Saturday, May 25, 2024

From Camp To Elul

“Welcome home,” says a neighbor, greeting me the day after I arrived back from camp. “How was the summer?” he asked. How do I explain it to him? It is impossible for someone who wasn't there to picture it. We exchange bits and pieces of our summer vacations and then he asks me, “So what do you do to get into the Elul spirit?”
“Simple,” I answer. “I use some of my camp experiences to get me into the swing of things.”
He looks at me quizzically. “Surely, you must be joking, right?”


“No, I kid you not. I’m very serious.”


“But you can’t come up with two more incongruous settings, two more dissimilar milieus, than camp and the Yomim Noraim. What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”


“True,” I say. “Camp and Elul are as different from each other as night and day. While ultimately the goal of summer camp is to bolster a camper’s ruchniyus, it is somewhat of a dream world. While there is definitely a serious side to camp where Torah, yiras Shomayim and middos are stressed, it is also a time for amusement, humor and levity, which are all antithetical to the spirit of Elul. I still maintain, however, that it has lessons to arouse and inspire me for these majestic days.”


“How so?”


“For example,” I respond, “I’ve just returned home from four weeks of isolation from the outside world. The all-out involvement of running a camp does not allow for me to hear or read news from the outside. Yes, you pick up bits and pieces here and there, but they just don’t leave an impression.


“So what do I see the first night back home? I read an article from a Jewish publication that arrived in the mail and I think to myself, ‘I want to go back to camp.’ What does the article discuss? The unmitigated sheker of the world. There is a civil war going on in Syria, with over 100,000 lives already lost. In Egypt, there are the makings of another civil war. Yet, what does the US secretary of state feel is more important to tackle, more crucial for the welfare of the Middle East? A most futile effort – Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israel is pressured to come to the table for meetings that have no chance of success, certainly not for the Israelis.


“Furthermore, the wise men of the Israeli government, still fresh from passing legislation against chareidim, came up with another foolhardy idea. They agreed to free over 100 terrorists, monsters with blood on their hands who will continue to spill Jewish blood. This was done against the will of 85% of Israelis. And for what purpose? As a goodwill gesture to the Soton. Not to mention the European Union passing sanctions against Israel.


“Then I hear a few minutes of the daily news. What did I miss? Shootings, robberies, scandals, tragedies, and other matters that are not only depressing, but also pollute the mind. Even sports news, once a mindless pastime, is rife with greed and corruption. I feel sullied and tainted. I want to return to my hermetically sealed fortress, my oasis, which lies beyond the reach of the world’s impurities.”


This is what Elul is all about. We have become so accustomed to the ways of the world that our perception of reality has become clouded. We tend to think that the power lies in the hands of the Kerrys, the Netanyahus, and the nations of the world to decide our fate. We forget that there is only one reality, one Power in the universe that controls our destiny, and that is Hashem Yisborach.


If throughout the year our vision is blurred by world events and media reports, then during Elul we must dislodge ourselves from these influences. It is why we declare, “Hashem ori veyishi mimi iraHashem is my light and my salvation whom shall I fear.” We must focus on our relationship with our Creator throughout this entire period and not get distracted by the sideshows that obscure the truth.


One of the remozim for Elul is in a posuk about the arei miklot: “Va’asher lo tzodoh veha’Elokim inoh leyado vesamti lecha makom asher yonus shomoh – And one who has not lain in ambush and Hashem caused it to come to his hand; I shall provide you a place to which he shall flee” (Shemos 21:13). The first letters of the words “inoh leyado vesamti lecha” are the roshei teivos of Elul. What connection could there possibly be between the cities of refuge and Elul?


Throughout the year, despite our desire to do what’s right, we are constantly bombarded with a barrage of kochos hatumah, the influences of the world around us. This is especially true with the current proliferation of modern technology. Elul carries with it special segulos, distinct holiness, that allows us a place of refuge, a haven to escape to where we can protect ourselves from this bombardment of tumah and misperception. But it only works for those who want it to work.


The arei miklot were there to save one who killed beshogeig from his pursuers, but they were only helpful for one who ran there for refuge. For the rotzei’ach who made no effort to escape to these havens, they of course did nothing. Similarly, in order for one to be enveloped by the harbor of Elul, one must make a concerted effort to avail himself of this great opportunity.


We said that one must enter the haven of Elul. How does one do that?


It could start with small efforts, like having the resolve to devote full concentration to even one part of Shemonah Esrei. Many people don’t realize that if one doesn’t have kavanah during the first bracha of Shemonah Esrei, he is not yotzeh (seeShulchan Aruch,Orach Chaim 101:1). Making the effort to remove all foreign thoughts during tefillah goes a long way. Actually paying attention to what you are saying not only makes your tefillah more potent, but it also gives you more of a flavor for davening. You begin to look at it not as a burden, but as a privilege and great opportunity to connect to Hashem.


Nothing will be lost if you don’t think about your upcoming business trip during davening. The Chasam Sofer, even as a bochur, was known to daven an extra long Shemonah Esrei. His friends would say to him jokingly that while he is busy davening, they can finish an extra blatt of Gemara. To this he answered, “Chazal say that he who davens a lengthy tefillah has his life lengthened. I will have added time to finish those extra bletter of Gemara. The more concentration one has while davening, the more siyata diShmaya one has in one’s endeavors.


Spending extra time on Torah and mussar during Elul is another way of entering this time of refuge. Even small additions of time go a long way. Hashem says, “Open up the door as wide as the hole of a needle and I will open it for you as wide as large wagons (Medrash Shir Hashirim). In days of old, even the simple shoemaker, tailor and baal aggalah would stop their work at midday to learn mussar or say Tehillim during Elul. These people were hard-pressed for parnassah, yet it did not cause them to give up their precious time for what they felt was of paramount importance – their relationship with Hashem.


My neighbor listens on intently while I share another feeling with him.


“This morning, I went to the bank to make some deposits and see what was doing with my account. Every year, after camp, I am really nervous as I approach the ATM machine. I haven’t done any banking for four weeks, which means no deposits have been made for a while. I did, however, pay the bills and pay for other expenses. What will my account show? There are times when there is little money in the account and others when I am pleasantly surprised to see that there is still some money left over.   


“As I slip the bank card into the slot, I get the jitters. Now I punch in the pin number with angst. What will the screen show? When I get home, I think to myself, ‘Am I as nervous and worried when I go through Elul and the Yomim Noraim as I am in front of that machine?’ After all, the Yom Hadin is all about our account with Hashem. We, boruch Hashem, had a good year. Did we pay our dues for this goodness or have we remained baalei chov, with a low credit rating in Shomayim?


In one of the tefillos of Yom Kippur Koton, we say to Hashem, “Do not erase our names from Your sefer.” What is this referring to? In Unesaneh Tokef, the moving tefillah that we recite in Mussaf of the Yomim Noraim, we say, “Vechosem yad kol adam bo,” that our signatures are in the book of Hashem. The seforim explain that every year, on Rosh Hashanah, we ask Hashem for a good year. We vow that we will be good and repay the kindness that He bestows upon us. This vow is our signature on the dotted line.


Year after year, although we don’t live up to our commitments, Hashem extends the credit and keeps our name in His book of credit. But after an accumulation of years of unpaid debts, Hashem thinks about removing our name from the book. For this we beg, “Do not erase our name from your sefer.”


If we are preoccupied with these thoughts, worried about our standing with Hashem, and sincerely make efforts to get close to Him, the news from the outside world appears trivial and foolish to us, causing us to tune it out of our lives, at least during Elul. This gives us more peace of mind and clarity of thought. And would it be so terrible if, for a couple of hours during the day, we turn our cell phones off to allow us more time for some contemplation and soul searching?


To be continued…



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