Rav Yisroel Salanter would compare this period to the famous great fair in Leipzig. Once a year, an exhibition was held in the city. Merchants from all over the world would come and remain there for weeks. During this time, they would buy and sell goods that would keep their business going for the entire year. One who missed this gathering or didn’t utilize this chance to its fullest would lose a considerable amount of business for the entire year, because once the fare was concluded and the marketers returned home, the opportunity for profit was gone.
Similarly, said Rav Yisroel, during the forty days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur, the heavens open up and each individual is given the chance to acquire emunah and yirah, the closeness to Hashem that is the source of our blessings. If we don’t utilize this gift from Hashem, we squander our wellspring for blessings, our physical and spiritual energizer for the coming year.
These forty days correlate with the last forty days that Moshe Rabbeinu spent on Har Sinai, when he pleaded with Hashem to forgive the Bnei Yisroel for the chet ha’Eigel. He descended from the mountain on Yom Kippur, when we were forgiven, bringing back with him the Luchos Shniyos. This period was sanctified for all future generations to repent for our sins, have them absolved, and recreate a close relationship with Hashem.
“But wait,” says a little voice from within, a voice of skepticism. “This was all fine and good for Rav Yisroel, Rav Itzele, and their peers, whose whole year was one big Elul. Their avodas Hashem was impeccable. Already on Motzoei Yom Kippur, Rav Yisroel would say, ‘Oy, another Elul is approaching. We must start to prepare for it.’ For Yidden of such a high caliber, who might have erred here or there, Elul was doable. You, however, are so full of imperfections, so far from the straight path. You don’t stand a chance of rectifying your ways, so why even begin?”
“Am I really so bad?” I counter. “I try doing what’s right. I would like to think of myself as a fine and upright Jew. Why shouldn’t Elul be for me?”
“Yes, in general, you might be a fine and upright Jew,” the voice responds, “but when you start breaking things down and think about your deeds, you will realize that you are so far away from the ultimate. For starters, how many brachos have you recited without kavanah? How many tefillos did you say mindlessly? How many mitzvos did you perform lackadaisically, without putting any thought into them? How many precious moments have you wasted, when you could have utilized them for Torah? How many times did you not give thought to others in need, failing to help them when you could have? Not to mention other imperfections. You think you can rectify all of these during Elul?”
By the time this inner voice is finished, the damage is done. I am ready to give up before even starting. I want to escape by just going to sleep. But then another voice emerges from within, a voice with an upbeat tune, a voice of reason.
“Hush,” it says, blunting the sharpness of the first voice. “You are guilty of the same mistake as the meraglim!”
“The meraglim?!” chuckles the first voice. “Where do they come into this picture? What connection do they have to Elul?”
“Well, for one thing, the period of Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah is forty days. So was the sojourn of the meraglim into Eretz Yisroel.”
Now the discouraging voice is outright laughing, cynically dismissing this connection as absurd. “You’ll have to do a lot better than that to make your point,” he says.
“Well, how about this,” counters the voice of reason. “Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu, “Shelach lecha anashim veyasuru es Eretz Canaan – Send forth men, if you please, and let them spy out the Land of Canaan.” The Targum of the word veyasuru is veye’alelun, of which the root word is Elul. This was actually pointed out by the holy Sar Shalom of Belz.”
“Oh nice. A play on words. But I still don’t see the connection.”
“Ah, but there is a connection. Listen closely. The meraglim were sent on a reconnaissance mission to report back to Klal Yisroel about the land they were about to enter. Basically, they told the truth. They testified about what they saw. Where did they fail? In offering their opinion based on their narrow perspective, they discouraged the Bnei Yisroel from moving forward to Eretz Yisroel.
“They said that it was even beyond Hashem to help them conquer the land. How is it possible that such great people could speak such blasphemy? The Chofetz Chaim explains that the meraglim claimed that conquering the land from the mighty giants who lived in Canaan required tremendous merits on their part. However, since they sinned with the Eigel, they didn’t have the zechuyos to be helped by Hashem. This, of course, was the work of the yeitzer hara, who planted this idea in their minds, for, in reality, they had already repented for that aveirah and Hashem promised them that they would conquer the land.
“The yeitzer hara knows the value of every single moment of Elul. He knows how much we can accomplish for ourselves and for the entire briah during this period, so he works overtime to discourage us and bring us to despair. “You are so far from perfection,” he tells us. “You don’t stand a chance to rectify all of this in such a short period of time. Elul was fine for tzaddikim like Rav Yisroel Salanter and Rav Itzele, but you are so distant from perfection, so why even try?” Like the claims of the meraglim, this message is so skewed and so removed from reality.
During this month, we must be like good spies. A competent spy doesn’t merely scout the dangers and the pitfalls of the land that he is observing. He weighs them against the strengths of the people he is scouting for. This is our mission during Elul. While we are charged with looking for our imperfections and rectifying them, we must also remember our strengths. We have a holy neshamah. We are attached to Hashem and He wants us to succeed.
“From the distance, Hashem appeared to me. And I have loved you with an eternal love. Therefore, I have extended kindness to you. I shall yet rebuild you, and you shall be rebuilt O’ maiden of Yisroel” (Yirmiyahu 31:2-3). Even when we have strayed from Hashem, even when we have distanced ourselves from our Father in Shomayim, we can merit for Hashem to appear to us. Why? Because of His eternal love for us. What is the meaning of eternal love?
There is a beautiful explanation that if you were to combine all of the love in this world for our spouses, our children and those who are close to us from the beginning of the world and throughout history, it cannot compare to the overwhelming love that Hashem has for each and every one of us. Imagine how we want our children to succeed in life, how much we daven for them, and how we support them. This cannot begin to compare to the caring that Hashem has for us. Throughout the entire year, and especially during these days of rachamim, our Father in Shomayim has a great desire for us to return to Him.
All we have to do is take those first steps forward. “Return to Me and I will return to you, says Hashem, Master of Legions” (Malachi 3:7). If we just make that initial move to seriously return to Hashem, we can experience tremendous siyata diShmaya for blessings in both gashmiyus and ruchniyus with a kesivah vachasimah tovah.