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Written by Rabbi Neil Blumofe. Neil is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, Texas. He holds Rabbinic Ordinations from both the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York and the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles. Neil is active in the greater Austin music community — producing and performing in the monthly “Jazz and the Art of” series for the public radio station (KUT) “Views and Brews” series at the historic Cactus Café, in Austin.
LEAVING JUDGMENT AT THE GATES
As we open the Hebrew month of Elul, a time when we traditionally focus on the themes of teshuvah (repentance), reconciliation, and conflict resolution, in preparation for the turning of the High Holydays, it is striking that Shoftim, the first Torah portion of this month, begins with the guidance to appoint judges and officers in all of our Gates.
We are asked to find mediators – non-partial referees to help manage our relationships in this world and to hew us in line with civilizing common cause. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Chaninah teaches that if it were not for the government, we would eat each other alive. As we pursue justice and articulate fairness among us, our Torah teaches that we cannot do it alone – we must lean on others who can manage our needs and take into account our emotional proclivities and feelings of want and entitlement without being held captive to them. As we make claims on each other, we willingly abandon our self-interest and for the greater good, choose to participate in a collective system that at its best is ruthless in its impartiality.
However, Elul and the High Holydays are much more than a relentless pursuit of proclaiming verdicts and making decisions. Our mystics teach that this time is the most intimate of the year – a time that need not admit any intercessors, or middle negotiators into our private relationships, as we pursue that which is most holy and sacred, and gives our life ultimate meaning.
In this time, God is thought to have left a place of refuge and safety and is on the road, waiting for us to pass by. Elul is thought to be short for Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi Li – a quote from the great romantic text, Song of Songs – I am My Beloved’s and My Beloved is Mine. Now, heaven has come to earth searching for us. From a certain cleft in the rock, God is looking to catch a glimpse of us as we pass by.
Out in the world, we put up barriers and layers to help us manage our business and casual relationships – and the deeper task of Elul is to find no separation between us and our most intimate lover. In this profound, world-transcending relationship, we are asked to take a chance and not hide behind another and shuck and jive with excuses that draw us away from taking responsibility and ownership of our difficult imperfections and our strongest desires. With this person, everything matters.
In Elul, as we too leave our commonplaces of hiding and put ourselves fully forward, we fall into the vulnerability of a Divine Encounter with a partner, or into a realistic and enduring idea of love. Now, the Gates are wide open and we leave those who will judge at the entrance, as we walk boldly forward, into yet unexplored private space, discarding too, worldly cares – exchanged for the abundance of everything else. There is a time for everything under the sun, and now in Elul, as the poet Theodore Roethke writes, we learn by going where we have to go.Shabbat Shalom.