The Secret of Elul (Elul usually occurs in August–September on the Gregorian calendar. added by LJG)
The symbol of the heart is probably one of the most well-known symbols. Spanning continents, cultures, religions, languages, that little red heart means love. It is used to sign letters, to represent the word “love” itself, and has inundated the buyers’ market by being plastered on cards, T-shirts, necklaces, balloons and just about everything else.
How is the image of the heart, as we most commonly know it, the symbol for this passionate experience of love?
The month that we are now in, Elul, is the key to unlocking the inner and most potent meaning of the heart. As is well known, the Hebrew letters that make the word “Elul,” aleph, lamed, vav and lamed, are an acronym for the phrase (from the biblical Song of Songs) ani l’dodi v’dodi li, which means “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.”
This beautiful and romantic phrase is that which represents our relationship with our Creator, which is often paralleled to that of a husband and wife, a bride and groom, in our individual lives.
The Zohar explains that at the beginning of Elul we are achor el achor, meaning “back to back,” and by the end of Elul we are panim el panim, “face to face.” But how can it be that we are back to back? Wouldn’t that imply that G‑d has His back turned to us as well? How can we say such a thing, when this is the month in which—as chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi teaches us—“the King is in the field”? Is it not the month when G‑d is more accessible than ever, when He is waiting for us to greet Him, when He is there for us in the “field” of our everyday lives?
The fact that we are described as “back to back” and then “face to face” is an incredible lesson. Often, when we feel angry, hurt, abandoned, whatever the root of our pain may be, we turn our back. When our back is turned, we have no idea of the state of the other. And it is often easier to believe that we are not the only one with a turned back. It is easier to think the other also turned around, that the other isn’t facing us at all, because if that is the case, then even if we turn around it won’t help, so why bother. Why make that first move only to turn around and see the back of the other?
But this rationalization is the cause of many unsettled arguments, hurt feelings, and broken relationships. How classic is the scene, played out endlessly in movies, of the couple who walk away from one another. At some point the man turns around, wanting to call her name, ask for another chance, beg for forgiveness. He is about to speak, but realizes that her back is turned. She is walking away. He tells himself that it is too late, she just doesn’t care. So he turns back around. Seconds later, she turns to look at him. She doesn’t want this to end. She wants to say something, but can’t garner the courage, doesn’t have the strength. And why, why should she, when his back is turned? She looks at him longingly, but it just doesn’t matter—she assumes he couldn’t care less as he continues to walk away from her. And we, the viewers, sit on the edge of our seats, hoping that maybe they will both turn around at the same second, that they will finally realize that the other does care, that even though they appear to be back to back, they really want to be face to face. Sometimes that fairytale ending does happen; other times they simply continue to walk in opposite directions, right out of each other’s lives.
It is the month of Elul that teaches us the necessity of being willing to turn around. The King is in the field, our Creator is there, and no matter how we may feel, He has never had His back turned. All we need to do is turn ourselves around to realize that He is there and waiting for us. The “back to back” that we experience in the beginning of the month is based on our misperceptions, our fears, our assumptions. Only when we turn around do we realize the truth, the inner essence, and then we are “face to face,” which does not only mean that we can finally look at each other, but more so, that we can look in each other—for the root of the word for face, panim, is the same as pnimiyut, which means “innerness.”
So now the question is how this lesson is taught to us, not only in the month of Elul, but through the name “Elul” itself. A Hebrew name is not a mere way of referring to something, but actually represents its soul. Chassidut teaches that every parent is gifted with divine inspiration when he or she names a child. It is the name that represents the deepest aspects of this person. Kabbalah and Chassidut teach us that to uncover the essential meaning of a Hebrew word, we need to analyze the letters that comprise it, their numerical value, their form and their meaning.
As we said above, the word “Elul” is comprised of an aleph, followed by a lamed, followed by a vav, followed by the final letter, another lamed. The first letter in “Elul” is also the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The letter aleph is numerically equivalent to one, which represents the idea of G‑d’s total unity.
So now we must answer how all of this is related to the heart. Here is where ourlameds are once again defined. At this point it is important to think again about the symbol of the heart and to question its origin. And so it should come as no surprise that the meaning of this symbol will once again be found in the word for “heart” itself.
In Hebrew, the word for heart is lev, which is spelled lamed-beit. Rabbi AbrahamAbulafia, in the year 1291, wrote a manuscript by the name of Imrei Shefer, in which he defines the meaning of the heart.
Rabbi Abulafia teaches that the word lev, lamed–beit, needs to be understood as two lameds. This is because the letter beit is the second letter in the alphabet, and is numerically equivalent to two. So he explains that the word needs to be read and understood as “two lameds.”
But it is not enough to have two lameds. As Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh explains, in order for their to be a relationship, the two lameds need to be connected. They need to be face to face. When we turn around the second lamed to face the first, we form the image of the Jewish Heart (as seen in the picture at the beginning of this article). While the heart, as we are used to seeing it, is quite clear in this form, an entirely new part of the heart is also revealed.
This is because the letter lamed is the tallest of all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The reason is because thelamed represents the concept of breaking out of boundaries, of going beyond your potential, of entering the superconscious from the conscious.
The lamed also means two things simultaneously. It means both “to learn” and “to teach,” which shows us that the two are intertwined and both are essential. In a relationship, I must be willing to learn from the other, thereby making myself a receiver. Yet the other person also must be able to learn from me, which then makes me the teacher, the giver.
Furthermore, the image of the lamed can be broken down into three other letters. The top part of the letter is that of a yud, the smallest of the Hebrew letters, and the letter that represents the head. The head contains the mind, the intellect, and also the face.
The next letter in “Elul” is a vav. In Hebrew, the vav serves as a conjuctive “and.” As a word, vav means “hook,” and in its form it looks like a hook. So in this case the vav is the hook which is connecting the yud, the mind, with the bottom letter, the chaf, which represents the body. Physically speaking, it symbolizes the neck, which transports the flow of blood from the brain to the heart.
This teaches us that the heart, that the love that it represents, can thrive, can flourish, only when there is a totality in connection. The Jewish heart, true love, represents a mind-to-mind, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, body-to-body, soul-to-soul connection. The vav, the connection between the head and the heart, must always stay healthy, with a clear flow. If anything cuts it off, the relationship cannot continue. As we all know, one of the quickest ways to kill a person is a slit right across the neck. The neck is our lifeline. It ensures that our head, our intellect, rules above our emotions, and that there is a healthy interchange between the mind and the heart.
The heart that we are all familiar with, the symbol that represents love throughout the world, lacks the yud and the vav; it is missing the mind and the neck. The popular symbol represents only the physical connection between bodies.
So this is why and how Elul is the month that begins back to back and ends face to face. At the beginning of the month we are unaware of the reality that “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” However, by working on ourselves during this month, by being willing to turn around and make changes, we come to realize that our Creator has never had His back turned. He has always been facing us, and just waiting for us to turn around. And once we do, we are then like two lameds that are face to face, which form the Jewish heart and which are the essence of the month of Elul.
Elul then must be understood as an aleph, representing G‑d, followed by alamed, vav, lamed—a lamed that is connected (vav) to the other lamed.
And the Jewish heart, this idea of love as a totality of connection, is not merely the work for the month of Elul, but is the entire purpose of our creation. This Jewish heart is a symbol for why we were created and what we are meant to accomplish. For the Torah is the blueprint of creation, and the guidebook of how we connect to the divine. And it is not a book that has a beginning, middle and end, but rather a scroll, since we are taught that the “end is wedged in the beginning, and the beginning in the end.”
So what do we find when the Torah scroll’s end rolls into the beginning? How does the Torah end and begin? The last word of the Torah is Yisrael, Israel, which ends with the letter lamed; and the first word is bereishit, meaning “in the beginning,” which begins with a beit. When we join the first and last letters of the Torah, we have lev, the Hebrew word for heart.
May we be blessed with the ability to tap into the powers of the month of Elul, to recognize and reveal our ability to both learn and teach, and through that, to come face to face with ourselves, with our loved ones and with our Creator, as we are taught through the Jewish heart.
The Jewish Heart design and jewelry is patented and copyrighted by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh.