We have all heard the Elul drasha before. There were places (e.g., Kelm) where even the fish in the water trembled because Elul had arrived. The gentiles knew that no Jew would lie or cheat during this time of year. The Jewish robbers would drop their loot if someone yelled “Elul.” Perhaps we are jaded, but these reminders don’t seem to work as well anymore. Maybe it’s because we indeed don’t live in Kelm, or for that matter Pressberg, Slabodka, Munkatch or Belz. But there is another Elul that speaks to us just as loudly or perhaps it just whispers gently in our ear.
This is the Elul of 52. From Rosh Chodesh Elul until Simchas Torah, we have 52 days. Fifty-two is the gematriah of ben, which means son, but this applies to daughters as well. During this special time, we can all feel and know for sure that we are Hashem’s children. The month of Av reminded us that we have a Father in heaven. But Elul gives us a magical opportunity to be our best before going to judgment. This is not a political article, but it is impossible not to notice that a number of world leaders are either already in court or entering some form of judgment. The difference is that they all have their lawyers lined up, they have been preparing, and they know that the stakes are high. We, too, will soon be in court, but do we know what to do?
Rav Chatzkel Levenstein used to remind his listeners that the Torah mentions or alludes to yiras Shomayim – fear of Heaven – 52 times. He therefore concluded that each time that we strengthen our yiras Shomayim, we are performing 52 positive mitzvos. If we even think to ourselves, “I want to be a greater yirei Shomayim, I want to be a better Jew, I want to subjugate my will to that of the Ribono Shel Olam,” we are fulfilling those 52 mitzvos. We can focus on our davening, our interpersonal relationships, or our teshuvah itself. Elul is the month we have been given to prepare for what could be the most important moment of our lives, the day we will be judged.
To continue from Rav Levenstein, once we have established that we have a Father in heaven, we are not just His children. We are princes and princesses. We carry the responsibilities of royalty and we know that the King cares about everything we do or say. Yes, Elul can be scary, but it is also uplifting, exciting and full of opportunity. That is the other Elul that we might listen to more closely than the one that is too frightening to even face.
But there is another 52 as well. There are 52 weeks in the year and the seforim tell us that each day from Elul to Simchas Torah corresponds to one of the weeks of the year. Each day is a gift to the prince or princess within us. We are given the power over an entire week and we receive this gift for 52 consecutive days. That is Rav Chatzkel’s gift to us. Chazal (Shabbos 10b) teach that one who is giving a gift must notify the recipient. Here, Rav Chatzkel has told us what we’ve got. Now let’s explore what to do with it.
Rav Goel Elkarif relates a fascinating conversation someone had with the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Ahrele. “How can it be?” someone asked the rebbe, “that in our generation, people eat much better than in previous generations, but no one seems to have any strength.” The rebbe immediately answered that it’s because Chazal (Pirkei Avos 4:1) ask, “Who is strong? He who conquers his yeitzer hara (evil inclination).” One receives strength from this battle, but people rarely engage in this war anymore, so they always feel weak, no matter how healthy they eat or how much they exercise. The person who gives in to each and every temptation the yeitzer hara throws at him becomes weaker because he has never drunk from the well of triumph against the yeitzer hara.
My own rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, once mentioned that he found in the diary of one of the great baalei mussar that “there is no pleasure in this world like the person who conquers his evil inclination.”
So now we know from the Belzer Rebbe that overcoming one’s yeitzer hara gives strength, and we know from Rav Hutner that it gives pleasure. But we also know from Rav Chatzkel that there is a propitious time to enter into the ring. It is these 52 days when we remember who we are and that we can win this one.
I would like to adapt a brilliant thought of Rav Shlomo Wolbe. He was flying from Switzerland to France, a flight that took only half an hour, and mused that if he had gone by train, the trip would have taken 8 hours. Why? The answer, of course, is that on land, there are mountains and valleys to traverse. There are bridges and rivers that slow down the travel. However, up in the air, there are no obstacles. “This teaches us,” concludes the wise mashgiach, “that when one elevates himself from the ground and embraces his spiritual self, there are no barriers or impediments.”
We can now add to Rav Wolbe’s wisdom that during Elul, we can all fly high. We travel first class, even royally by private jet. Elul allows us freedom of movement, which is much more difficult at any other time of the year.
All of this is, of course, very true, since we have learned from some of the tzaddikei olam. However, there is a danger zone in these 52 days as well. The posuk (Devorim 11:12) states that Hashem watches over Eretz Yisroel: “The eyes of Hashem, your G-d, are always upon it from the beginning of the year (hashanah) until year’s end (shanah).” The Chasam Sofer and later the Satmar Rebbe ask why the posuk begins with hashanah (the year) and ends with shanah (year). They both answer that when a new year approaches (Elul), we tell ourselves that “this will be the year.” In other words, this year I will change; I will be different. However, by the time the new year has passed, it generally turns out to have been “just another year.”
However, we have learned today from Rav Chatzkel, the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Wolbe and Rav Hutner that Elul can be different because we fly higher than ever before. There are no limits to what we can accomplish and there are no obstructions high in the air. All we need to do is remember that we are royal and nothing stands in our way. Elul is on our side, not on the prosecutorial side. But what about the past? All of our hashanah opportunities ended up mundane regular years. The answer was given to us by Shlomo Hamelech when he warned, “For man does not even know his hour. Like fish caught in a fatal net…so are men caught in a moment of disaster when it falls upon them suddenly” (Koheles 9:12). People are caught because they haven’t made preparations. Everything is sudden because we don’t think about the 52. But if we stop, change and avoid the traps, we will make it to Judgment Day intact and whole.
The Nesivos Shalom of Slonim once related a dream that he had when he was quite young. It was on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul, but he dreamt that it was already Simchas Torah. For the Nesivos Shalom, this was a nightmare, since he thought that he had lost all the opportunities of Elul. When he realized that, in reality, Elul had just begun, he breathed a sigh of relief. I must confess that I don’t dream quite like the Slonimer Rebbe, but we all can be grateful that we do have an Elul. It is a gift from Hashem, especially as explained by Rav Chatzkel. Let’s not sleep through it. If we are alert to every moment of these powerful 52 days ahead, we can truly earn ourselves a kesivah vachasimah tovah.