We are now leaving behind the memories of destruction, both of the Temple and of the Jewish people, as we exit out of the month of Av and enter into the month of Elul.
Elul marks the last month on the Hebrew calendar, a preparatory month for the arrival of redemption, the arrival of the high holidays in the month of Tishrei. This is a time for deep introspection and repentance. The theme of repentance flows all throughout this month of Elul, throughout all the high holidays of Tishrei, even beyond Yom Kippur, until the last day of Sukkot. Repentance is to be forefront on our minds and hearts for these sixty days.
“The King is in the field” during Elul, according to Jewish thought and tradition. Judaism holds this month as especially significant, because this is the month when the King leaves his castle—his highest heights—in order to draw near to us and meet us in the field. Instead of us hoping to enter the castle and gain audience with the King, he runs through the field to meet us halfway. We are able to sprint to our Beloved, throw our arms around him, and hold him tight, never letting him go, through the act of repentance.
This may not be the vision that most of us conjure up when thinking of repentance. We might think of repentance in a bleaker manner, bowing our heads in shame and self-condemnation for having totally messed up. However, repentance is really the exact opposite. It is a bright and joyous occasion, a precious gift given by HaShem—a gift that enables us to be closer to our Beloved in the midst of the field.
The cry of HaShem’s heart is a cry for us to repent, to turn back to him.
Return [i.e., repent], O Israel, to HaShem your God, for you have fallen because of your transgression. (Hosea 14:2)
Repent and turn back from your transgressions; let them not be a stumbling block of guilt for you… For it is not my desire that anyone should die, declares HaShem God. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30-32)
“Repent and live!” This is not merely an ominous warning filled with doom and foreboding, rather it is a passionately loving call to a most treasured people. HaShem delights in repentance, and is willing to forgive any transgression when his people seek him with all their hearts. He pardoned the transgression of Israel after the golden calf, not annihilating the nation and starting over with Moses. He pardoned David for his murder and adultery. He pardoned Jonah when he cried out to him from the belly of the whale, from the depths of hell. He pardoned all the people of Nineveh from their atrocities when, with contrite hearts, they repented and changed their ways:
The Holy One, blessed be he, said to Elijah, “Behold, the precious gift which I have bestowed on my world: though a man sins again and again, but returns in repentance, I will receive him” (y.Sanhedrin 28b)
HaShem’s desire for repentance is so intense that it even becomes the gospel message that he sent his Messiah to proclaim: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). The gospel that Yeshua adamantly proclaimed was this gospel of repentance; and the result of that repentance was the kingdom of heaven coming to earth—the King coming out into the field, so to speak.
Yeshua is not only a herald of the free gift of salvation, he is also a herald of the free gift of repentance. Repentance is the most opulent gift given to us by God, the clean slate and remission of severe, justly deserved punishment. In the well-known Jewish account, when Rabbi Eliezer’s disciples asked him when one should repent, Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before you die.” The disciples then asked how they would know when that was, to which Rabbi Eliezer replied that one should repent today—or everyday—lest he die tomorrow (b.Shabbat 153). As believers, how much more so should we live lives of daily repentance, enjoying the free gift of God as proclaimed by Yeshua, in anticipation of the kingdom that is ready to break through into our world.
In this month of Elul, and the days until the end of the fall festivals, we can actively live a life of daily repentance. We can actively live a life fulfilling the gospel message proclaimed by our Messiah. We are offered a chance to join with HaShem in causing the kingdom to break through by repenting, returning to HaShem, and meeting our Beloved in the field. We run toward him and can see him running toward us as we partake of his lavish gift of repentance.