This is the second edition for this essay. Rewritten for the anthology, Earth Etudes for Elul: Spiritual Reflections for the Season. Edited by Katy Z. Allen. Published by Strong Voices Press in 2018.
I’d like to speak about joy and love. I know that Elul is upon us; a time for relentless self-reflection, spurred on by the blasts of shofar. And yet, the rabbis in their complexity have added another dimension to Elul: love.
Remember the acronym for Elul? It’s from the Song of Songs 6:3, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li—I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Reciprocal love is spiraling back and forth right here in Elul along with our lists of how we missed the mark. Isn’t this worthy of attention? What might it mean?
Here’s where it takes me. “Rabbi Akiva said that all of Tanach (the five books plus all the prophets plus all the writings) is Holy, then the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies!” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5) The Song of Songs is sensuous and loving, filled with tension, desire and yearning; lovers are seeking fulfillment in gardens and fields on every page. We all know that steamy passion can easily burn and destroy, and yet, Rabbi Akiva holds this up as the archetypal place of holiness. Blessed be.
The Song of Songs reminds us on every page that loving, sensual energy is paramount in all of our relationships—with each other, the natural world, and the Source of Life. Seeking love yearns for the reward of receiving love; and then I feel fully me, fully seen, feeling even fuller than me! I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Is it possible that t’shuvah can inspire us to reclaim this loving joy in all of our life and remind us that this is our birthright?
I heard that the great psychoanalyst Milton Erickson(1) tells a story of a mean nasty man who never smiled. He became thunderstruck and lovesick with the new school teacher in town. He asked to see her formally, and she said, only if you clean up your ways and try to smile once in awhile. The goofiest grin came over his face, kindness filled his heart and he never looked back. They lived happily ever after, smiling and holding hands like young fools until the end of their days. Here, the power of love drives t’shuvah.
Of course, the allure of romanticism is just that fantasy of “happily ever after.” Deep down, we all know the sequence: Beauty meets Beast, Beast turns into Prince through love, Beauty marries Prince, Prince turns back into Beast. (In all fairness, Beauty has her transformations too!) Undoubtedly, the mean nasty man of Erickson’s story slips and falls too. Perhaps this is why the linkage with Song of Songs and Elul is so very critical. Life is also Kafka, not just Disney. Here, t’shuvah can be our remedy, reminding us that we can actively participate in the work of turning our sense of “unlove” back into “love.”
Rabbi Akiva is saying that this great love is our birthright, there is nothing to earn. Contrary to Hallmark cards, this is very different than our relationships in this world, inside our families. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Our very natural relationship with the world and God itself is to love and be loved in return merely because we are alive! This love, is a much more holistic love that applies to our entire being. Forgetfulness of this birthright of joyful loving is the way of our world. Much happens every day to blur our vision. From ordinary, imperfect attachment in childhood all the way through adulthood.
T’shuvah is like clearing our vision. T’shuvah helps me learn the ways that I actively block this joyous knowing; the many ways that I choose judgmentalness, pickle myself in anxious worry and bewitch myself with harsh fears. T’shuvah shows me that by tending to my relationships with kindness and care, I can enter the apple orchard of love once again, to know love and be re-inspired to grow love and trust once again my passions, desires, and hopes for my partner, my life, my world and my God. After all, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
(1) Bradshaw, John. Creating Love: A New Way of Understanding Our Most Important Relationships. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2013, p. 178.