Ellul is a unique month—the final month of the year, “the month of mercy and forgiveness,” a month of expectancy and preparation for Rosh Hashanah and the
Days of Awe; a month during which, as several Hasidic darshanim put it, “the King is right here, in the field.” Among Ashkenazim, it is marked by blowing
the shofar every morning, and by reciting each morning and evening Psalm 27, a special psalm expressing the longing “to dwell in the house of the Lord.”
Sephardim begin reciting Selihot before dawn every morning from Rosh Hodesh on, while Ashkenazim do so only from the last week or so before Rosh Hashanah.
The month’s astrological symbol is Virgo (Hebrew: Betulah), the virgin. In Western culture, much influenced by Christian myth, the immediate association
of virginity is as the highest form of purity (even in this age of sexual latitude), but in Judaism there is no celebration of virginity as a value in
itself. She is a tabula rasa, an unwritten slate: one who symbolizes anticipation, readiness, “not yet…,” a certain guarding and holding of herself for
the future. As such, a virgin also signifies receptivity, a certain openness (to both the good and the bad), of potential for moving onto a new stage.
This concept of pristine, almost naïve purity, seems to me to dovetail with the theme of teshuvah. Teshuvah is about new beginnings, of the individual
remaking him- or herself. Unlike the month of Sivan, whose symbol of Gemini, the twins, suggests relationship, even intimate encounter, the “I-Thou” (as
between God and man at Sinai), here we focus upon a single individual—a single, lone human being encountering life, first of all, within his/her own inner
self, and attempting to return to a certain primal simplicity, freshness, purity: to remove the stain, the dross, the burden of various kinds of negativity
that have accumulated over a year, or over a lifetime—and to begin anew.
In this sense, the virgin is perhaps more suggestive of what some thinkers (Paul Ricouer seems to have originated the term) have referred to as “second
naïvete” or “second innocence.” A person who, having gone through many life experiences, and having experienced disillusionment, a sense of moral contamination
and corruption, perhaps a certain jadedness and cynicism, suddenly somehow comes full circle to seeking a kind of purity, innocence, freshness in life—albeit
on a different level than the innocence of a child, youth or maiden.
This loss and recapturing of innocence may be felt on at least two senses:
First, a loss of innocence about ourselves. Sin reveals to us the negative, selfish, thoughtless things of which we are capable. Every one is born with
certain illusions about himself, everyone likes to sees him/herself as good. Often we go through life with an enormous amount of self-justification, even
for the most heinous sins and crimes. Thus, authentic teshuvah requires, first of all, honesty with our selves, recognizing and acknowledging our sin;
being able to say: I did such-and-such a thing, this act belongs to me. (Imagine, for example, the image of Eleazar ben Durdai placing his head between
his knees, weeping for the years of debauchery and of life wasted in the pursuit of no more than coarse carnal pleasure.)
True, on another level teshuvah also means transcending the evil acts one has done, ”moving on,” changing the self, reaching the point of feeling that “I
am a different person; I am not the same person who did these acts” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.4; cf. the lyrical description of the transformation possible
through teshuvah in Chap. 7, which I will post on the blog presently). But before reaching that state, one must first acknowledge one’s sin, and one’s
perennial capacity for wrongdoing. The “second innocence” of such a person is thus of one who has undergone the full life trajectory: from initial innocence,
to performing cruel, immoral, or lustful acts—or simply acting and living without mature cognizance of what one is doing; to a kind of inner revulsion
at one’s self, and seeking with all one’s being to recreate him/herself in the image of a better, purer, higher self. This is perhaps the insight expressed
by Hazal in their saying, “One who does teshuvah out of love, willful transgressions are transformed into mitzvot.” That is, there is a certain finer
self that is somehow revealed specifically through the process of sin and the “recovery” therefrom.
Second: there may have been a loss of innocence in one’s very faith. One “raised in the faith” may start out with a simple, even naïve acceptance of basic
Torah dicta, and even one who has embraced Judaism at a later point in life may start by accepting “whole-hog” the doctrines taught by one’s teachers.
But the modern world presents many alternative approaches or “explanations” of the Torah, which sooner or later will cause the intelligent person to
begin thinking and questioning—whether these are in the realm of psychology (sublimation of parental figures); history and textual analysis (questioning
the Divine authorship of the Bible; historicistic explanations of the development of halakhah), economic theory (religion as an instrument of social control,
the “opiate of the masses); evolutionary biology or neurophysics (mechanistic interpretations of the human brain itself, with its thoughts, emotions,
and spiritual experiences), etc., etc. Or one may question a naïve belief in sekhar va-onesh, in Divine retribution, once one begins to see “bad thing
happen to good people.” Be it through personal encounters with suffering, tragedy, or premature death of dear ones, or through learning about catastrophic
events such as Auschwitz, one begins to doubt Gods goodness.
Second naïvete (Ernst Simon talks about this somewhat) means moving past these questions to a more subtle, mature, kind of faith. Such a “second faith”
does not deny the difficulties posed by modern thought or try to sop them off by facile, slick apologetics, but somehow moves to a place where it hears
Torah addressing an utterly different dimension of truth.
The Tur (Orah Hayyim §581) begins its presentation of the laws of Elul (and of Rosh Hashanah) by quoting the midrash in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, describing
how, when Moses ascended the mountain a second time to receive the second set of tablets, a shofar was sounded in the camp as a sign that Moses had in
fact ascended, and to instill the people with a sense of awe and teshuvah.
This association of Elul with the second tablets, again, coincides with the theme of teshuvah and “second innocence.” The relationship of the people with
God, and with the Torah, was different after the incident of the Golden Calf. It was no longer one of simple, innocent faith—but neither was it one of
rebelliousness and protest. The people longed for things to be as they had been, but knew that they were different. Henceforth the relationship would
be more troubled, complex; however intense the renewed love, passion, faith and trust, beneath the surface there would be always be the seeds of faithlessness,
of the potential to realize the betrayal (much like a married couple trying to rebuild their marriage after betrayals on one or both sides, with the knowledge
of what happened suppressed, unmentioned, but somehow present just below the surface).
God’s relation to this, too, was different. He understood the people’s weakness, that they could not be counted on to stand unwavering in their loyalty
to Him—and He realized that He would have to exercise a greater measure of compassion, of forgiveness, of turning a blind eye to their shortcomings. This
was the secret of the Thirteen qualities of mercy, revealed to Moses in the crevice of the rock on that first Yom Kippur—and which have served since time
immemorial as the leitmotif of the Selihot, from Elul on through the Holy Day. (See my detailed discussion of this in HY I: Ki Tisa and on the blog at
Ki Tisa (Torah))
In Hasidism, the second tablets also symbolize the Oral Torah: somehow, in wake of the rift caused by the Golden Calf, and the painful reparation of the
breech, man began to take a more active role in shaping, transmitting, and interpreting the Torah. Elul thus symbolizes two kinds of creativity: the
creativity entailed in Oral Torah, and the re-creation of self involved in the act of teshuvah.
A brief word about the Torah readings for Elul. These consist basically of the latter half of Devarim: the recapitulation and summary of the law, with
certain new laws pertaining particularly to the news type of life to be lived in the Land; and admonitions, ceremonies of ratifying the covenant, and
Moses’ Song of Warning. All these clearly relate to the theme of renewal, of rebirth, of preparation, of return. And just as obviously, counterpointing
these to the stories of Adam and Eve at the beginning of Genesis, we find ourselves in a far more complex, mature, and ambivalent moral world—again, suitable
to “second naivete.”