In Parshat Va’etchanan, we read about the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge for those who unintentionally kill (Devarim 4:41-49). This portion usually falls out immediately following Tisha B’av, and, consequently, shortly before the Hebrew month of Elul.
At face value, the cities of refuge, Tisha B’Av and Elul do not seem to share a thematic connection. The city of refuge is a safe haven for one who unwittingly murders. Tisha B’av is a day of sadness and destruction, as Klal Yisrael mourns the loss of the Temple and the tragedies that have occurred throughout Jewish history. And Elul is the month of teshuva (repentance) leading up to the High Holy Days.
What links these three topics?
On Tisha Ba’av, we go through a process of mourning, similar to the process of mourning a loved one. This might seem an excessive response to the loss of a building — the Beis Ha’Mikdash, the Holy Temple. However, the destruction of the Temple itself was merely the physical expression of a much deeper tragedy. The Beis Ha’Mikdash was the makom (locus) of connection between Hashem and this physical world. It was destroyed as a result of the disconnect that we, Klal Yisrael, created between us and Hashem, between us and our fellow humans, and between us and ourselves. We lost sight of the spiritual root of this world, shattering the connection between us and Hashem.
As the Nefesh Ha’Chaim (1:4) explains, once this bond was broken, the Temple, its physical vessel, was reduced to an empty shell and could easily be destroyed.
Death is the disconnect between a spiritual life-force and its physical vessel. The death of a person is the process of one’s soul separating from their body. When the Temple was destroyed, the world died, resulting in a cosmic spiritual chasm and a shattered reality. We yearn for the day when Hashem will once again be fully and clearly manifest in this world, revealing the spiritual essence of this physical reality.
And just as a person who murders is punished, the Jewish people who “killed” the world were sent into exile. According to some opinions, this was in fact an act of mercy on the part of Hashem, as the Jewish people should have been executed for severing the world’s soul from its body. Instead, we were merely exiled, maintaining the ability to correct our mistake and return home.
Similarly, a midrash (Eichah Rabbah 4:14) states that instead of destroying the Jewish people, Hashem took his wrath out on the wood and stones of the Temple, giving us the chance to rebuild anew.
Which brings us to Elul, and why it directly follows Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is the time of breakdown, exile and death; Elul is the time of rejuvenation, redirection and rebirth. As we transition from Tisha B’Av towards Elul, we pause, stop the negative momentum, and begin building anew.
Elul, in the deepest sense, represents our journey back home to our proper place, back to our unbreakable bond with Hashem. The goal of Rosh Hashanah is to fully and wholeheartedly anoint and embrace Hashem as our King. This can only happen after a month spent bridging the gap that we created between us. We yearn to return the world to its proper, higher state, to return the Jewish people back to our elevated status, and for each and every one of us to return to our higher, true selves.
The process of return is a joyous one, but it is also a challenging one. We often feel as though we are fighting an uphill battle, and we struggle to maintain momentum and continue gaining ground. Every year as we approach Elul, there is an underlying sense of dread as we prepare ourselves for another year of “resolutions,” making the same list of goals, only to be forgotten two weeks later. For many, this is the unspoken dread of Elul: the feeling of despair and loneliness as we strive to rebuild ourselves and repair our broken connection with Hashem.
The city of refuge represents hope for the hopeless, a home for the homeless, stability for the unstable.
And that is why Hashem created the city of refuge. It is a place for those without a place. When one loses their physical makom, they feel lost, abandoned, hopeless. At exactly this moment, they are given a sense of hope. They may have lost their place, but there is still a place for them to go until they can return home. The city of refuge represents hope for the hopeless, a home for the homeless, stability for the unstable.
This is the purpose of Elul. It is Hashem’s way of saying, “There will always be a place for you.” In response, we must embrace that place, and begin rebuilding from there towards our true destination.
This is the first step of teshuva, recognizing that we are not where we need to be, but that through constant effort and the help of Hashem, we can get there; we can return to our true makom, we can ascend to a true Rosh Hashanah. May we all be inspired to pause, find our footing, and use this Elul to purposefully journey back to our true makom, Hashem.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, an online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago.
Friday, July 23, 2021
Av 14, 5781
Light Candles at 8:02 pm
Saturday, July 24
Torah Reading: Va’etchanan: Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Shabbat ends 9:06 pm