My head is bursting
with the joy of the unknown.
My heart is expanding a thousand fold.
flies about the world.
All seek separately
the many faces of my Beloved.
Jalaludin Rumi 
This Shabbat, we enter the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is a time of preparation for the New Year through self-introspection and reflection. It is also a time of longing for the Beloved, of yearning for God. This truth is expressed in the acronym for Elul: Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li – “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3).
If we want to know God, then we need to want the Holy blessed One above all else. We must want the One who is Pure Love more than all the desires of this world. Like infatuated youths who neglect their appearance, lose their appetite and cannot concentrate on anything, we need to become so absorbed in the thought of our ‘Beloved’ that we forget all worldly concerns.
Why is the lover restless for the beloved? Because he or she has tasted the intoxication of love and everything else seem insipid in comparison. This is the state of the lovers of God: once the nectar of Divine Love has been tasted, all else seems dull and meaningless. Therefore, they long only for the Overarching Presence. As the Psalm which we read daily during this period of the year exclaims:
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, this I seek, that I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the loveliness of the Lord, and to visit in His Sanctuary.” – Psalm 27:4
During his period of intense sadhana (spiritual practice), Sri Ramakrishna used to cry out at the end of each day:
“Mother, another day has passed and still you have not revealed yourself to me.”
He compares the love of a devotee for God to the yearning of a child for its mother:
“The child sees nothing but confusion when his mother is away. You may try to cajole him by putting a sweetmeat in his hand; but he will not be fooled. He only says, ‘No, I want to go to my mother.’… How restless a child feels for his mother. Nothing can make him forget his mother…
“Ah, that restlessness is the whole thing. Whatever path you follow…the vital point is restlessness. God is our inner guide. It does not matter if you take a wrong path – only you must be restless for Him. He Himself will put you on the right path.”
Swami Chidananda of the Divine Life Society also affirms this truth:
“Religious life”, he says, “is more than [study in a] math [religious institution] and Puja Parayana [ritual worship], more than visiting temples, performing ceremonies and going [on] pilgrimage or even Japa [repetition of God’s Name] and sadhana [spiritual practices] only. Religious means nearness to God, awareness of his Presence as an indwelling reality in all forms of life around you. Otherwise you will just be a religious person, with no religious in you.” 
The Hasidic Master, Dov Baer of Mezeritch, teaches that the principal joy that God receives from our mitzvot (actions to fulfill the commandments) is the hitlahavut, the spiritual fervor that we invest in them. It is for this spiritual fervor that the Originator of All of Existence created humankind. This hitlahavut is at the heart of the spiritual life.
The truth is, Rebbe Dov Baer explains, God does not need all the external forms that make up the practice of the mitzvot. The only reason that the Almighty has given us all these commandments is because we are physical creatures and we need a physical form to clothe our hitlahavut. However, it is only the inner yearning that is truly of value to the Omnipotent and Omniscient.
Rebbe Dov Baer then elucidates. Everything, he says, ultimately returns to its source. A stone that is thrown up into the sky has no rest until it comes back to earth. The waters of the sea evaporate and rise into the sky as clouds, but they find no rest until they come back as rain and finally rush into the sea again.
A fundamental attractive force in nature draws everything back to its source. A powerful spiritual force draws us back to our Source as well. The hitlahavut that we feel arises as a result of our contact with the fire or light of that source. This, in fact, is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word. The linguistic root of the word is lahav, which means flame. Therefore, hitlahavut is to be on fire with God. Once we have kindled the Divine flame, we are captivated by its brilliance forever. Even if we turn away from the spiritual life for a while, even for the rest of this incarnation, we will be pulled back the next time around; it as inevitable as water-vapor returning to the sea.
Our spiritual fervor awakens the spark of Divine desire or love within us. This personal arousal then links us back to the primordial love or desire that created the world. This infinite force of attraction lies at the core of the creation. As the Talmud states:
“The cow wants to nurse more than the calf wants to suckle.” – Pesachim 112a
The power of physical attraction is a mechanism for the physical evolution of the species. The power of Divine attraction is a mechanism for the spiritual evolution of humankind.
We may not be on the level of a Baal Shem Tov or a Ramakrishna. Nonetheless, we can all set out along the path. We start our journey by first wanting to want God. From this modest beginning, we gradually increase our spiritual aspiration and desire for the Eternal One until it becomes a living reality for us.
When we reach the stage where we feel restless for God, then it is a sign that we are getting close, that the attractive force is strong and we are “in love.” When we arrive at the state of consciousness where see God in everything, where there is no separation between the spiritual and the physical; then we can know that we and our Beloved are One.
The Hasidic Master, Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, believes that hitlahavut is crucial to our survival in this harsh physical world. It is through our spiritual fervor that we bind ourselves to That which is infinite and transcendent. If our spiritual practices are mere lifeless forms that we perform as a matter of rote, then they will be empty vessels that hold no spiritual sustenance for us. Without hitlahavut (yearning for God), without devekut (attachment to God), we will have nothing that we can hold on to, nothing to support and strengthen us when we face moments of misfortune in our lives.
Sri Ramana Maharshi expands this idea one step further. It is not enough to yearn for God, he declares. It is not even enough to bind ourselves to the Creator of all life. Our spiritual success depends upon reaching the place in the depth of our being where we know that the Lord dwells within us.
This understanding is clearly illustrated by the following story from the life of Annamalai Swami, one of the Maharshi’s most intimate devotees.
Annamalai Swami came to Sri Ramana Maharshi as a young man. At first, he served as one of Sri Ramana’s attendants. Then, he was given the job of overseeing the construction of the ashram’s buildings. After twelve years of building, Annamalai Swami moved to a small colony of seekers that lived just outside the ashram grounds and devoted his time to meditation. Everyday, he would come in the morning and evening to sit in the Maharshi’s presence, hear his teaching and receive his grace. He continued living in this manner for a number of years.
Then, one day when Annamalai Swami entered the hall, Sri Ramana covered his face with a shawl. He continued to do this on the next three consecutive days whenever Annamalai Swami entered his presence. Finally, Annamalai Swami turned to his teacher and asked:
“Why is Bhagavan covering his face like a Muslim woman every time I come into the hall? Does this mean that I should not come anymore?”
The Maharshi replied:
“I am just behaving like Siva [I am sitting here, just minding my own business]. Why are you talking to me?”
Confused, Annamalali Swami left the hall and stood under a nearby tree. After a while, the Maharshi called him back; they were now alone. Turning to Annamalai Swami he asked him,
“Are you an atheist who has no belief in God?”
Annamalai Swami was too shocked to answer. The Maharshi then continued:
“If one has no faith in God, one will commit a lot of sins and be miserable. But you, you are a mature devotee. When the mind has attained maturity, in that mature state, if one thinks that one is separate from God, one will fall into the same state as an atheist who has no belief in God.
“You are a mature sadhaka [spiritual seeker]. It is not necessary for you to come here any more. Stay in Palakottu [the small colony where he lived] and do your meditation there. Try to efface the notion that you are different from God.” 
We begin by wanting to want God. However, as we evolve along the path, the experience of the Self becomes a crucial part of our existence. If after we have become mature spiritual seekers, the universal Spirit is still not a living presence inside us, then we will begin to question our own beliefs. If our faith is not based on inner experience, then we will become filled with cynicism and doubt just like an atheist.
The key to attaining the personal experience of the Unknowable One is hitlahavut. By being on fire for God we kindle the Divine flame that is within each of us. Through the power of our spiritual fervor, we propel our inner quest forward until our little flame merges into the infinite blaze of Eternal Light.
The month of Elul is a spiritual opportunity, where we place the search for the One who is the source of all Being above all other passions and pursuits. It is a time when we seek out “the many faces of our Beloved” in every person and every creature. It is the moment when we renew our vow of love for the Bestower of every blessing and proclaim, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”
Copyright © 2014, by Yoel Glick
- Shahram Shiva, Hush Don’t Say Anything to God: Passionate Poems of Rumi, (Jain Publishing)
- ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 673↵
- Swami Chidananda, Divine Life Society Website, Daily Reading for 27/8/2008 http://www.sivanandaonline.org ↵
- David Godman, Living by the Words of Bhagavan, p. 210↵