Shortly after I had started becoming observant, I was with my family at an event. As a whole my family has always been supportive of my choices, whether that has been career, dating, or religion. The message being, pursue whatever makes you happy (as long as you’re not hurting anyone.) But despite expressed sentiments, beneath the surface more complicated feelings reside. Something that hand-passed champagne might unearth.
It wasn’t long before in the midst of a somewhat crowded reception hall opposite a step-and-repeat, a fierce theological debate was intermittently starting to break out between me and my brother. I’d say something, we’d get interrupted, he’d come back with something, then I’d chat with my mom for a while. This back and forth continued for a short while until my brother finally said, “God isn’t some genie in the sky, waiting to grant your wishes.” And he was absolutely right.
But for him, that’s the extent of what a relationship with God could be. What can you do for me? In actuality a partnership with the Creator of the Universe can manifest in ways far more profound.
Once again we are in the Jewish month of Elul. It is an extraordinary time that proceeds the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Succos. It is a time that, after feeling God’s distance during the month of Av, He has the potential to be closer than ever. There is tremendous opportunity for personal growth (for the practical applications of this check out my post from last year on Elul.)
It is also a time to feel God’s love more than ever. But where I tackled that on a surface level before, I’d like to dive into the concept of loving God from a different angle.
The popular notion is that Elul is an acronym for Ani l’dodi, v’dodi li or I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me. This line comes from King Solomon’s Shir HaShirim which characterizes the relationship between God and the Jewish people as a love affair between a bride and a groom. However also found in Shir HaShirim is the verse that says My beloved is for me, and I am for my beloved, seemingly the converse of the one above. Does this switching around of the subject and object of the love make a difference? We love God, God loves us, does it matter who is first? According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, yes, very much so. (Following is from The Inside Story: A Chassidic Perspective on Biblical Events, Laws, and Personalities)
Masculine and Feminine Love
In order to understand how this difference… makes a difference, we need to look at how Judaism understands relationships. Despite the world we live in, which is challenging and redefining how we look at sex and gender, Judaism firmly believes in male and female natures. At its core, in a relationship there is a giver (male energy) and a receiver that takes that gift and nurtures it (female energy). Now these energies are not exclusive to a certain person in the relationship, a woman can be a giver and a man can nurture. But roles are often established and play out in such a way.
The point is, whichever member initiates an expression of love, the receiver’s response is inspired or shaped by that act of expression. You give your wife the perfect gift she never even knew she wanted, you’re going to get a more loving response than an Amazon gift voucher.
Regardless of our roles in our relationships, we are seen as having a feminine relationship to God’s masculine role. All day he provides us with gifts, tests, messages, and opportunities and in the grand scheme of things, asks for nothing in return. Yes, He “wants” us to keep his mitzvahs, but really that’s also for us, not for Him. So the relationship is characterized as My beloved is for me, and I am for my beloved. (God is for us, and so then, we are for God.) Simply put, He initiates the relationship. We respond.
However in Elul, it switches. The parable being that the King leaves the castle and comes into the field for anyone to greet Him. At this point, we have the opportunity to take the masculine role and initiate the act of love and He is there waiting for us, each day of Elul, coming closer until Rosh Hashanah. I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me.
The Act of Love
It is all too common that we think of love as a happenstance, falling in love. Which means just as easily as you fall into love, you can fall out of love. That’s because that notion of love is based purely on feelings. How does this person make me feel. If you say you love chicken, you don’t really love the chicken, you love the way the chicken tastes. So unless you kept the chicken as a pet and named it something like Kapparah or Sweet Pea, that love is selfish and is subject to the whims of your mood.
Judaism however defines love as the emotional pleasure you experience when you understand and focus on the virtues of someone or something. (Rabbi Weinberg’s What the Angel Taught You. Pg 162) Which means theoretically you could choose to love anyone or anything, as long as you made the effort to focus on their positives.
Elul is the perfect time for that reflection, to actively make a choice about your relationship with God, and then initiate a gesture of love.
As I said above, when one makes an expression of love, that inspires a response. When we reflect and acknowledge what God has done for us, the arousal of emotions and spiritual potential can be off the charts (if we’re dialed in). But now God is stepping back and letting us make the first move. Our acts of love pale in comparison to His, but because He is closer we have the chance to feel His response now more than ever.
I’m Having a Very Weird Elul So Far
Never in my life have I been bombarded with so much opportunity for blessing and frankly it is overwhelming. However, despite the positive, I’ve had moments where the most exciting opportunities appear to dry up or go away. It is very distressing to have the things I’ve wanted for so long seem to be within my grasp only for the line to have dried up so to speak.
I personally believe that God is trying to instill a stronger level of faith (emmunah), a reminder that He is in control, not some producer, not some matchmaker. Even as I see the opportunities “slip through my fingers”, I try to hold on to that notion of trust. Sometimes I can and sometimes I cave to the despair. But as soon as I pick myself up and come back to God, things all of a sudden seem to work themselves out. I’m a toddler learning to walk and God is the parent slowly backing away so I will take another step.
God Isn’t A Genie
My brother was absolutely right. God isn’t here to grant your wishes. God’s here to foster a relationship. He’s here to make you grow. As the amazingly inspirational and talented Sam Glaser writes in his book The Joy of Judaism, “God is prepared to fulfill our requests based on the vessel we have created. It’s a partnership, not a magic show.”
Take these weeks to recognize where you are, how you have grown, and where you want to go. Then ask and trust. But where the genie might let you down, a “non response” from God is an act of love. If you are willing to honestly entertain that, just for one day, you may find what you’re looking for or even something better. And if not, then contemplate if that thing is really good for you. “No” is not a refusal, it’s a communication. During Elul, there no busy signals, straight to voice mails, or robo calls. You just have to pick up the phone. But try to remember what the last message He gave you was.