Friday, September 12, 2008

The Spiritual Odyssey of Elul

"Remember what Amalek did to you along the way as you came out of Egypt."
(Deuteronomy 25:17)
Elul 12, 5768/September 12, 2008

The story of Amalek was first related in the book of Exodus at the chronologically correct time of its occurrence, soon after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Why then, is it repeated, albeit with new information, now, as we are reading the book of Deuteronomy? What can we learn from the retelling of the Amalek incident, which appears at the conclusion of this Shabbat's Torah reading of Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)?

The timing, in fact, couldn't be more propitious as we find ourselves in the thick of the spiritual odyssey of the month of Elul. Often referred to as the season of repentance, Elul may more accurately be described as the season of return, (the Hebrew word for both being identical: teshuvah). For in the month of Elul we embark upon a journey of return: a return to ourselves, a return to G-d, and a return to the fervor and passion that first exemplified our nearness to G-d.

It is in this specific order that Elul prescribes for us to rebuild our relationship to G-d. First we need to rediscover our real me, the pure, good G-dly image in which we were created, and then to reacquaint this real me with its pure, good Creator. The final act of the Elul journey of return is in rekindling the flame that first united our me with G-d.

When we first stray in our behavior the result is to cut G-d from the equation of who we are. The essence of this phenomenon is captured in the Hebrew word chet. Commonly translated in English as "sin," the word chet literally mean to "miss the mark." Lacking the apriori assumption of evil intent, the word chet nevertheless conveys the predicament the the "sinner" finds himself in: The word chet is spelled with three letters, the last letter, alef, being silent. Alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, whose numerical equivalent is one, comes to stand for the One G-d. When we "sin," or perform a chet, we are, in fact, removing G-d from the expression of our action, relegating Him to a silent role in our lives. However, and herein lies the supreme message of Elul, G-d, just like that silent alef, which remains an integral part of the word chet, is persistent, and remains attached to who we are, even when our actions remove Him from our consciousness.

Returning to our Elul prescription of return, once we rediscover through serious and sometimes painful soul-searching our real "pre-sin" selves, we will discover that G-d, whom we, missing the mark, thought to be far from us, has really remained attached to us all along. Now our eyes and our ears and our hearts have been opened and we are ready to fully include G-d in our lives. But how?
This we learn from this week's retelling of the unprovoked attack by Amalek on the children of Israel. The verse begins, "Remember what Amalek did to you along the way..." (ibid 25:17) Again, we learn from the Hebrew verse which employs the word kar-cha, meaning "happened to you," (as in, "Remember how Amalek happened to you along the way..." The Hebrew kar-cha, meaning "happened to you" shares the same letters as the word kar, meaning "cold." Our sages have taught us that the verse can be understood to say, "Remember how Amalek cooled you off along the way..." - That is not to say that Amalek cooled our passion to fulfill G-d's commandments, but that he cooled our desire to fulfill G-d's commandments with passion! When our relationship with G-d begins to lapse into routine, when the awe and wonder and exquisite newness which attends our every interaction with G-d through our thoughts and actions begins to cool down into predictable pattern, when who we are becomes commonplace, that's when we begin to miss the mark!

Elul beckons us to rediscover ourselves, and by doing so rediscover G-d. But minus the commandment to "blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven" (ibid 25:19) and from our own souls, our renewed relationship will not flourish as we so desire it to.

Tune in to this week's Temple Talk as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss the beckoning month of Elul, the deeper meaning of repentance, repenting not only for our misdeeds, but for what we did right, but missing the requisite passion, as well as the chilling effects of Amalek and the spiritual rekindling that transpires when we ascend to the Temple Mount.

"Remember what Amalek did to you along the way as you came out of Egypt." (Deuteronomy 25:19) G-d wants us to be on fire in the way we serve Him, but Amalek, the enemy of G-d, wants to "cool" us off, enticing us to trade in our passion for walking in G-d's way, with complacency with doing the bare minimum - a situation which truly spells disaster. Click here to view Rabbi Richman's short teaching on parashat Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19).

Blessings from the holy city of Jerusalem,
Yitzchak Reuven
PO Box 31876
Jerusalem, Israel 97500

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