What is Elul?
R’ Moshe Schwab z”l (1918-1979) writes: With the arrival of the month of Elul, we are faced with the question, “What is Elul?” How is this month different from every other month?
R’ Yisrael Salanter z”l said, “Every month should be Elul, but Elul is Elul.” R’ Schwab explains: All year long, a person should act the way we try to act during Elul. At least, when Elul arrives, one should be aware that his life, both the material and spiritual aspects, hangs in the balance. This is true of oneself, of one’s family, and of every member of the Jewish People.
Elul is the time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days on which, we believe with perfect faith, we will be judged. We understand that everything that will happen, whether on a personal or communal level, depends on those days. Yet, one cannot “leap” into Rosh Hashanah. One must prepare for it. To the degree that one prepares himself, to that extent he will experience Rosh Hashanah. Conversely, to the degree that one is lax in preparing for Rosh Hashanah, to that extent he will miss out when Rosh Hashanah comes.
A person who knows that he has a court date in the distant future does not let his life be overshadowed by that upcoming event. However, as that date looms near, the litigant begins to fixate on it. So should we be when Elul approaches. All year long, we know that Rosh Hashanah is in the distant future, and we ignore it. When Elul comes, it is time to start focusing on our upcoming court date. Chazal say that on Rosh Hashanah, “Every living creature passes before Hashem.” This really means, “Every living creature.” There are no exceptions. (Ma’archei Lev Vol. I, p. 57)
- “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your cities–which Hashem, your G-d, gives you–for your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” (16:18)
Why does the directive to appoint judges and officers follow immediately after the commandment to rejoice on the festivals (at the end of last week’s parashah)? Our Sages explain that the Torah is instructing us to appoint judges and officers to circulate among the people and ensure that there are no frivolous gatherings of men and women, as can easily happen amidst the rejoicing.
R’ Avraham Saba z”l (1440-1508; Spain) adds: For the same reason, our Sages ordained that one recite the berachah “Ha’tov Ve’ha’meiteev” after drinking one wine and before drinking a better wine. This blessing was originally composed to commemorate the miracle of the “Martyrs of [the city of] Beitar.” Although the Romans did not allow these martyrs to be buried for a long time, their bodies did not decompose. Because excessive drinking can lead to frivolity and improper mixing of the genders, our Sages decreed that one recall these martyrs in the middle of drinking in order to promote some degree of solemnity. (Tzror Ha’mor)
The midrash comments on our verse: “Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘Where there is judgment, there is no judgment. Where there is no judgment, there is judgment.’ How so? Said Rabbi Eliezer, ‘If judgment is performed below, it will not have to be performed above. If judgment is not performed below, it will have to be performed above’.”
On its simplest level, this midrash is teaching the importance of setting up courts. If mankind judges and punishes wrongdoers and protects victims and the oppressed, G-d won’t have to do so. But, observes R’ Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht z”l (rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh), there is another message here also:
When Hashem judges an individual, it is not to punish or hurt him, but rather to notify him that he needs to improve. Nevertheless, these notifications from G-d can sometimes seem like “punishments,” and we would prefer to avoid them. The midrash tells us how. If each person judges himself honestly and acts on his findings, he will not need to be judged above. However, if there is no judgment below, if man does not judge himself, he will have to be judged above. (Asufot Ma’arachot: Devarim p.144)
- “You shall arise and ascend to the place that Hashem, your G-d, shall choose.” (17:8)
Rashi quotes a midrash: “This [the word ‘ascend’] teaches that the Temple was situated higher than all other places.”
R’ Elya Meir Bloch z”l (1894-1955; founder and rosh yeshiva of Telshe in Cleveland) observes: Of course we know that there are taller mountains than Har Ha’moriah, where the Temple stood. What the midrash means is that because the earth is a sphere, any point can be designated as “the highest point.” Har Ha’moriah deserves that designation because it is the holiest point in the world, and it is the place to which all people ascend to experience spiritual growth. (Peninei Da’at)
- “It shall be that when you draw near to the war, the kohen shall approach and speak to the people. He shall say to them, ‘Shema / Hear, Yisrael, you are coming near to the battle against your enemies; let your heart not be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken before them’.” (20:2-3)
A midrash interprets the kohen’s words as follows: “Even if the only merit that you have is that you recite Shema Yisrael, you deserve to be victorious.”
R’ Yehoshua Rokeach z”l (1825-1894; Belzer Rebbe) asks: We read (in verse 8 below), “The officers shall continue speaking to the people and say, ‘Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart’.” Our Sages interpret this verse as addressing those who are afraid of being punished for the sins they committed–even [something seemingly as minor as] speaking between putting on the tefilin shel yad and the tefilin she rosh. But, if Bnei Yisrael deserve to be victorious even if their only merit is the recitation of Kriat Shema, why should they fear their sins?
He explains: Verse 3 contains the words of the kohen, while verse 8 contains the words of the officers. These functionaries have different roles. The kohen’s job is to pray for Bnei Yisrael; therefore, he must instil love of the Jewish People in his own heart by focusing on their merits, no matter how few those may be. Officers, on the other hand, must lead and direct the people; therefore, they must warn them regarding the smallest infraction.
In a similar vein, R’ Alter Chaim Levinson z”l (a communal activist in the time of R’ Yehoshua Rokeach) adds that he once came to Belz during the month of Elul to discuss with the Belzer Rebbe proposed solutions to certain breaches in religious standards, but the Rebbe refused to see him. R’ Levinson was perplexed, because the Rebbe’s door was usually open to him. He shared his confusion with R’ Yissachar Dov Rokeach z”l (1851-1926; son and successor of the Rebbe), and the latter explained that during Elul, when the Rebbe was focused on praying for the welfare of the Jewish People, he did not wish to hear about the breaches in society. (Quoted in Igra D’bei Hilula p.88)
- “Anochi, Anochi / It is I, I am He, Who comforts you.” (Yeshayah 51:12)
Why is the word “Anochi” repeated? R’ Yaakov Chaim Katz shlita (Brooklyn, N.Y.) suggests: “Anochi” alludes to the Luchot that we received at Har Sinai (since that was the first word on the tablets). Lest we lose hope of ever being forgiven and of ever having the Beit Hamikdash rebuilt, Hashem tells us: Just as there was a second “Anochi,” i.e., just as I gave you another chance after you sinned and caused the Luchot to be broken, so I will give you another chance to have the Beit Hamikdash.
- This letter was written by R’ Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005), one of the leading teachers of mussar in the second half of the 20th century. While this letter addresses a specific concern of a young student, its message applies to any person who wishes to make an honest accounting of his thoughts and deeds.
It was worthwhile to see you last Thursday, for you brought me calm. I had been very worried about the fact that you were unhappy in shiur / Talmud class. The manner in which your attitude changed from despair to joy testifies to the existence of siyata di’Shmaya / Divine assistance. The “coincidence” that you took a notebook with you and suddenly felt an urge to take notes–such are the ways of Divine providence . . .
As for why you originally rejected the shiur so strongly, you wrote to me that it was too low a level. You related that the gaon and tzaddik R’ . . . said it was laziness. I am confident that it was not laziness, for you do want to hear an advanced shiur; in fact, you were complaining that the shiur was not advanced enough. But, if it was not laziness, what was it? Why didn’t you notice at first how intricate the shiur was? I think it was because you had a negi’ah / bias. You thought that they put you in a class that was beneath you, and that bias sealed your ears so you could not hear the intricacy of the shiur. It is amazing how a bias can affect a person! Of course, I am not writing this merely to explain the past, but rather because of the incredible lesson that can be learned from this experience. When the bias is negated–in this case, through siyata di’Shmaya–the ears suddenly open and the shiur sounds different. Through your disgrace, we see your praise, for you acknowledged the truth and recognized your error. That is a very high level. See to it that you guard this trait and always acknowledge the truth. Take care you discover your biases and negate them. That is the primary benefit of studying mussar–it opens a window to the heart, so one can see where his biases are and can negate them. After all, we have many biases that affect almost everything we do!
All the best to you, my beloved, may your light shine. Be healthy and strong, and rejoice in serving G-d. . . (Igrot U’ketavim, Vol.II no.263)
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