The Sinking Feeling…
“Elul is so hard,” was the way one yeshiva bochur framed it.
Wherever you are and whoever you are, the transition from the bein hazemanim of Chodesh Av to the intensity of Elul is often difficult not only for bnei yeshiva, whose schedules revolve around yeshiva, but for others as well. Like it or not, with the onset of Elul, the beginning of the school year and the fast approaching days of Selichos, many are filled with a sense of dread.
No, it is not the eimas hadin, the fear of the impending judgment, per se (which would be a good thing), but primarily feelings of uncomfortableness.
Several years ago, I was in a shul on Rosh Chodesh Elul. After davening, the shofar was blown and, for the first time that year, the tefillah of L’Dovid Hashem Ori was said. One of the more bold members of the shul said something that made a deep impression on me. He remarked, “I wish I could blink and it would be all over already!”
In essence, he was saying that not only does he not have the mental energy or desire to engage in the avodah of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah associated with Elul and the Yomim Noraim, but even the yemei hasimcha of Sukkos and Simchas Torah are too much for him. He simply longed for his normal routine.
Perhaps most don’t feel as radically as that person, but from my unscientific surveys of numerous Yidden, many, in a candid moment, will admit that they have a sinking feeling when contemplating the upcoming avodah of Selichos, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yes, it is painful to say, but there is no point in lying to ourselves. There is also no point in placing blame for why so many ehrliche Yidden seem detached from Hashem or why they have such a negative association with what Chazal call the yemei harachamim veharatzon, days that should fill us with great anticipation.
The question, however, is how we can change focus to have the right attitude towards this opportune time of the year in a way that will allow us to maximize it in our avodas Hashem.
The Elul of Old
Firstly, so many of us are accustomed to hearing from our rabbeim about the eimas hadin, fear of the impending judgment, felt by the great baalei mussar. We heard how the famed talmid of Rav Yisroel Salanter, Rav Itzele Peterberger, ran to the aron kodesh during Birkas Hachodesh of Chodesh Elul and, with tears streaming from his eyes, exclaimed, “Ribbono Shel Olam, we hereby accept upon ourselves Your heilige Chodesh Elul!”
The stories about the baalei mussar are wonderful and important, but we realize that many of us have little connection to them. Yes, we are reminded that in pre-war Europe, especially pre-World War I, even the baalei battim would curb their schedule and run to the bais medrash. In Kelm, the word Elul was enough to make an unruly child act his best.
For us, those stories are nice, but we don’t feel anything like that. We hear things like “even the fish shudder during Elul,” and, at best, it makes us feel wistful and inferior, wondering why our hearts don’t feel anything other than hunger, because it is almost time for supper…
The Disadvantage of Not Being Enclosed in the Shtetel
The truth is that there is nothing wrong with you or me. We no longer live in the shtetel, which was permeated with yiras Shomayim. In a shmuess during the yemei haselichos, Rav Avrohom Pam touched on this point. He contrasted the feelings of Elul that he remembered as a young child growing up in small shtetel in Lita with today’s lack of feelings of hisorerus. He explained that it is so much more difficult in our days to feel the atmosphere of Elul, because the second one leaves the walls of a yeshiva or shul, he immediately enters the cauldron that is the street, where everything is regular. People are engaging in business and recreation. We have no external reminders that this time of year is different. Thus, the only thing to do is work on ourselves internally.
The problem is that we beat ourselves up for not feeling Elul, for not feeling the eimas hadin, for feeling apprehensive about the need to buckle down.
Why can’t we just be elevated enough to want Elul, anticipating and seeing it for what it is – a most wonderful opportunity?
Imagine Learning a Blatt Gemara When I Could Have Seen Constantinople
Perhaps the approach of pure fear of din worked in generations gone by, when the streets were different and when people’s emunah was more tangible. Today, however, a slight change may be warranted.
Let me put forth two possible approaches. The first is to focus more on opportunity, not obligation. Many of us feel so down at this time of the year that we wish it would just end, because we feel obligated to be scared or at least to behave, but at the same time, we don’t feel like behaving. The reason for this is because we are looking at it through the wrong lens.
The following story illustrates this point: Rav Zelig Shtitsburg was a Chassidishe Yid who grew up in the great Jewish centers of pre-war Poland. After the war, he somehow obtained a coveted certificate to enter British Mandatory Eretz Yisroel together with a group of friends, who, with all the hardships they had endured during the war, formed a chevrah to learn and serve Hashem together.
On the boat ride from Europe to Eretz Yisroel, the boat made a one-day stop in Constantinople prior to commencing the final leg of the journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Reb Zelig’s friends decided to leave the boat for a short tour of Constantinople, one of the most beautiful cosmopolitan cities of that time.
Reb Zelig chose not to go. His well-meaning friends tried to convince him, urging him, “Come Zelig’el, this is a one-time opportunity. We are only in Constantinople for one day and we will probably never return to this city. When will you ever have the opportunity to see the beauty of Constantinople again?”
Reb Zelig responded with a powerful, unexpected reply. He said, “When will I ever again have the opportunity to learn a few blatt Gemara when I could have been seeing beautiful Constantinople?”
By declining to join his friends, Reb Zelig did not view himself as deprived. He did not feel that although he very much wanted to see the beauty of the city, his conscience would not permit him. That was not Reb Zelig. His outlook was that this was a windfall. It was a fantastic opportunity. After all, when would he again be afforded the chance to forego touring a city as special as Constantinople in order to learn a blatt Gemara? When would he again be able to show Hashem how dear His Torah is and thus become closer to Hashem?
Undoubtedly, the great simcha and spiritual satisfaction derived from that blatt Gemara made the fleeting pleasure of seeing Constantinople pale. When his friends returned from their tour, Reb Zelig was the happiest of all, because he had viewed this as a rare opportunity. He had just gained something priceless – a blatt Gemara learned under adversity.
The Opportunity of Elul
Elul and the Yomim Noraim, followed by Sukkos, Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah are also opportunities, fantastic chances that can fill everybody with intense simcha. We are being offered the opportunity to become closer to Hashem. The roshei teivos of Elul are “Ani leDodi veDodi li – I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.” It is a time when we desire to improve our conduct to reciprocate Hashem’s love for us, not only out of a sense of dread or fear, but for its unbelievable opportunity. The only fear that should occupy our hearts is the fear of missing the opportunity.
When a person has an opportunity to make a massive business deal that will put him on easy street for years, he approaches that deal with tremendous anticipation. Yes, it may mean getting up early for a few weeks to prepare and have all of the facts and figures lined up, but the potential dividends that he will reap are so real and so tangible that he undertakes the extra work with anticipation and joy, not a feeling of “Oy, what a drag. I have to wake up early to prepare for this dumb business deal that might net me a hundred million dollars…”
When Motzoei Yom Kippur arrives, we should not breathe a sigh of relief that it is over. Rather, our hearts should be full of joy. Joy for the opportunity that Hashem has given us to be cleansed and purified from our aveiros. Joy for the opportunities for spiritual growth He has bestowed upon us.
A Change of Attitude
It is all about one’s attitude and how one views these days.
The second, related approach is one that I recently heard from Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, rov of Khal Ateres Yeshaya in Lakewood. We always look at these days as a time when we have to behave, days when we have to chap arein and ask Hashem to bless us with a good year. We beg Hashem for a good year in ruchniyus. We beg Hashem for a good year in gashmiyus. That is wonderful. There is nothing wrong with that. That is part of tefillah.
Before focusing on what we still need, however, perhaps our tefillos would have so much meaning if we stopped momentarily to contemplate what Hashem has given us this past year. All of the good in our lives, all of the brocha that we had this past year, were gifts from Hashem. Let us think about the Birchos Hashachar that we say every morning. We have eyes that see and clothes to wear. Every morning, Hashem gives us renewed strength. When we ask Hashem for things with the knowledge that He has already been so good to us and given us so much, our tefillos take on a totally different meaning.
Overflowing with Thanks
Let us imagine that one of our children was swimming in a lake or ocean, and a current came and began to pull the child away. All efforts to fight were to no avail. His head was bobbing up and down under the water and the end seemed inevitable. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a trained lifeguard appeared, grabbed the child, and brought him to safety. Imagine our gratitude to that person. We would be overflowing with such an overwhelming feeling of thanks that we would look for ways to show the lifeguard how thankful we are. When we would bring him a present, we wouldn’t do so with a sour face, as if to say, “He saved my child’s life, so I guess I have no choice but to give him something.” On the contrary, we would wrap that gift with unparalleled love. We would go to his house with such simcha, such hoda’ah, such overflowing hakoras hatov, because we understand that he was the shliach to save our child’s life.
Our approach to these holy days should be the same. Not with a sour face, as if to say, “Oy, I am stuck. I have to pay Him back,” but with such simcha, such recognition of the chesed that He has done for us in the past and continues to do.
With this attitude, we can enter Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur full thanks, our hearts bursting with love for the Life Guard who continues to save us, help us, and give us so much.
Engaging in the avodah of Elul is not so much an obligation, of feeling that we have no choice, that we are believing Jews who are obligated to run the gauntlet of Selichos, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rather, our feeling should be one of opportunity. What an opportunity we have to chap arein, to show Hashem how overwhelmed with gratitude we are for the past and how much we love Him.
When we think of our avodah in those terms, we will run to Rosh Hashanah with anticipation and with the emotional feelings of love and thanks of a parent bringing a cellophane-wrapped gift to the lifeguard who saved their child’s life.
So, my dear friends, Elul is here, the Yomim Noraim are coming. Smile!