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How Our Mood Changed Two Hundred Years Ago

Friday, 30 August, 2019 - 3:09 pm


Historically, these next four weeks were a tense and frightening time in Jewish tradition.

Gearing up for Rosh Hashanah - the day of judgement - the Jewish calendar features the month called Elul, designated as the time for self introspection and correction. We still have a chance to wipe the slate clean by identifying our faults and repenting for past improprieties. Sounds frightening and intense.

A little over two centuries ago the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad radically changed our perception of Elul and transformed it into a time of passionate joy. Here is what he explained.

Jewish mysticism teaches that Shabbat is different than the rest of the week because there is a great revelation of divine clarity in our world from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Therefore, we must unplug from our mundane reality and focus on our relationship with G-d in a formal way. We are prohibited from certain labors and spend the day steeped in spirituality.

The same is true about the festivals and since Yom Kippur is the apex of divine revelation in our world, it is considered the most solemn of days when we must disconnect even from our most basic physical needs throughout the day.

These same sources of Jewish mysticism teach that the divine energy manifest in the world on Yom Kippur is also present throughout the entire month of Elul. This begs the obvious question - why do we not behave as we do on Yom Kippur throughout the entire month of Elul?

Kings and Queens are mostly a relic of the past, but to this day much of humanity is fascinated by royalty and royal life, so let’s employ the analogy of a king and his subjects.

When the king is in his palace he is virtually unapproachable. Even the select few granted an audience must follow royal protocols and dress codes, have limited time and the experience is largely choreographed. Even if their wishes are granted with much pomp and ceremony the encounter is highly formal, certainly memorable but rarely pleasurable.

At times the king wishes to fraternize with his subjects in the fields. He wears plainclothes, available to all and, most importantly, he is in a splendid and happy mood, putting everyone at ease. Although extremely informal, he is still the king and grants his subjects all of their wishes, sans the pomp and ceremony.

With this in mind, the Alter Rebbe explains that on Yom Kippur G-d is in “the palace.” We are expected to follow a strict protocol and meet G-d in the synagogue in a state of detachment from materialism.

But during Elul G-d is in “the fields.” Accessible by everyone, even while steeped in materialism and the humdrum of daily life. All we need to do is make the effort to approach G-d by learning more Torah and observing another mitzvah, and He will surely grant us a good and sweet new year. There is still intense work to be done, but it’s no longer foreign and formal.

Sounds like a happy time to me.

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