For the month of Elul, I’ve been trying to get myself into shape. One of the things that Rebbe Nachman (and basically everyone else) suggests doing in order to achieve this goal is learning Jewish laws. My father-in-law recently gave us this tiny, awesome Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, which is a handy guidebook to what Jewish stuff you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment. It’s much more of a Judaism for Dummies than the actual book.
So I’ve been reading up on my life as a Jew. Sometimes a line or two at a shot (the entries are mostly really short, which plays to our advantage) and sometimes — like this morning, on the stalled 5 train — an entire chapter. Part of what got me so excited was the talk of Psalm 27, which we read at the end of morning prayers all this month. (If you’ve ever seen a horror movie, you’ve probably heard it in some form; it’s the one that starts “The Lord is my light and my salvation; who should I fear?”) I know that our article says it’s a slightly schizophrenic psalm, I still like it. I get a shiver every time I read “The only thing I ask for is to live in God’s house all the days of my life.” Not that I have any clue what God’s house looks like, but it seems like it would be a good place to be. Just the idea of having a house to curl up into, metaphorical or otherwise, sounds like a pretty good deal. And like a pretty comforting thing, especially in the
(My other favorite line, “When evil men come close to eat my flesh, they stumble and fall,” clearly plays to the action-adventure author side of my personality, but that’s another blog entry.)
So the Kitzur, whose role usually shies away from the sort of non-how-to thing, goes out of its way to talk about the different acronyms for Elul. Usually, people like to say how Elul is the healing time after the catastrophes of Tisha B’Av, and the strain on our relationship with God that things like massive destruction tend to cause. They point out how the Hebrew letters alef, lamed, vov, lamed — the four letters that spell “Elul” — stand for “Ani L’dodi v’dodi li,” or “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is for me.”
But wait! There’s more!
Apparently, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, was the first to play with acronyms. He first cites the verse in Exodus that talks about someone accidentally killing a man: if this happens, God says, “I will find you a place to which he can flee” (21:13). The words “I will find you” begin with aleph, lamed, vov, lamed.
Again with the morbidity, right? But it’s actually a comforting verse at heart: even a murderer can find peace. Then he cites Deuteronomy 30:6: “God will open up your heart.” This one doesn’t just work the obvious (hearts! open! understanding! empathy! Rosh Hashanah!) but also alludes to the exact opposite of what happened to Pharaoh: Our hearts are becoming un-hardened.
Then the Ari proceeds to blow us all out of the water by explaining how each of these three verses covertly refers, respectively, to repentance, charity, and praying — the three things that, according to the mahzor, dissipate a death sentence on Yom Kippur.
One more cool thing that the Kitzur points out about Psalm 27 and its first few words, “God is my light and my salvation.” When the psalm says “salvation,” it’s referring to Yom Kippur, of course — since that’s the time when some souls get salvated (er, saved) and some don’t. But the “my light” part is talking about Rosh Hashanah. It’s a complicated holiday, neither 100% good (uh, a lot of us are about to die) nor 100% sad (it’s the birthday of the world, and a lot of us are going to get good decrees)…but we do what we can. And that’s where the light comes from. We’re saying that God should reveal everything…and that God should make it all good.