Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Blog Elul 5771: Entering the holy of holies each and every day

Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul.  Inspired by Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, this year I'll be sharing postings a few times a week in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and cross-posting some of my favorites from others who are doing the same.  If you use Twitter, you can see who else is blogging their way through the month of Elul by following #blogelul
Artwork by Michael Noyes:
The Hebrew letters of the month of Elul, Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, were transformed in rabbinic commentary into a representation of the phrase from Song of Songs, Ani l'dodi v'dodi li - I am my beloved's and my beloved in mine.  The 117 verses of love poetry that make up the Song of Songs, absent of the explicit mention of God, are a bit of a mystery - why are they part of our holy canon?

Rabbi Akiva argued that this book was like the holy of holies in the Temple; he said that when the messiah came we wouldn’t need all of the commandments in the Torah, but we’d still need the Song of Songs.

The holy of holies was meant to be the innermost part of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was believed to be the place where the High Priest came closest to sensing the Presence of God.

The Song of Songs is an erotic book, but not in the sense that we usually use that term in common language. The love imagery of Song of Songs takes us to a place that is more experiential. It is sensual because it engages all of our senses and the poetry gives us a feeling of something that is very difficult to capture in words. A bit like love itself. We know it when we feel it. I once heard someone describe the holy of holies as being ‘on the inside of the inside’. Being so completely present in the moment that you completely lose the sense of separation. As soon as you notice this, you are no longer in it. I think that can sometimes be the experience of love, but it can also be the experience of listening to a symphony, or hiking up a mountain, or reading a book, or watching your child sleep in their bed.

These are deeply spiritual experiences… or they can be. The poetry of the Song of Songs uses love only as an example. And the Song of Songs makes no explicit mention of God. Yet our tradition suggests that it is when we have these kinds of spiritual experiences – when we are on the inside of the inside and so completely present to the moment we are in – this is the closest we might come to feeling the presence of God.

There are many people who don’t feel comfortable using the ‘G’ word to describe these kinds of experiences. That is partly due to the idea of God that we have inherited from many of our holy texts, and generations that have gone before us, not serving us well in the world we live in today. They were the best attempts of an ancient people to understand their most deeply felt experiences. But, as Rabbi Irwin Kula suggests, maybe its time for a new God – time for new conversations that help us talk about our most deeply felt experiences in ways that help us make meaning in our lives.

Those who have read recent entries in this blog will know that I recently returned from a social action trip with some of my congregants to help rebuilding efforts in Alabama. We worked in a small town called Cordova – about 40 minutes outside of Birmingham. It was a very powerful experience for us, and one of the things we were immediately struck by was the deep language of faith that pervaded the way people there understood their world. And so we were not volunteers coming to help for a week, but ‘God’s hands here to do God’s work.’ I confess, it took us aback a bit. We North Easterners aren’t used to thinking about our lives that way. And yet, our group was deeply moved by it – we recognized that the language they used elevated the way we thought about each little thing we did there and each interaction we had with the people who lived in Cordova.

I think that’s the secret of the Song of Songs. Its just a book of love poetry, or it’s the holiest book that we have. And the holy of holies is just another room in a man-made Temple, or it’s a place where one can feel God’s presence intensely. Whether it is ordinary or holy, a mundane or a spiritual experience, depends on whether we are paying attention, being fully present to the experience, and willing to label these moments of our lives in significant ways or not.

And I think that’s why the month of Elul is connected to the phrase from Song of Songs, ‘Ani l’Dodi v’dodi li’ – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. We are invited to pay extra attention this month – to experience life more deeply and reflect on the meaningful moments that can be felt in the midst of the most ordinary of days. This is Jewish mindfulness practice.

As we move toward a New Year, with good intentions to move away from judgment, harshness, anger, impatience, intolerance, and many of those other sins we declare during the high holydays, Elul invites us to see our attempts to be more compassionate, kind, generous, patient, understanding as a spiritual practice.

We sing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
Adonai, Adonai El Rachum v’chanun. Erech apayim, Rav chesed v’emet. Notzer chesed la’alafim, nosei avon vafesha, v’chata’ah v’nakei 
The Eternal One, A God merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true, showing mercy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.

Maybe we are God’s hands doing God’s work. And maybe these words are there to remind us of who we most want to be in the world.


  1. Beautiful! I enjoyed reading this. Very meaningful and insightful. Thank you.

  2. Beautiful...shanah tova... This is my first time visiting your blog... I hope you will start writing again.

    may this be a year of compassion, healing and growth for you and your beloveds.