Parshat Shoftim is read each year on the first Shabbat in the Jewish month of Elul. Shoftim begins with the words “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates”, which Rashi explains to mean in all your cities. But many of the commentaries see a hinted message in these words that related to the month of Elul, and the preparation for the High Holidays that we are supposed to be engaged with during this time.
They explain that during this time we should be taking inventory of our lives and identifying what are the areas that we struggled most in this year. Many of the areas that we pinpoint might be weaknesses in our behavior that can only be fixed if we institute significant changes in our life. Perhaps we need to set up greater boundaries to distance ourselves from certain challenging situations or people. Perhaps we need to reach out to others for help and guidance.
“Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates”, according to these commentaries refers to the “gates” in our life that lead us into situations of trouble and the “judges and officers” being referred to are the measures that we take to make sure we remain safe and secure from falling.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the four Hebrew letters that spell the word Elul is an acronym of the verse Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li, which means I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. (Song of Songs 6:3) This is intimate description of King Solomon’s relationship with God defines the theme of the Jewish month of Elul.
Elul is more than just preparation time for the High Holidays. It is a time period infused with the potential to capitalize on the Almighty's love and compassion and completely take down the walls that separate us from experiencing Hashem in high definition through the lens of our daily lives.
The Kabbalists compare the 40 days from when Elul begins until the climax of the High Holidays, Yom Kippur, to the 40 days after the conception of a child in the womb. This is when the initial formation of the child happens and it is the most vulnerable time in the fetus's development. The Talmud says that there are certain aspects of the child that can only be prayed for during these first 40 days, and many Kabbalistic sources say that it is only after 40 days that the fetus receives its soul (interestingly enough, it is around 40 days after conception when we can first detect brain waves).
Corresponding to this, as well, are the 40 days that Moshe spent atop Mount Sinai after the Jewish people received the Torah in order to complete the formation of the Jewish nation after its conception. It is that very formation that we can undergo during these days if we choose to do so. In fact, it is precisely during these 40 days between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur that Moshe ascended Mount Sinai for the second time, after the sin of the Golden Calf, to receive the second set of tablets.
This rebirth of the Jewish people wasn't a once-in-history event. It was a recurring experience, an annual opportunity to begin again, to begin a new process of formation, to literally re-create ourselves from a new conception.
The power of Elul doesn't come down on its own. We must initiate. But even the smallest opening, the slightest desire to find new meaning, the smallest spark that begs to be ignited, is enough to bring down this great potential. Like King Solomon we must begin by devoting ourselves to our beloved and then let our beloved do His part in making this season one that will truly be a new beginning.