SALT - Tuesday, 7 Elul 5777 - August 29, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg
Parashat Ki-Teitzei begins with the law of the eishet yefat to’ar, outlining the procedure that must be followed when a soldier wishes to marry a woman taken captive from the enemy during battle.  The Torah requires allowing the woman one month during which she “weeps for her father and mother” before the soldier marries her (21:13).
The Zohar, commenting on this verse, writes that this monthlong process of weeping corresponds to the month of Elul.  Somehow, the period of the woman’s bemoaning her state of captivity is associated with the period of Elul, when we are to focus our minds on introspection and repentance.  How might we explain this association?
One answer, perhaps, is that the Zohar here seeks to underscore an important aspect of the repentance process, namely, the experience of longing and pining.  Reflecting upon our misdeeds is to make us feel distant from God like a young woman forcibly taken from her home and brought to live in a foreign country.  The first step in the process of repentance is the feeling of alienation and unease, to recognize that we are “far from home,” that we do not belong in our current spiritual condition, and to feel a passionate longing to return to our state of closeness with God.  The verse from Shir Hashirim (6:3) famously associated with Rosh Hashanah – “Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li” (“I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me”) – speaks of the powerful sense of longing felt by lovers who are currently distant from one another.  Although they are not together, they are very much on each other’s mind, and they desperately long for the time when they will be reunited.  Elul, the period of preparation for the Days of Awe, is when we are to engender this feeling of longing.  This begins with the recognition that we are like a captive girl, that we have drifted far from where we ought to be, that we do not live the life we want to live and should be living.  Just as the captive girl bemoans her having been driven to a foreign land, similarly, we must feel uneasy and distressed over our having left the path of subservience and devotion to God and thus having been distanced from Him.  And we must feel a desperate longing to return to His service, no less than a young captive desperately yearns to return to her family and homeland.
There might also be an additional point of similarity between the experience of the captive girl and the experience of Elul.  Rabbi Akiva (cited in the Sifrei and in Masekhet Semachot, as noted by the Ramban in his Torah commentary) understood the verse’s description of the captive’s longing for her parents as an allusion to her longing for her idolatrous practice.  The captive is given a month to detach herself from her faith before she undergoes her process of conversion and marries the soldier.  The Torah understood that the woman cannot be expected to instantaneously break free of her pagan past and embrace our faith.  And so before she is converted to Judaism, she is given one month during which she grieves and gradually withdraws from the religious lifestyle to which she was accustomed.
It has been suggested that the association drawn by the Zohar between Elul and the captive girl may be explained in light of Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation.  The entire designation of Elul as a period of introspection and repentance stems from the fact that change cannot happen instantaneously.  In order to arrive at the judgment of Rosh Hashanah in a state of repentance, we need to first undergo a process similar to that of the captive girl, gradually overcoming our negative habits and tendencies and preparing ourselves for change.  From this perspective, the Zohar’s comment is jarring, as it compares the process of change we must undergo to the drastic transformation from paganism to Torah Judaism which the captive girl is expected to undergo.  The point being made is that change of any kind requires time and patience, and thus we are to set out to work towards improving ourselves already at the beginning of Elul, so that we arrive at Rosh Hashanah ready and prepared to live during the coming year on a higher level of religious devotion.