GJR | Seeking Our Beloved this Elul
During a recent JDC Entwine experience in Romania, rabbinical student Yoav Rahamim Varadi discovered the true meaning of Elul.
By Yoav Rahamim Varadi - JDC-Weitzman Fellow and HUC-JIR Rabbinical Student | September 5, 2023
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
During the Hebrew month of Elul, we strive to experience a unique intimacy with God as we approach the Jewish calendar’s holiest days. This intimacy is perhaps best described in the Song of Songs (שיר השירים), a love poem commonly understood as a metaphor for the loving relationship between God and the people of Israel. According to our sources, the Hebrew word אלול (Elul) is a backronym for one of the most popular phrases from the scroll: אני לדודי ודודי לי (“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”). While normally we imagine God dwelling in the heavens above, during Elul, God joins us on our level. Thus, there is a kind of mutual or horizontal, as opposed to vertical, love between God and the people of Israel.
Another teaching on Elul, attributed to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad Hasidic sect, builds on this idea of horizontality between God and the Jewish people. According to this teaching, God is thought of as a king largely inaccessible to the masses, nestled in a majestic palace. Anyone seeking an audience with the king must navigate the intricate pathways of the palace’s bureaucracy, moving from secretary to minister and so on. Additionally, they must physically travel all the way to the capital and then somehow make their way into the innermost chamber of the palace where the king is seated on his high throne. Once you reach the king, you must present yourself in the most dignified manner possible, adhering to a stringent code of attire, speech, and decorum.
Yet, in the month of Elul, the king ventures out to the open fields beyond the city walls. During this month, the king is made accessible to all. He warmly greets the peasants and they in turn warmly greet him, allowing for an unprecedented intimacy.
What does it mean to share intimacy with the Divine? Of course, this is different for every being. We can connect through prayer, through acts of kindness, through following God’s commandments. In my own experience, I’ve found intimacy with the Divine through strengthening my sense of Jewish peoplehood — through seeking connection with Jewish communities throughout the world.
This past February, as a Weitzman-JDC Fellow, I traveled to Romania with JDC Entwine to learn about Romanian Jewry and foster a sense of connection between our community and theirs. Upon arriving in Bucharest, my peers and I were greeted with open arms by Mona, the director of the Jewish community’s welfare department, who works tirelessly to provide social services to Romanian Jews in need and who was deeply committed to ensuring that we were safe and enjoying ourselves. On our second day, we traveled from Bucharest to Cristian, a village in the mountains approximately 115 miles away where we were to take part in Family Camp, a retreat where Jewish families from across Romania congregate to celebrate Shabbat and create community.
When we arrived at the train station, Mona entered the terminal with us and accompanied us to the kiosk where we bought our lunch, just to make certain that we did not get lost or pickpocketed. She then guided us to the correct platform and gave us Romanian pastries for the journey — a final gesture of kindness after having already gone above and beyond for us over the previous two days. In her deep, quiet commitment to us, I felt God’s presence.
The day before, Magda, a fiery woman with fittingly bright orange hair, took us on a tour of Jewish Bucharest. She clearly had a background in theater, as she was dramatic and engaging as ever. Walking arm-in-arm through sites of Jewish destruction and sites of Jewish joy, I felt deeply connected to her and to the Romanian Jewish community. My history is theirs and theirs is mine. We are all part of Am Yisrael.
I felt deeply connected to the Romanian Jewish community. My history is theirs and theirs is mine: We’re all part of Am Yisrael.
We closed our time in Romania in a gazebo with approximately 50 Jewish families marking the end of Shabbat and the start of the new week. We swayed with our arms around one another singing Debbie Friedman’s “Birchot Havdalah.” In that moment, we became both peasant and king mingling in an open field in the mountains of Romania, the Shechinah dwelling amongst us.
This Elul, may we continue to see the face of God in one another.
Yoav Rahamim Varadi (he/him) is a rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and currently lives in Tel Aviv with his partner. He was born in Jerusalem to a Kurdish Israeli mother and a Hungarian father.
After studying Jewish Literature and English at the joint program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Yoav worked as an Economic Empowerment Program Associate at Footsteps, providing educational support for those who have left the ultra-Orthodox community or are exploring options outside of it.
Yoav is a Jewish educator and regularly tutors B’nei Mitzvah students.He loves engaging in critical discourse on pop culture, music, and photography.