The month of Elul, sefarim write, is reserved as a time of preparation for the upcoming Days of Judgement and Awe. It is said that in the tiny shtetlach of Poland, Hungary, and Russia, one could feel the month of Elul in the air; the fear and trepidation were palpable. There were some great talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) who set aside their regular daily routine of Talmudic study, and devoted the month of Elul principally to the study of mussar (ethics and character refinement). At the very least, people set aside time for cheshbon ha- nefesh (self scrutiny) and getting oneself ready for the upcoming month of Tishrei.
There were (and still are) those who take upon themselves in Elul additional stringencies (chumros); matters regarding which they may not be particular all year round, yet during the month of Elul (and continuing through the Ten Days of Teshuva [1-10 Tishrei]) they “go the extra mile” and accept minhagim (customs) and halachos (laws) which go above and beyond the letter-of-the-law. An example of this can be found in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 603:1), which encourages even those who have sanction all year round to eat bread baked by a non-Jewish bakery (known as pas palteir, provided, of course that all the ingredients are verifiably kosher) not to do so during the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avodah writes that there were those who would not scratch themselves during the month of Elul, as a means of penance and self-mortification. Even to this day, there are people who during this month will not speak words of idle chatter or worldly matters; they reserve their speech for divrei Torah and teshuvah.
I must admit that for many years, I had a hard time conceptually with this idea: If these laws/customs/stringencies are indeed worthy and important, should we not be observing them all year round? And if they are such that to observe them year-round is beyond our means, what is the relevance of going-through-the-motions one month a year, knowing full well that after this period ends, we will just go back to doing what we did before? Whom are we fooling?
Fortunately, I came across the commentary of the famed Dubner Maggid on this week’s parsha where he, in his inimitable style, makes use of the parable to clarify this concept.
It was not an easy move for R’ Mendel and his family to make, but in their little village, they just could not make ends meet. With his family growing and expanding, he had no choice but to make the move to the big city, where they knew no one and had no contacts. Not long after the wagons transporting their lives had arrived, the locals had already gathered on the streets and sidewalks to gape and gawk at the ‘new guys on the block.’ It was with interest that they observed how, not long after they arrived, one of the local politicians was already knocking at the door.
Although they were in the middle of unpacking, R’ Mendel, who was certainly not looking for any trouble, invited his “guest” inside, and told his wife to prepare something to serve their noble guest. She did as she was told, and proceeded to serve up a most sumptuous snack in his honor. R’ Mendel had his son bring in his best bottle of scotch, and, having had his fair share of food and drink, the official, seemingly satisfied with his welcome, took leave of them.
Two neighbors, having observed the royal welcome that the local dignitary received, thought that a free meal and a drink wouldn’t be all that bad of an idea. Why don’t we, they thought, form our own neighborhood “welcoming committee!” They dressed up in the best clothing they owned, and crossed the street to greet and welcome their new neighbors. Knocking on the door, they were greeted by a tired and weary R’ Mendel. “We thought we’d just come over from across the street to welcome you to our community,” they said proudly.
“How kind of you,” R’ Mendel replied guardedly; it wasn’t, in this area, the norm for non-Jews to so quickly befriend their Jewish neighbors. “Now you have yourselves a good day.”
“Aren’t you going to invite us in?” asked one of them boldly.
“Truly, we’re really very busy right now. Just arrived and all. I must go. Thank you.” And with that he closed the door on them, realizing full well what they had come for.
Some time later, R’ Mendel was involved in some sort of litigation. And, wouldn’t you know it: one of his neighbors had been elected to sit on the jury. When, during the time that the court case was ongoing, they passed by R’ Mendel’s house, he greeted them warmly, invited them to come inside, and told his wife to prepare for them the best that she had.
“Tell me, Mendel,” asked one of them. “Why is it that when we came to ‘welcome’ you to our city, you treated us with such indifference. Yet now, you ask us in, and give us to eat and drink? Were we not then deserving of the same treatment as that dignitary?”
“Foolish men. Don’t you see? When that government official came to visit, I had every reason to be concerned. Were I to rub him the wrong way, he could easily have used his influence to make my life miserable. Thus, I took extra care to make sure he had no reason to be upset with me. When you came knocking, however, you were just a couple locals looking for a free lunch. And I wasn’t going to bite…
“Now, however, the tides have turned. You’re in a position of great power over me, for in the event of a hung-jury, even one vote can make the difference between a good verdict and a bad one. So please, eat to your heart’s content, and remember me when the day of judgement comes.”
All year round, explains the Maggid, our deeds are not under such careful scrutiny. But during these days, as we prepare for the great and awesome Yom ha-Din (Day of Judgement) which takes place on Rosh Hashana, we realize that our deeds will be measured and weighed, and we will be judged for the coming year based on their merit, or, G-d forbid, lack thereof. Sometimes, in such a scenario, even one small mitzvah can make the difference. Even observing a custom or halacha which in truth goes far beyond the letter-of-the- law, and is not a halachic necessity all year round. It’s not that we’re trying to fool anyone. To the contrary, to ignore the fact that every small deed makes a different during a period of judgement would be nothing short of foolishness. It would be, in essence, a denial of the nature of the time of year in which we find ourselves, and the judgement associated with it. We do everything we can to ensure that when the Day of Judgement arrives, we will have as many good “character witnesses” as we possibly can.
Homiletically, he uses a section of this week’s sidrah as an allusion to this idea. (23:10) When a legion goes out (to war) against your enemies; you shall guard yourselves from anything evil. During the Days of Judgement, we are “at battle” with our enemies – our sins and shortcomings – who threaten to besmirch our names and cause bad judgement to be passed upon us, G-d forbid. Especially now, it is important that we “guard ourselves from anything evil.” Even ideals and actions which are perhaps beyond our abilities all year round, during Chodesh Elul we must go the extra mile and do everything we can to get our accounts in order before the great audit.
Have a good Shabbos.