preparation is mandatory to come close to Him — goes out and reveals Himself to His people.

A field is an uninhabited place, bereft of human presence; a city is the very symbol of habitation. A person in a field is free of the inhibitions imposed by the presence of others and therefore sometimes conducts himself there improperly. A field thus symbolizes a low spiritual level. Yet in Elul, the King goes out to the field: G‑d is present regardless of a person’s spiritual standing. A Jew can thus make a proper cheshbon hanefesh knowing that G‑d’s thirteen attributes of mercy — “Slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth...forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin”7 — illumine at this time. He has faith that he will be pardoned and accepted back.

Elul, then, is the time when a Jew, as he is,8 can come close to G‑d, for G‑d has made the first step and has come to him. At such a time every Jew can grasp G‑dliness. All that is necessary is that he desire to do so: he must go out to the “field” to welcome the king.9 When he does so he is assured the king will receive him “graciously and with a benign countenance” — and a good and sweet year results.

Elul is spiritual “city of refuge

That Elul is the idea of teshuvah is alluded to in its very name. The letters of the word Elul are the initial letters,10 in Hebrew, of the words “Ina Leyodo VeSamti Lecha” “[G‑d] caused it to happen, and I will provide [a place] for you [to which he can flee].”11

This verse refers to the situation when a person accidentally kills another. To protect him from the vengeance of the slain man’s relatives, the Torah mandates that “cities of refuge” be set up to where such accidental killers can flee and be safe.

The cities of refuge provide a haven for the person’s body. But what of his soul? Although he did not mean to kill, a Jew should not transgress even unintentionally, for not only the soul, but even a Jew’s body should by its very nature and essence recoil from sin. A truly righteous person does not sin even inadvertently.

A Jew, however, also possesses an animal soul, which blankets the sensitivity of his G‑dly soul and leads him to do animal-like things. He therefore12 needs atonement for even unintentional transgressions.13 The atonement for the person who kills accidentally is that he must stay exiled inside a city of refuge, for exile atones for sins.

Even one who kills intentionally may, until he is judged by the courts, find refuge in those cities from the vengeance of the victim’s relatives.

There is a crucial difference in these laws between the times of the Beis HaMikdosh and the time of exile. In the former, the killer — accidental or intentional — is punished even if he repents.14 In the time of exile, however, when Jewish courts can no longer judge capital offences, repentance does help.15

All of the above aspects are paralleled in Elul. With every transgression, with every sin, a Jew sheds blood: he deprives his G‑dly soul of its vitality.16 Yet atonement is always possible if the person will exile himself to the “city of refuge” in the dimension of time, the month of Elul. Exile means to leave “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house,”17 the spiritual equivalent of which is to leave one’s desires, one’s ingrained character traits, and the conclusions reached by the human intellect18 — anything which is a barrier to total submission to the yoke of heaven. In short, a Jew must escape from his egocentric existence and embrace a new life founded on the conclusions of true soul-searching and repentance. Then such “exile” is an atonement, both for intentional and unintentional transgressions, and one is saved from the seekers of vengeance — from any unfavorable pronouncements of heavenly justice for one’s sins.19

Paths to Elul

Not only must cities of refuge be built, but, the Rambam writes, “the court is obliged to define the paths that lead to the cities of refuge, to repair them and to broaden them...” In spiritual terms, this corresponds to the paths whereby one reaches the spiritual city of refuge, the month of Elul.20

Because Elul is the preparation to Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the world’s creation, the service of Elul is associated with three things which maintain the world: Torah, prayer, and deeds of loving kindness.21 They are the “paths” to the refuge of Elul, and are alluded to in its name. As elaborated on earlier, the letters of Elul are the initial letters of “[G‑d] caused it to happen, and I will provide for you.” Although this refers to the general service of Elul as a “city of refuge” for one’s misdeeds of the past year, it also refers to the more particular aspect of Torah, as our Sages say,22 “The words of Torah provide refuge.”

The letters of Elul are also the initial letters,23 in Hebrew, of “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”24 This refers to the service of prayer, which joins together man and G‑d — “I am my Beloved’s.”25

Finally, Elul is the initial letters26 of “Each man [shall give presents] to his fellow, and gifts to the poor.”27 This is the service of deeds of loving kindness.

The foundation of, and preparation for the above three “paths” to the refuge of Elul is the service of repentance, also alluded to in the word Elul,28 the letters of which are the initial letters in Hebrew of “[The L‑rd your G‑d will circumcise] your heart and the hearts [of your descendants].”29 G‑d removes (“circumcises”) the obstacles which prevent man from coming close to Him — the concept of repentance.

Just as the service of Elul is associated with the three things which maintain the world, so, too, it is associated with the ultimate fulfillment of the purpose of its creation. The world was created perfect. Because of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, the world lost its perfection. But in the Messianic era, the world will attain a spiritual level greater even than at creation. This, too, is alluded to in the name Elul, the letters of which are the initial letters of ‘[Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song] to the L‑rd, and they declared, saying, I will sing [to the L‑rd].”30 These words, the opening verse of the song sung at the splitting of the sea after the exodus from Egypt, refer also to the final redemption through our righteous Moshiach,31 when all Jewry will sing a song of praise to G‑d.

Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, pp. 622-626; Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IX, pp. 297-303