Elul - Opening our Ears and Hearts to God
Our rabbis tell us that the letters which spell Elul, the rashei teivot, stand for “Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li” – I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. This teaches us that we are meant to move closer to God during this month. Others explain that Elul stands for the verse “umal Hashem Et Levavcha ULevav zarecha” – “and God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your children” – God will help us to become closer to Him.
There appears to be a contradiction between these two verses. While the first verse describes man taking the first step towards God, the second verse implies that it is Hashem who will come and soften our hearts. How are we to resolve this apparent contradiction, which is central to our religious experience during the month of Ellul?
We might suggest that God sends a person messages, at different times during his life, telling him to move closer to God. In the olden day, these messages were understood. Nowadays, these messages are often missed. R. Dessler writes that there are moments of siyata deshmaya, when God sends a wakeup call. R. Dessler implores us to respond to these messages, which often come when we least expect them. However, God can only send a message, to which a person can listen, internalize, or ignore.
The gemara (Avoda Zara 17a) relates that a fellow named Elazar ben Durdai had a specific weakness: he had sexual relations with every zona (prostitute) in the world. Once, he heard that there was a prostitute in a faraway place. He crossed seven rivers and brought a full purse of dinarim, and came to this women. As he was about to sin with her, God decided that it was time to send Elazar ben Durdai a message. The Talmud relates that the prostitute passed gas, and then she said to Elazar ben Durdai: Just like this gas will never return to its place, so too Elazar ben Durdai will never return to God. He went outside, put his head between his knees, and cried so intensely that he died. He literally died of teshuva. A heavenly voice declared, “R. Eleazar ben Durdia is ready for the world-to-come.”
There are many lessons to be learned from this episode. The Maharal offered an explanation based upon Elazar ben Durdai’s name – “God (E-l) helps (azar) Elazar when he was at the bottom of the barrel (durdai).” When he was in the worst place, rock-bottom, God helped him. The Ben ish Hai explained that he bent over, and put his hand between his legs, like a baby. Elazar ben Durdai went into the fetal position and asked to be born again. Like the water of the mikve, when the person who immerses is reborn from the pure waters, similar to the embryotic sack, so too the person who repents wishes to be reborn. Elazar ben Durdai listened to Gods message.
The message of the story of Elazar ben Durdai is to hear God calling and to seize the moment. This is similar to the incident of the “sneh” – the burning bush. God came to Mosh Rabbeinu through a burning bush. Had Moshe Rabbeinu not noticed it, we might still be in Egypt! It is our responsibility to listen attentively and to realize when God is sending us a message. At times, this message may come when we least expect it, but we must respond, and turn towards and closer to God.