When it was my husband’s 40th birthday, I struggled to figure out the perfect gift. A friend had suggested that I make a scrapbook with letters from family members and friends wishing him well and sharing fond memories. It was a huge undertaking, since this was before everyone had email, so I had to resort to snail mail and send everyone the special scrapbook paper to write on. I did it, however, and the gift was a big hit! It was much appreciated, and something my husband cherishes to this day.
When I needed to put my own thoughts down on paper for his gift, I shared the following Torah thought:
Marriage in Hebrew is נישואין from the language of לנשא—to carry. The job of each person is to learn to carry their spouse and support them in any situation. Well, you always carry me, and this is my present to you, to help carry you. I know deep down inside, this present will uplift you tonight and whenever you look at it in the future. I hope I will always be there to support you until 120!
This word, נשא, is quite interesting, and when we want to understand a word in Tanach, the best approach is to see when it was first used. This typically gives you its truest meaning. So, where does the word נשא first appear? In the 4th perek in Sefer Beraishit, we have a story of Kayin and Hevel. Hevel brought a korban from his firstborn and fattest sheep. His korban was accepted by Hashem. Kayin also brought a korban from the fruits of his land, but his korban was rejected. Kayin was not happy at all and, in fact, became angry. Hashem then tried to give him a pep talk, which is really a strong message to us all.
The Pasuk says the following (פרק ד:ז):
הֲל֤וֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב֙ שְׂאֵ֔ת וְאִם֙ לֹ֣א תֵיטִ֔יב לַפֶּ֖תַח חַטָּ֣את רֹבֵ֑ץ וְאֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ
“Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet, you can be its master.”
Hashem was telling Kayin, and us as well, a powerful message—that we can improve our ways and be lifted, but if we don’t improve, then the Yetzer Hara—or sin—is basically waiting to attack. But, in the end, we can still control it!
From the above pasuk, we also see how Hashem uses the word נשא (to uplift/carry) in the form of שאת, stating that if we make the effort, Hashem will carry us the rest of the way.
The month of Elul is a unique month meant for self-reflection and introspection. It is a time to prepare ourselves for the upcoming ימים נוראים, Days of Awe.
There are many different acronyms that are used to define the month of Elul. One of the more famous pasukim is אני לדודי ודודי לי. Each word begins with a different letter spelling out אלול—“I am for my beloved and my beloved is to me” (from the book of שיר השירים).
Taking a closer look at the beginning of this pasuk, we can learn from its initial phrasing, “I am for my beloved” that it is the “I” who takes the initial step. It starts with the “I” making the effort.
In this month, right after the month of Av/אב, which means “Father”, we are meant to understand and see the true relationship we could have with Hashem. It isn’t a coincidence that Elul is the month right after Av, a month which is known for tragedy throughout Jewish history. Naming this month “Av” is a hint to us about how to receive and accept troubles in our lives. When we develop a proper relationship and connection with Hashem, we are better equipped to accept life’s struggles. This is similar to a person who is fortunate to have a positive, loving relationship with his parents—he understands when his parents punish him for any wrongdoing that he has committed, and he knows that it doesn’t diminish their love for him. The better his relationship with his parents, the better he understands the consequences of his actions.
This is the reason for the juxtaposition of the two months. The month of Av represents a time when Hashem, our Parent, metes out consequences. But then, in the month of Elul, we are meant to reflect on our connection with Him. In this month, we get to see how Hashem can raise us as we lift ourselves to greater heights.
The word נשא does not only mean to carry/lift, but it also means to forgive. When Hashem, our Father, sees us lifting ourselves and improving, He then raises us even higher and forgives us. Life becomes challenging if we constantly sit on the sidelines and wait for others to approach us. We need to confidently take the first steps in improving our relationships with others, knowing that the process can only be started by our initiative.
There is an excellent mashal which explains the importance of taking that first step. If two people were on a boat and neither person paddles, they would drift at sea. The goal, though, is to get to shore, so it behooves a person to begin paddling. Of course, one hopes his partner will paddle as well, but even if he doesn’t, one can still reach his goal—just as the Pasuk begins אני לדודי, it is I who takes the initiative; it is I who tries to connect to the people around me; it is I who tries to connect with Hashem. And most definitely, if Hashem were in the boat with us, and we began to paddle, we would swiftly reach the shore. When we are mindful of the relationships we have, Hashem will constantly lift us and carry us to our goals.