In Parshas VaEschanan, we read about the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge for those who unintentionally kill (D’varim 4:41-49). This parshah usually falls out immediately following Tish’ah B’Av, and, consequently, shortly before Elul. At face value, the Arei Miklat, Tish’ah B’Av, and Elul do not seem to share a thematic connection. The Ir Miklat is a city of refuge – a safe haven – for one who unwittingly murders. Tish’ah B’Av is a day of sadness and destruction, as klal Yisrael mourns the loss of the Beis HaMikdash and the tragedies that have occurred throughout Jewish History. And Elul is the month of t’shuvah (repentance). What links these three topics together? In order to understand their deep underlying connection, let us delve into each of these three topics.
Tish’ah B’Av: The Death of the World
On Tish’ah B’Av, we go through a process of aveilus (mourning), similar to the process of mourning a loved one. This seems to be an excessive response to the loss of a building – the Beis HaMikdash (Holy Temple). However, the destruction of the Temple itself was merely the physical expression of a much deeper tragedy. The Beis HaMikdash was the makom (locus) of connection between Hashem and this physical world. The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed as a result of the disconnect that we, klal Yisrael, created between us and Hashem, between us and our fellow man, 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 HaChaim (Nefesh HaChaim 1:4) explains, once this was broken, the physical vessel that represented this connection – the Beis HaMikdash – was reduced to an empty shell and could easily be destroyed.
The concept of 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 his/her body. When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, the world died. The soul of the world – Hashem – left its body, its vessel – the physical world – resulting in a cosmic spiritual chasm and a shattered reality. We mourn on Tish’ah B’Av not just for the destruction of a building, but for the death of the world itself. And 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.
Based on this idea, it is now clear why klal Yisrael was sent into galus (exile) as a result of the churban Beis HaMikdash (destruction of the Temple). A person who murders another intentionally is executed as punishment. When the Jewish people “killed” the world, we were sent into exile. We lost our home, our makom – Eretz Yisrael. 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 murdering the world, for severing its soul from its body. Instead, though, we were merely exiled, maintaining the ability to correct our mistake and return home.
This serves as a beautiful explanation of the midrash (Eichah Rabbah 4:14), which states that instead of destroying the Jewish People, Hashem took his wrath out on the wood and stones of the Beis HaMikdash. Hashem destroyed the Beis HaMikdash, but He did not destroy us, giving us the chance to rebuild anew. Our exile, in a sense, is a gift, as it allows us to rebuild the connection between us and Hashem and return home once more.
Elul: Returning Home
This is why Elul directly follows Tish’ah B’Av. Tish’ah B’Av is the time of breakdown, exile, and death; Elul is the time of rejuvenation, redirection, and rebirth. As we transition from Tish’ah B’Av towards Elul, we pause, stop the negative momentum, and begin building anew. The low of Tish’ah B’Av becomes the impetus for growth throughout the month of Elul, and in this way, it becomes a y’ridah l’tzorech aliyah – a breakdown for the sake of ascension. Elul, in the deepest sense, represents our journey back home to our proper makom, 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. Elul is our voyage back home, as we reconnect Hashem to this world, the Soul of the world to its proper place. The literal meaning of the word “t’shuvah” is “return,” and that is our goal at this time. 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 “New Year’s commitments,” writing down 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 grapple to rebuild ourselves and what feels like a broken connection with Hashem. This is why Hashem created the Ir Miklat.
Ir Miklat: A Place for Those Without a Place
An Ir Miklat, a city of refuge, is a place for those without a place. When one loses his physical makom, he feels lost, abandoned, hopeless. At exactly this moment, he is given a sense of hope. He may have lost his place, but there is still a place for him to go in the interim until he can return home. This is what the Ir Miklat represents: hope for the hopeless, a home for the homeless, stability for the unstable.
Elul as Our Makom
This is the purpose of Elul. Tish’ah B’Av reminds us about how broken life can become, about the genuine difficulty and challenge of life. But there will always be an Elul, an Ir Miklat, a Makom. We will always have a place to stay until the chaos fades away. But even while in the midst of that chaos, we must remember that this is only a waystation, and that we must arise and journey back to our true makom, to our true destination. Elul is our shelter amidst the storm, a lighthouse in the dark. It helps protect us during the madness, but it also helps guide us back to our true destination.
Elul 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 t’shuvah, 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. The foundation for this is our interim makom, our Ir Miklat, Elul – the place for those without a place. This allows us to gain our footing, create clarity and purpose, and begin our journey back home. 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 an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago and has also spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.