Rav Shlomo Wolbe used to share a vignette of Elul in the European city of Mir. If two businessmen were engaged in an argument about a deal they were considering, their voices rising in a crescendo of turbulence, often there would suddenly be an even louder voice interrupting. A lady would call out from the window above one word to the warring merchants: “Elul!” That was enough to remind them that there were greater things at stake. The gentiles would whisper to each other that for the next few weeks, no Jew would dare to lie or even be slightly dishonest. It was Elul and that affected all. We sadly don’t have such “window mashgichim” anymore (see Shir Hashirim 2:9) or gentiles who recognize the Jewish month by the seriousness on Jewish faces.
However, there are ways in which we can access and evoke the ancient power of this special month. It is well known that Rav Yisroel Salanter spent the entire month of Elul in a state of abject fear. Someone actually asked him directly, “Rebbe, what are you so afraid of? Do you think that Elul is a bear?” The great founder of the Mussar Movement turned his ashen face to his interlocutor, indicating the exact source of his terror. “Elul is much scarier than a bear, for Dovid Hamelech tells Shaul, “Your servant has slain even lion and bear” (Shmuel I 17:36). Yet, nevertheless, he testified of himself, “My flesh shuddered from dread of You and I feared Your judgments.”
Rav Shimshon Pincus sharply pointed out that in a certain aspect, it is harder for someone extremely pious to achieve the proper yirah – awe and trepidation – of Hashem. He noted that a good Jew who lives with the constant presence of Hashem is imbued with His loving, mercy and compassion. He thinks of all the wonderful things our Creator does for us – eyes that see, ears that hear, limbs that perform their functions, etc. – so it is hard to think in terms of fear. That is the purpose of the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, to remind ourselves that a time of judgment must eventually come. The purpose and kindness of Elul is to provide us with a pre-judgment period when we can prepare to go before the court and our King. We do this during days when Hashem’s kindness is abundant, He is inclined to forgive and give us another chance. But we must remember that the same G-d Who gave us so much will soon be reexamining every gift and beneficence He has showered upon us. That is both the source of Rav Yisroel’s terror and the tremendous gift of Elul.
Let us take a moment to listen to Rav Shalom Schwadron and update one of his parables. He cited a Yiddish expression, “Ehr veint vi ah beaver,” meaning “he cries like a beaver.” The great maggid explained that those who trap beavers are aware of this creature’s habit of walking straight ahead without looking to the right or the left. They therefore simply dig a deep hole and he conveniently falls right in. Now the beaver apparently knows its fate, but cannot help itself and so plunges right into the trap, wailing and lamenting the entire time. As Rav Shalom concluded to his audience, “Don’t be a beaver.”
I must confess that I have neither researched Beaverian psychology nor heard anything to the contrary of this expression. However, I believe that we have certainly all heard the sad saga of the lemming, whose species commits suicide in large numbers, each following the other to their mass destruction. In case we are feeling superior to either of these creatures, let us remember that the people of Jonestown and similar tragedies “drank the coolade” poison based upon the flimsiest of explanations and promises from one madman. As Rav Shalom teaches us, all Hashem wants from us is to stop and think a moment before we leap to our spiritual and then physical ruination.
All of this is on the yirah side. However, we must take to heart that the essence of Elul is as the Ancients formulated the inner meaning of its letters: “I am to my beloved and my Beloved is to me.” The primary role of Elul is to recall our lofty origins and our tremendous potential.
One of my children called me with an amazing metaphor he experienced while on vacation. They were enjoying a gadlus haBorei trip and drove carefully up the winding turns of a mountain. At the top was one of those typical visitor’s centers where one receives brochures, buys soothing cold water and meets the locals. The “greeter” at this location was a frail but cheerful old gentleman. When asked how he was able to make this climb every single day, he answered with a proud smile, “I don’t have to climb here. I was born here.”
Klal Yisroel was born with an incredible pedigree. Our Avos and Imahos granted us many madreigos and spiritual gifts. We didn’t have to seek them or travel to find them. They were ours without even asking and ours to keep or lose. is the time to cherish these divine presents, wipe them clean and shine them to their original perfection. We have the Thirteen Middos of Rachamim at our disposal, the Bris Avos for our protection (see Shabbos 55a) and, of course, the entire Torah to guide us. We have been given every opportunity and no excuses will suffice. Elul can be our guide and inspiration, whether by fear or gratitude.
The Slonimer Rebbe relates a dream he had in his youth. It was Rosh Chodesh Elul, but he dreamt that it was just after Simchas Torah. He was beside himself. “What happened to my Elul? Where did it go? How did I squander the beautiful and precious days? Then I realized with a sigh of relief that it was indeed only the beginning of Elul and I could still accomplish so much.”
That is how and why we should cherish every moment of Elul ahead. It is the most magnanimous gift Hashem has ever given us. Nechemiah (8:10) sent his famous message of chizuk to Klal Yisroel during Elul: “Today is sacred to Hashem, your G-d. Do not mourn and do not weep… Send portions to those who have nothing prepared.” My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Maamar 1), deduces that Nechemiah’s message was that Rosh Hashanah is all about chesed. One of his insights is that since Hashem created a world of chesed for chesed, the days before Rosh Hashanah and Rosh Hashanah itself must be suffused with acts of loving-kindness on our part as well.
Like the Purim mishloach manos but on a different level entirely, during Elul and even on Rosh Hashanah we can emulate Hashem in His noble act of creation. Every time we engage in an act of kindness, we join the Creator in His most incredible act. This itself should elevate and inspire us to become the G-dly creature we were meant to be. Yes, we will soon be judged. But first we can perform acts so sublime that they are mirror images of the moment of creation itself. If we do this, we will hopefully be able to celebrate a new year of good health, happiness and the geulah sheleimah bimeheirah beyomeinu.