The Tur (Hilchos Rosh Hashanah 581) states that Chazal instituted the custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul so that people will be alerted to perform teshuvah, as the posuk (Amos 3:6) states, “Im yitoka shofar be’ir ve’am lo yecherodu? Can a shofar sound in a city and the nation will not tremble?” This question demonstrates that the sound of the shofar causes people to be fearful.
Rav Dovid Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, points out that the posuk, which is widely repeated and mentioned as the source of the custom to blow shofar during Elul, does not directly refer to teshuvah or Rosh Hashanah. The posuk mentions the shofar and its ability to evoke fear as a tool of war. When the shofar sounds, people panic, because they know that war is imminent.
How, then, is this posuk, which refers to war, a source for the shofar we sound during these days of Elul which is a call to people to do teshuvah?
Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch, the Telzer rosh yeshiva, would begin each Elul by announcing to his talmidim that “mir zennen yetzt in ah tzeit fun milchamah, we are now in a time of war.”
The Zohar sees this message in the opening of this week’s parsha, “Ki seitzei lamilchamah al oyvecha,” where the Torah is ostensibly discussing the Jewish people going to battle against their enemies and the capture of an aishes yefas toar. The Zohar indicates, and commentators such as the Arizal and later the Ohr Hachaim learned, that these pesukim are teaching us how to battle our eternal enemy, the yeitzer hora.
The posuk states that the woman cries for her parents for a period of one month. The Zohar and the Arizal teach that this is an indication of the month of Elul, which is the time of teshuvah.
Elul is referred to as the chodesh harachamim, the month when Hakadosh Boruch Hu relates to us mercifully, as He seeks for us to restore our relationship with Him. Since it is a month of rachamim, it is advantageous for us to do teshuvah for our sins and bring Hakadosh Boruch Hu back into our lives during Elul, not waiting until Tishrei, when the din is upon us.
Doing teshuvah involves going to battle against our enemy, the yeitzer hora, who seeks to distance us from Hashem and proper observance of mitzvos. Therefore, just as in a time of war, leisurely pursuits are limited, so too, during Elul, that same serious mindset and attitude must pervade. Activities that are acceptable throughout the year have no place now.
The sense of urgency and desperation generated by war is the rule of this month. There are no atheists in foxholes, and there shouldn’t be any apathetic people during Elul. Every action we undertake should be weighed to determine whether it will bring us closer to Hashem’s embrace or r”l further.
Those who are aware of the season are shaken to do teshuvah when they hear the sound of the shofar, because they recognize it as a call to battle and are reminded that they have to fight hard to defeat the yeitzer hora. Since they are spiritually sensitive and attuned to the realities of the season, they are aroused when they hear the sound, because they know that it is relevant to them.
Those in sync with the ratzon Hashem are alert to the kol shofar. They are engaged in the milchemes hayeitzer that defines life for a human being. Thus, when they hear the sound of the shofar, they tremble with the knowledge of “hinei yom hadin.”
They recognize that sound from the last war, from the last time they had to battle the yeitzer hora, from last year’s yemei hadin.
The Sefer Akeidah (Shaar 97) compares Elul to the four seasons of the year. He says that the body declines over the winter and comes back to life along with the rest of nature during the spring and summer. When it is cold and snowy, the hibernation factor kicks in and man is driven indoors, unwilling and unable to navigate the roads of life amidst the cold and ice.
When spring and summer arrive, people awaken. Their moods improve and they spend more time outdoors, exercising and engaging in activities that increase physical pleasure. As the flowers and trees bloom and the weather warms, man’s physical strength and temptations increase.
Lehavdil, the Yomim Noraim are for the neshomah what summer is for the guf, says the Akeidah. It’s the time when our souls come alive. Elul is spring, the month in which the neshomah begins preparing for the growth of Tishrei. A sense of anticipation, optimism and hope fill the air. Much like a family will spend happy hours in the spring planning their summer vacation, Jews map out their spiritual course during Elul for the coming season of din.
The Alter of Slabodka once returned to his yeshiva during Elul after having spent the previous weeks in a resort town recouping his strength. The talmidim of the yeshiva ventured forth to greet their mentor. Upon receiving them, the Alter delivered a short shmuess.
“We arrive from the physical vacation to a spiritual vacation. We come from the summer months spent outdoors and begin the months of the yemei haratzon, which we spend in the yeshiva. What distinguishes this vacation from that one?” he asked. “Just as vacation is necessary to fortify the body, so is vacation necessary to fortify the soul – even more so, in fact, for everyone is considered sick and in need of a vacation in regard to the neshomah. There is none so hale and hearty that he doesn’t require this treatment…”
Apparently, the Alter was echoing the teaching of the Sefer Akeidah. A person’s body requires downtime, a time when it doesn’t feel pulled in every direction, thrust onto a merry-go-round of pressure. The neshomah does as well. Elul is the time when we disconnect from everything else to focus on pleasing the neshomah.
Elul is the time when we can escape the year-round commotion and meet our spiritual needs by bringing ourselves closer to Hashem. Elul is, in essence, a resort of healing and therapy for the soul. This is why we proclaim twice daily during this period, “Shivti bevais Hashem,” expressing the hope that we will be strong enough to provide ourselves with this essential break from year-round apathy to be with Hashem in His home.
Those who take their physical vacations seriously are constantly on the lookout for exotic destinations, scenic locales and peaceful venues. Spiritual seekers are no different. When the Chofetz Chaim passed away, his talmid, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who was accustomed to spending Elul in Radin with his rebbi, set out to find a new environment for Elul. He settled on Kelm and its mussar master, Rav Doniel Movoshovitz. When he returned home after spending a month there, he said that he had discovered “ah vinkele fun erentzkeit, a small corner of sincerity.”
We all need to find a place for ourselves where we can adapt to feel the effect of Elul and spend time refining our neshamos and calling out to Hashem when He is close. As the posuk (Yeshayahu 55:6) states, “Dirshu Hashem behimatzo, kera’uhu behiyoso karov,” and the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18a) explains that behimatzo refers to the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and kera’uhu behiyoso karov refers to Elul.
Sophisticated people invest effort and resources to find the proper place for these all-important Elul days, realizing that the success of the entire next year depends upon them. The more we are able accomplish during Elul, when Hashem accepts our teshuvah more easily, the better we will fare during Tishrei.
Elul isn’t merely a chance to catch our breath before the intense days of Tishrei. It is a month that requires serious preparation. The Me’iri (Chibur Hateshuvah 2) compares Elul to the idea of “dorshin hilchos haPesach kodem hachag shloshim yom,” the requirement to study the laws of Yom Tov during the thirty days prior to its arrival. So too, prior to the yemei hadin, we prepare ourselves during the month-long period of Elul.
Rabbeinu Yonah, at the end of his Sefer Hayirah, explains it a little differently. He quotes the posuk in Koheles (3:1) which states, “Lakol zeman ve’eis lechol cheifetz tachas hashomoyim – Everything has its appointed season, a time for every matter under the heavens.”
The Jew lives with ittim, the times of the year. Just as during the joyful period of Purim we increase simcha and mishteh, and during the sad period of Av we are mournful, from the beginning of Elul until the end of Yom Kippur a person should be chareid, fearful, of the awesome judgment he faces. That is the call of the season.
Chazal teach that every soul will face questions on the Day of Judgment after 120 years. One of them is, “Kavata ittim laTorah?” Literally, the question is whether the person set aside special times for learning Torah during his life.
The Sefas Emes understood the question differently. He says that the Heavenly tribunal will ask us: Kavata ittim? Did you establish the ittim, the various time-periods listed in the posuk in Koheles – a time to be glad and a time to be sad, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to do battle and a time to make peace, a time to love and a time to hate?
Each emotion and action is preceded by the word “eis”: eis le’ehov ve’eis lisno, eis milchamah ve’eis shalom… The Sefas Emes explains that the word eis teaches that our behavior in each situation must be dictated by the Torah. A person will be asked if he danced when the Torah said to dance and if he cried when the Torah said to cry. “Kavata ittim laTorah” refers to the way you conducted yourself in every eis described by the posuk and whether it was in accordance with the precepts of the Torah.
The battle against the yeitzer hora during Elul is a serious one, the most serious of all battles we face. Life is too short and too serious to ignore the opportunities we have for change and growth. Teshuvah is too precious a gift to be ignored as we struggle to make a living, run carpools, meet deadlines, go to simchos, travel for business or pleasure, and run to shiurim or events. We must all take a break to think.
Even in our day, when the attention span of people has shrunk to an infinitesimal fraction of a second and superficiality is the mode of thought and conduct, we must preserve the ability to rise above the shallowness and engage in serious thought and introspection.
Rabbeinu Yonah begins his classic Shaarei Teshuvah by referring to teshuvah as “min hatovos,” a supreme gift from Hashem. Just as we thank Hashem for the many favors He bestows upon us, such as good health, happiness, nachas and sustenance, so must we gratefully thank Him for providing us with the curing gift of teshuvah.
Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz was vigilant in the mitzvah of kibbud av vo’eim, going to extremes to care for his parents. During the First World War, his father joined him as he was exiled along with his family and yeshiva. The refugee experience took its toll, and upon their return, his father became ill. Rav Boruch Ber sat at his father’s bedside day and night, engaging him in conversation and encouraging him to carry on.
Rav Boruch Ber’s talmidim noticed that this was taking a toll on their rebbi and they began to worry about his own health. They managed to convince their rebbi that it would not impact his father’s health if he would leave for a couple of hours at night and get some rest. They would take turns spending the night there and ensuring that all Rav Leibowitz’s needs were taken care of.
In time, the rosh yeshiva’s father was niftar. Rav Boruch Ber was consumed by guilt that he didn’t constantly remain at his father’s side. He felt that allowing talmidim to replace him at the bedside for a few hours at night was a mistake and that he had failed in his mitzvah of kibbud av. He became distraught and met the Chofetz Chaim to discuss what he should do.
The Chofetz Chaim did not attempt to assuage his feelings of guilt and tell him that he did as much as was physically possible and was not deficient in his obligation to his father. Instead, he discussed with him the topic of teshuvah. He said, “There is a marvelous creation called teshuvah. Even if a person sins, the path of teshuvah is always available to him. When a person engages in this process, not only does it cleanse him of his sin, but once a person has done teshuvah, he becomes a new man.
“You have done teshuvah for not being there. You are not the same person now as you were when you left him. You are a new person, with a new metzius. The person who did that aveirah is not you. There is no reason to be distraught.”
Rav Boruch Ber left the room with the heavy load lifted from his shoulders. He said, “I am a new person. The past is gone. The Chofetz Chaim brought me back to life.”
Teshuvah grants us rebirth and a new life. The old mistakes cease to hold us back.
In line with the explanation of the Akeidah, we can appreciate this idea. People return from vacation revitalized and restored, glowing with good health. They feel like new people.
Elul is like a vacation. It restores our life and vitality. When we emerge from Elul and Tishrei, we can exude spiritual health and vigor and actually be entirely new people in every sense of the word.
Just because we did something wrong yesterday does not mean that we are doomed for life. An ehrliche Yid should never feel that he is in a rut. Aveiros get you down. Teshuvah lifts and rejuvenates.
We all echo the request of Dovid Hamelech in his ode to teshuvah: Lev tahor bera li Elokim, grant me a pure heart, veruach nachon chadeish bekirbi, and grant me a new spirit.