Approaching the Month of Elul

The portion of Re'eh, in Dvarim, always comes out towards the start of Elul. This has a message for us.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Parashat Re’eh continues Moshe’s farewell discourse to his beloved people, the discourse which constitutes most of the Book of Deuteronomy. Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of Britain and the British Empire 1913-1946), in his introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy, divides the Book into five sections:

1:1-5 – Introductory;

1:6-4:40 – First Discourse: a review of Israel’s journeying;

4:44-26:18 – Second Discourse: on the religious foundations of the Covenant, together with a Code of Law, dealing with worship (12:1-16:7), government (16:18-18:22), criminal law (19:1-21:9), domestic life (21:10-25:19), and rituals at the Sanctuary (Chapter 26);

27:1-30:20 – Third Discourse: the enforcement of the Law, and the establishment afresh of the Covenant between Israel and G-d;

31:1 to the end – The Last Days of Moshe: the charge to Joshua, the delivery of the Law to the Priests, the Song, the Blessing, and the death of Moshe.

Parashat Re’eh, which spans Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17, falls in Moshe’s Second Discourse, in the section whose theme is worship. Of the 55 mitzvot in Parashat Re’eh (17 positive and 38 negative), 22 are connected with the Holy Temple and the sacrifices therein, and 15 are connected with the prohibitions against idolatry.

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Re’eh always falls on the last Shabbat of Av – either the 25th, 27th, 29th, or 30th of Av; in other words, on the Shabbat immediately preceding Ellul (this year, the day before Ellul).

The month of Av begins as a time of mourning for lost Holy Temple and lost independence in the Land of Israel; it concludes by taking us into the month of Ellul, the beginning of the period of repentance.

And two major events in Jewish history, intimately connected with repentance and the Holy Temple, occurred around this time, on the 29th of Av and the 1st of Ellul.

On the 29th of Av 2448 (1312 B.C.E.), four and a half months after the Exodus, 42 days after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the second set of the Tablets of Stone which replaced those he had smashed on the 17th of Tammuz.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) and the Midrash (Seder Olam Chapters 5-6) derive this date directly from the Torah: the Children of Israel reached the Sinai Desert on the first of Sivan (Exodus 19:1); for either one or two days they were sanctified (v. 10), then followed a three-day period (vs. 11-16) after which God gave them the Ten Commandments on either the 6th or 7th of Sivan.

That day Moshe ascended Mount Sinai, and remained there forty days (Exodus 24:18), returning to the Israelite camp on the 17th of Tammuz, the day of the sin of the golden calf, and smashed the two Tablets of Stone that day (Chapter 32).

The next day, 18th Tammuz, he re-ascended Mount Sinai, and stayed there for another 40-day period (Deuteronomy 9:25) pleading for mercy for Israel, and returned to the Israelite camp on the 28th of Av.

The next day, 29th of Av, he ascended Mount Sinai for the third time (Exodus 34:4), remained up there for another 40 days (Deuteronomy 10:10), and finally returned to the Israelite camp with God’s message of forgiveness on the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur.

So the 29th of Av 2448 was the day on which Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to expiate the sin of the golden calf.

960 years and two days later, on the 1st of Ellul 3408 (352 B.C.E.), King Daryavesh (Darius) II of Persia granted the Jews of Israel permission to continue rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Construction had begun some eighteen years previously, when Koresh (Cyrus), king of Persia, had proclaimed the Jews’ right to return to Israel and begin rebuilding their Holy Temple (Ezra 1:1-3, 2 Chronicles 36:23).

In the month of Tishrei the partially constructed Holy Temple began functioning with sacrifices being offered on the Altar (Ezra 3:1-6). However, two years later Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) became king of Persia, and ordered a building freeze on the Temple Mount, which remained in force until he died and Daryavesh succeeded him (ibid. 4:6-24).

And then, “in the second year of King Daryavesh, in the sixth month [Ellul], on the first day of the month, the word of HaShem came through Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, the governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Yehotzadak the Kohen Gadol, saying: Thus said HaShem, Master of Legions, saying: This nation has said, The time has not yet come! But it is time for the House of HaShem to be rebuilt!” (Haggai 1:1-2).

And that day, 1st Ellul 3408, was when G-d inspired King Daryavesh II to allow the Jews to continue rebuilding the Holy Temple.

Ellul is the month when we, as a nation, begin to draw ever closer to G-d. Ellul is the month when, as the Baal Shem Tov, the Rebbe of all Rebbes, the founder of Hassidism, expressed it, “the King is in the field”.

The Baal Shem Tov explains with a parable: usually, anyone who desires to gain an audience with the King must go through a long procedure. He must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. Even when permission is granted is may be days or weeks before he is finally allowed to enter. When he does finally get to see the King, the audience will be short and very formal. The citizen, unused to the royal surroundings, feeling out of place, might regret his decision to see the King. In his great fear and nervousness he stutters and stammers, and may even forget to put his request before the King.

Once a year, the King leaves his palace to visit the various regions of his Kingdom. But before he reaches the outskirts of a city he visits, his entourage goes ahead to the city to make preparations for the King’s visit and to announce it to all.

In the meantime, the King is in the field, relaxed and approachable by all, even by the lowliest peasant who works on the land. In this casual setting, the common folk are allowed to come out to greet the King and receive his blessing, without the usual pomp and circumstance of the royal palace.

During the month of Ellul, "the King is in the field" and He is easily accessible. We need only make the effort to go out and greet Him.

The Mishnah Berurah (581, Introduction) notes that the name Ellul is the acronym of ani le-dodi ve-dodi li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).

And it also notes that these four Hebrew words all end with the letter yud, whose numerical value is 10; thus “the final letters have a combined value of 40, corresponding to the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Ellul until Yom Kippur; because during these 40 days, repentance is especially accepted bringing our hearts closer than ever to our Beloved in repentance. And then our Beloved is close to us, accepting our repentance out of love”.

How fitting it is, then, that on this final Shabbat before Ellul, this final Shabbat of the month of Av, between the dates on which Moshe re-ascended Mount Sinai to receive final forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, we read Parashat Re’eh, with Moshe’s resounding message – so many of the prohibitions against idolatry and so many of the mitzvot concerning the Holy Temple.