The month of Elul is an acronym of a verse from Song of Songs, "Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li," "I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me. This concept -- loving God and feeling His love for us -- is a central theme of Elul. But this month doesn't have one love-inspiring holiday in it! What is it about this month that represents the relationship of love between us and the Almighty?
We all know about the natural love that a parent has for a child. Even before birth, the mother is giving of herself, literally, and the giving never stops.
But what about a child's love to his parents? When does the child begin to truly love the parent?
I discovered the answer when my oldest son was born. The physical and emotional exhaustion of caring for a newborn -- one that liked to cry, and didn't like to sleep -- was like nothing my wife and I had ever encountered before. Thinking about everything our parents had done for us -- happily, too! -- there was no way we could ever repay them. The sheer enormity of their caring for us was bigger than we were. In these life-changing weeks following the birth of our first child when we transformed from being children into parents ourselves, our appreciation and love for our own parents transformed as well.
When the child becomes a parent himself and experientially feels how much his parents have done for him, that's when the child begins to truly love and appreciate his parents. To the degree that the child recognizes how much his parents have given him, to that degree his love for his parents will grow.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe writes, "Gratitude awakens love in the receiver and naturally inspires it in the giver as well."
This is the key to understanding the experience of love in Elul.
Every year on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we humbly submit our prayers and supplications to God, begging to be inscribed and sealed for a good year. As the season of the High Holidays draws to a close, the rest of the year we watch as our fate unfolds. It is at that last point of the year, the final month of Elul, that we can look back and see the entire past year spread out before us. That's when we can fully appreciate that we were indeed sealed in the Book of Life. We can see the myriad blessings that God heaped upon us and our loved ones. And the more we savor the details of the blessings God bestowed upon us, the more our appreciation will grow.
In Elul we come full circle, back to where we started from, and see with a new depth of feeling the enormous gift of love that God has showered upon us. In that moment of gratitude to Him we can feel a deep love for Him. I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me.
In all of our relationships -- marriage, friendship, business -- we are natural experts at seeing what those around us are doing wrong. We have to make a real effort to focus on what's going right. But it is only when we re-train our eyes to see how much the other is actually doing and giving for us that our feelings of gratitude and love will grow.
Rabbi Wolbe recommends engaging in daily exercises to strengthen our "gratitude muscle," the most potent of which is a verbal recognition of another's kindness. Three times a day practice saying thank you to people who may perform everyday kindness to us. And if you look carefully, you'll see that there are more than enough opportunities. There is the postman who delivers the mail, the cashier who scans our food at the supermarket, and the salesman who helps us find what we need at the store. We are in fact receiving all the time -- from God and others around us, and have so much to be grateful for.
Let's use this Elul as an opportunity to recognize the kindness that others have done for us, and especially to reflect on how much our Father in Heaven has done for us in the past 12 months. As we head into the month of Elul, followed by the High Holidays, may our hearts be so full of appreciation and love for the Almighty, and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.