A Heavenly Elul Lesson 5779

Last week, as Elul was approaching, I found myself on a plane traveling to the chasunah of a dear friend and former congregant. I was sitting in my aisle seat hoping to catch up on my Daf Yomi, when a pleasant young man with a British accent asked if he could get to the window seat. I couldn’t tell if he was Jewish or not, but he certainly wasn’t religious, as he was not wearing a yarmulka or a hat. After seeming to get settled, he suddenly jumped up. “Oh my,” he declared rather loudly, “I’ve left my collar in the back.”

If he had been frum, I would have thought that he meant kallah, but he repeated the clothing-related reference clearly again.

Calling over a flight attendant, he explained that he was a newlywed and was supposed to be sitting with his new wife. Instead, they had been placed at opposite ends of the plane. She said that she would see what she could do, but he refused to wait any longer, ran past me this time, and returned with a smiling young woman wearing a large hat that covered all her hair. The collar was kosher indeed. In fact, the newly identified chosson proceeded to reassure me that he would sit in the middle and his collar would take the window seat. I now wished the chosson and kallah mazel tov, apologized for the fact that I did not have a camera or violin, and offered them some fresh rugelach. They thanked me and began chatting happily about upcoming sheva brachos and guest lists. I went back to my Gemara, hoping that I would be able to give my shiur with some semblance of clarity when I distinctly heard the word “Rambam” from the newly-minted chosson. My ears perked up and, although not wanting to pry or listen in, I realized that the still-uncovered head was sharing with his collar a beautiful sheva brachos-worthy devar Torah.

As Rav Gedalya Schorr quotes from the Baal Shem Tov (Ohr Gedalyahu, Naso, page 105), whatever we hear or see is a message tailored-made for us. I took this one as a sharp Elul reminder not to be judgmental, jump to conclusions, think and speak condescendingly to anyone or let outer appearances be my only criterion about other people. Since one of our prime Elul directives is to improve our bein adam lachaveiro relations, I decided to look at this admonition at 30,000 feet a bit more deeply.

Chazal in Pirkei Avos teach us not to judge someone until we have walked in his shoes. Many early meforshim (Me’iri, Abarbanel, Baal Hatanya) interpret this to mean that no one understands the other person’s nisyonos (tests), yeitzer hara, or any other aspects of someone else’s life, because, as the wisest of men taught, “only one’s own heart understands its bitterness” (Mishlei 14:10). This means that it is not only unwise and mean-spirited to judge someone else, but it is simply impossible. Only Hashem, Who sees and knows all, can judge us fairly and impartially.

I once had the privilege of hearing Rav Hillel Zaks relate an astonishing line from his grandfather, the Chofetz Chaim. In his old age, he lamented that he could not get around as much as he used to. “If I were able,” the tzaddik declared with certainty, “ I would go from house to house at this time of year quoting only the Chazal (Shabbos 151a; see also Shaarei Teshuvah 3:36) that “kol hameracheim al habriyos merachamim olov min haShomayim – whoever demonstrates compassion for people, heaven will have compassion upon him as well.” Apparently, the Chofetz Chaim was of the opinion that exhibiting kindness to people is the most foolproof way of being blessed with a good new year.

We are all seemingly besieged at this time of year by endless envelopes and flyers telling tragic stories of widows and orphans needing our immediate help. People often ask, “What can I do? I have sent as much as I can to the first ten (more or less) supplicants. I simply can’t give any more.” If this is indeed an absolutely true statement, the answer is that at the very least we should write down the names of the needy people and daven for them. Furthermore, we can improve our Asher Yotzar and netilas yodayim brachos in their merit, which doesn’t cost anything but shows the compassion of which the Gemara, Rabbeinu Yonah and the Chofetz Chaim spoke so movingly. I have learned from the righteous women in my own family to stop and recite a tefillah for a patient being transported in a Hatzolah ambulance. That, too, is free, but shows that we truly care about others, which, as the Chofetz Chaim taught us, is all Hashem wants from us.

Rav Matisyahu Salomon, in his commentary to Tomar Devorah (Matnas Chaim, page 276), notes that according to Rabbeinu Yonah, since Chazal conclude the above statement with the searing words “and whoever does not have compassion, heaven has no compassion upon him,” the result of such heartlessness is indeed the same measure of incredible cruelty from heaven. What exactly is expected of us in this area and how do we achieve the kind of compassion that results in the kindness we seek for ourselves?

We need only repeat an astonishing story with Rav Moshe Feinstein. Someone took it upon himself to write a scathing “review” of a volume of Rav Moshe’s classic halachic work, Igros Moshe. In this ostensibly scholarly article, the author subjected the rosh yeshiva to personal criticism and ignominy unbefitting any talmid chochom, let alone the gadol hador. Instead of gaining acceptance in Torah circles, the man lost what little credibility he had and his job as well. A few months later, he astonishingly showed up at Rav Moshe’s door for a letter of recommendation. Rav Moshe quickly took out a pen and stationary and wrote the man a glowing approbation. A member of the family and a loyal talmid who were present later objected strenuously to the rosh yeshiva’s benevolence. “But rebbe,” they took exception, “how could you write such a letter for a person who vilified you so horribly?”

Rav Moshe smiled serenely, “But since then, a Yom Kippur has passed and he surely repented for his sin, so I must forgive him.”

If we can find even some measure of Rav Moshe’s magnanimity during this season of divine judgment, we will certainly be considered amongst those “who have compassion for people.”

The Chida (Pesach Einayim) offers us a succinct hint to this wonderful approach toward obtaining a good new year. The posuk states, “Va’ani b’rov chasdecha avo vaisecha – Through Your abundant kindness I will enter Your house” (Tehillim 5:8). He interprets the word chasdecha as “the rules of kindness You have taught us,” meaning that we can enter our shuls to pray for a good year because we are bearing the merit of all the chesed we have performed.

The mother of great tzaddikim taught us that no one is beyond doing chesed with their own hands, no matter at what age or stature. The Chiddushei Harim, the first Gerrer Rebbe, had a brother named Reb Moshe Chaim who was a wealthy man. He was once on his way to visit his aging parents in Warsaw when he noticed an elderly woman carrying a load of straw on her shoulders. To his shock, he suddenly realized that the woman was his own mother, Rebbetzin Chaya Sarah. Jumping from his fancy carriage, he ran to his mother, inquired how she was, and asked “What are you carrying?” The old tzadeikes responded with a smile, “This is for a poor bride who is an orphan. She has no bed upon which to sleep. Am I not obligated like everyone else to do the mitzvah of hachnosas kallah?”

The righteous Moshe Chaim responded, “My dear mother, please throw down the heavy package. I will gladly pay for the kallah’s bed and much more. Just please don’t shlep such a heavy load.”

However, the mother of the Gerrer dynasty responded, “My dear child, please put the money toward this poor bride’s wedding and other needs and I will still provide the straw.”

Upon such chesed was the world of the Sefas Emes, Imrei Emes and many more generations of Torah leaders to hundreds of thousands built and dedicated.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashonoh, Maamar 1) revealed a crucial aspect of the chesed incumbent upon us during this season. He quotes the words of Nechemiah before the first Rosh Hashonoh in Eretz Yisroel, as Klal Yisroel prepared for the Yom Hadin and the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh. He said to the assembled multitudes, “Go eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages and send manos – portions – to those who have nothing prepared” (Nechemiah 8:10). Rav Hutner asks what mishloach manos has to do with Rosh Hashonoh. Isn’t this a Purim mitzvah?

He answers, although we cannot do justice here to the entire profundity of the maamar, that since the world was created by and for chesed (Tehillim 89:3), it is only appropriate that the day of man’s creation be suffused with chesed as well. That is our mandate and our salvation during the sublime days of Elul we have been granted before we are to be judged. Instead of judging anyone else, let us engage in compassion and acts of chesed. That will help us to obtain, G-d willing, the kind of new year we wish for ourselves and all of our beloved Klal Yisroel.