Friday, August 10, 2018

Elul: Fleeing From You & To You

Fleeing From You & To You
Thoughts on Teshuvah 2018
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The forty days from rosh hodesh Elul until Yom Kippur mark the period on the Jewish calendar most appropriate for drawing ourselves closer to God. The Hakhamim identified this time as the span between God’s second calling of Moshe to Har Sinai and his reception of the second luhot.[1] Significantly, however, these days were fraught with the tension of a covenant that was broken at het ha-egel and the people’s fear that they would never achieve forgiveness. The bond between Am Yisrael and God had reached one of its lowest points in history specifically at this time.

The great medieval poet R. Shelomo ibn Gabirol described his connection to God in three simple words: “Evrah mimekha elekha – I will flee from You, to You.” In this tantalizing line from his liturgical poem Keter Malkhut, Ibn Gabirol articulated a dynamic which characterizes our relationship with the Almighty. Our shared intimacy does not exist as a constant and dependable reality. It is rather the result of a movement that begins with separation – “fleeing from Him,” and only then continues with our steps “to Him.”

Indeed, at that very time after het ha-egel Moshe requested of God, “Show me, pray, Your glory” (Shemot 33:18). Moshe perhaps reasoned that a deep relationship with God began with complete comprehension of His being. God’s response is instructive: “You shall not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live” (33:20). Man will never attain a bond with Him of that magnitude. God did, however, partially reveal His glory. He instructed Moshe to stand on a cliff while allowing him sight of “His back,” but not “His face” (33:22-3). God taught that a connection with Him does not “just happen,” but rather entails our deliberate approach from afar.

Moshe Halbertal pointed to the well-known story of the “four who entered the pardes” to demonstrate this characteristic of our relationships with God. A cryptic passage in Tosefta describes several Tana’im who endeavored into a precarious realm of comprehension of God: “Four entered the garden: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the Other, and Akiva. One peeked and perished, one peeked and was smitten, one peeked and cut down sprouts and one ascended in peace and descended in peace.”[2] The Tosefta defined R. Akiva as he “who ascended and descended in peace,” and explained his appropriate behavior with a parable: “To what should we compare this? To a royal garden with an upper room built over it. What is the guard’s duty? To look, but not feast his eyes upon it.”[3] Halbertal pinpointed the core message of this passage as the Rabbis’ sense of a dialectic that governs our relationship with God. He is, at once, both “revealed” and “concealed” from us.[4]

Am Yisrael’s sin at het ha-egel severed their shared connection with God. The source of its renewal would need to come from a source of independence. R. Shimon Gershon Rosenberg z”l explained:
Sin is separation. It disconnects the dependence and the necessity of our attachment to God…The renewal of the covenant builds a relationship based on separateness, on mutual independence. It is this independence that can become the basis for a deeper connection.[5]
Attempting to build a strong and enduring relationship with someone else requires a healthy foreknowledge of yourself. Rushing into it without a self-awareness leads to a cheap and short-lived bond. I cannot truly commit myself to someone else if I am not first aware of who I am and what I believe. Paradoxically, then, I can only “flee to you” when I have first “fled from you.”

It is for this reason, as well, that HaRambam detailed the concept of man’s freedom of choice within the context of Hilkhot Teshuvah (ch. 5-6). Endeavoring an approach of the Almighty prior to recognizing our own wills and desires is a mission doomed to failure.

The enduring nature of Elul is directly related to its history. What began as the time when Am Yisrael stood most separate and independent of God after their sin at het ha-egel transitioned into the time when they self-identified, as well. Their stage of “fleeing from Him” opened the opportunity for Am Yisrael to identify with themselves and “flee to Him.” Focusing solely on themselves, they determined the true nature of their distinct thoughts, beliefs and ambitions. This was, in turn, their first step forward into a new relationship with God.

May we use the next forty days to transition from “fleeing from Him” to “fleeing to Him.”

[1] Pirkei DeRibi Eliezer 46.
[2] Tosefta Hagigah 2:3.
[3] Tosefta Hagigah 2:5.
[4] Moshe Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation (Princeton, NJ, 2007), pg. 13-17.
[5] Rav Shagar, The Human and the Infinite: Discourses on the Meaning of Penitence (Efrat, IS, 2004), pg. 25-6.