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Elul and Rav Kook: ‘Human, rise above, rise’


Even before the first blast of the shofar ushered in the month of Elul, in Israel it was the midnight sounds of the melodious selichot, the penitential prayers at the Western Wall, that welcomed the month.

While Ashkenazi Jews begin the recitation of selichot the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah, Sephardi Jews begin reciting them upon the first midnight of the month. My custom had been to begin selichot close to Rosh Hashanah, but after living in Jerusalem for many years, that changed.

The Wailing Wall draws Jews to launch this month of Days of Awe. It is believed that the wee hours of the night are an auspicious time, latent with compassion, hence the midnight prayers.

The combination of thousands of vulnerable voices calling out together in song, huddled in the open Kotel plaza at a time when the world is slumbering, is now as alive as ever. The sparkling dark layer of nighttime is unfurled upon it all like a canopy, reverberating and echoing the inspiration of the melodious sounds of people who have come to pray, of a nation that has come to pray.

When I was living in Jerusalem, on the cusp of the Nachla’ot neighborhood, I would sometimes emerge from a nighttime selichot penitential prayer service and find small groups of soldiers huddled together, talking quietly or walking the narrow paths and streets of the neighborhood. They were on midnight selichot tours. Under the stars, groups would join us nightly for selichot, or just walk through the alleyways of the city to drink in the Jerusalem nights of mystical Elul.

“The King is in the field,” G-d is accessible, the ancient rabbis taught, to convey the mood of Elul. Normally, and formally, a king’s dwelling place is the inaccessible palace, but during this month, G-d, metaphorically the King, departs from His formal, removed place into which one may not enter unless invited, to join the people in the field. It implies closeness, proximity, accessibility.

Elul in Hebrew is an acronym, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

The month enters with a softness, with a relationship. There is a sense of dialogue, a palpable sense of something more and beyond yourself.

You are preparing.

The yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kokok falls on the third of Elul. Along with the launching of selichot and the rousing shofar blasts, it is his yahrzeit too that for me has joined the cluster of Elul customs. Known as “the poet of repentance,” many of his quotes — poems, reflections — set the stage for this time.

Like lighting that might be fine-tuned, so to speak, to correctly illuminate and bathe with an amber sepia quality, similar is the light of Rav Kook’s writings. They beckon repentance, change and repair, but with a softness and loftiness that does not bring guilt, but rather motivation to peel away layers and look inside, listen and return once again back to what anchors you.

Rav Kook’s writings unlock layers and bring validation and self-awareness to many of your experiences, replete with a sense of encouragement. His words talk of “reviving your soul,” his words, by definition, acknowledging how removed one might feel.

Long ago, one of Rav Kook’s famous quotes was put to music. “Ben adam, alei le-mala, alei…

It is a charge of ascendancy to the human spirit. Simple words, yet so profound: “Human, rise above, rise…” It continues, “because a fierce strength is part of you, wings of spirit animate you; the powerful wings of an eagle. Don’t deny your wings, seek them. Seek them, human, and they will be revealed to you, promptly.”

For me, this melody has been laced and intertwined among the many other beloved and stirring melodies or niggunim of this season of the Days of Awe.

When you think of Rav Kook, you think of a kindness and a burning love for humanity, a holiness surrounding this chasid and kohane, almost like a halo of light from the beyond. His angelic, ethereal presence that has been passed down in the legacy of his own words, seems to radiate Elul.

He is a master of Hebrew writing that stirs the soul, that expresses man’s deep yearning and, primarily, that manages to capture abstract, wordless holiness within the letters of the aleph bet, the Hebrew alphabet, that in turn become the words, the sentences and even the books that have the power to transform Elul from wordless sounds of a shofar to words that give expression to the visceral emotions the shofar awakens.

Selichot. Shofar. 3 Elul. Rav Kook. Jerusalem. These are all parts of my Elul tapestry.

What are yours?

Copyright Intermountain Jewish News