Returning from summer camp brings with it a bag of mixed emotions. There is a feeling of pride that we were zoche to make many children happy. Did I say pride? Check that. Wrong word. Yes, there is a feeling of accomplishment, but this is overwhelmed by another feeling, a sense of gratitude to Hashem. After so many years of doing this, we are well aware of how many things can go wrong. Without Hashem’s help, all of the planning, the talents and the efforts invested would be ineffective. “If Hashem will not build the house, in vain do its builders labor on it” (Tehillim 127:1). We come to camp nervous about what challenges the summer will bring, and when all goes well, we breathe a gigantic sigh of relief, thanking Hashem for His kindness.
But there is another feeling that I think about every year. The contrast of environment between what I have experienced the last month and where I find myself right now is incredible. It goes without saying that there is a major difference in noise level, activity and energy in the air. The peace and quiet are most welcome. These few days will be spent recovering and resting, preparing for the new zeman in yeshiva, and I feel like someone without an identity. In the chassidishe shul where I like to daven during bein hazemanim, I hardly know a soul, so I am just a face in the crowd. Shopping in the supermarket does not make it any better. Yes, my chassidishe friend at the cash register, Reb Yanky, is happy to greet me and share with me his weekly Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh. Aside from that, I don’t see a familiar face.
Why, just a couple of days ago, I was one of the head honchos, part of a team that is at center stage of almost every activity. It involves making important decisions, seeing that the daily schedule runs efficiently. Campers are constantly coming over with all kinds of requests, ranging from asking for a ride on the golf cart and getting prizes for some accomplishment to facing the consequences when their room is not cleaned properly or for curfew violations and asking for all sorts of needs, including our autographs at the end of the summer. And now, one day after camp, it is all done. I feel like a nobody. I know that the feeling will pass in just a few days when I’m back in the classroom giving shiur, but for the moment, it is humbling.
Then seichel, pure logic, takes over and dispels this sentiment. Am I to be defined by a position, a job, or what people think of me? One’s life is defined by his relationship with Hashem, which has nothing to do with popularity or being in the public eye. And while serving the tzibbur is definitely a way of serving Hashem, we can easily lose sight of our private relationships with Him. He cherishes even the smallest mitzvah, each and every tefillah said with emotion, every moment of limud haTorah, a chesed done for those in need, and a sigh and a tear bemoaning our shortcomings in our avodah. All of these are treasured by the Ribono Shel Olam. Each and every one of us, regardless of profession or exposure to the public, is capable of attaining this connection.
Throughout Elul, we say the mizmor of L’Dovid Hashem ori veyishi. Saying it twice daily means that during Elul, we will recite it a total of 60 times, another 20 during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, and an additional 14 on Sukkos, for a total of 94 times. While there are remozim to the yemei hadin in this kappitel – ori, the Medrash tells us, refers to Rosh Hashanah, and yishi refers to Yom Kippur – there is nothing mentioned about teshuvah or forgiveness of aveiros. Why, then, do we say these verses over and over again?
The underlying theme of these pesukim is how much Dovid Hamelech valued his relationship with Hashem. “Hashem is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Hashem is my life’s strength. Whom shall I dread? …One thing I asked of Hashem that I shall seek. That I dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life, to behold the sweetness of Hashem and to contemplate in His sanctuary. In Your behalf my heart has said, ‘Seek My Presence: Your Presence, Hashem, do I seek.’” Dovid, the great king, ruler of the Jewish nation, pleads with Hashem, “Do not conceal Your Presence from me. Repel not your servant in anger. You have been my Helper. Abandon me not, forsake me not, O God of my salvation.”
Was there anyone more present in the public eye than Dovid Hamelech? Did anyone attain a higher position than he? Yet, it was not popularity or honor that he craved, nor did he place emphasis on riches. There was only one thing that mattered to him: his closeness to Hashem. This was his only request. This is why we repeat this idea during Elul.
True story: It happened in Sacramento, California just a couple of years ago. A woman, mother of two young children, left her home to go jogging for a short while in a state park. When she did not return after a couple of hours, her family became concerned and alerted the police. Searchers went out looking for her and unfortunately found her no longer among the living, apparently pummeled by a wild animal. After further investigation, the predator was identified, a young lioness in her den caring for two young cubs.
Because the creature had shed blood, it had to be killed to prevent further death. Friends of the deceased jogger started a GoFundMe page online to raise money for her young orphans. There were others who felt bad for the two young cubs that the lioness left behind, and they, too, started a GoFundMe page on behalf of the baby lions. Wouldn’t you know it? The fund for the baby lions raised $7,000, while the fund for the jogger’s orphans raised only $3,000!
Our first reaction to this tragedy would be the obvious, how today’s society has lost their marbles, how their priorities are totally distorted. To display more mercy on animals than on young children shows a total lack of understanding of the supremacy of a human being in this world over any other creature. And one could pontificate that this is the result of the downward spiral of the moral fiber of the world. When life is all about yielding to every physical desire, people are not on a higher level than animals. Therefore, it is possible for them to rationalize that entitlements need not be given to humans over other organisms.
But the one who related the story to me, a colleague of ours at camp and menahel of Mesivta Ohr Chaim Meir of Lakewood, Rabbi Leib Klein, had a different take on this story. It is very easy to derive lessons from stories and apply them to others when, in fact, we must extract mussar for ourselves.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu created us as a blend of different forces. The highest component within a man is his neshomah, pure and holy, a cheilek Eloka from Above. We were also endowed with a heart capable of having feeling and emotion in serving Hashem. Then there is the physical body, the vessel that contains our heart and soul. It can be used as a medium to serve Hashem and become sanctified as we transform the physical into the spiritual. Or it can be a distraction that brings us to yield to our temptations and compromises our service to Hashem.
It is easy to find fault with others who place more significance on animals than on humans. But what about us? The neshomah is the apex of a ben adam, so unique that it is found only in a man, unlike the physical body that is found in every organism. How much time, effort and money do we spend on our physical needs and how much is invested in our neshomah?
Elul is a special month of introspection preceding the yemei hadin. Now, especially, is the time when we must seriously ask ourselves this question. And if we are truthful with ourselves and are indeed deficient in our spiritual investments, now is the time for action.
“In Your behalf my heart has said, ‘Seek My Presence: Your Presence, Hashem, do I seek’” (Tehillim 27:8). Our heart pleads with us to build up our relationship with Hashem. Elul, the month of “ani leDodi veDodi li,” is a most auspicious time for doing this, for listening to the beckoning of our hearts and dedicating ourselves to ruchniyus.
We have a tendency to sit back, remain within our comfort zone, and just not do anything. But the key to success in ruchniyus is to be proactive, to get up and move forward. As we learn in this week’s sedrah, “When you will go out to war against your enemies and Hashem, our G-d, will deliver him into your hand…” (Devorim 21:10). The seforim say that this is a remez to our battle against the yeitzer hara, our worst enemy. The evil inclination wants nothing more than for us to remain inert and let things run as they have until now. But the Torah tells us, “Ki seitzei…” Only if you go out actively to fight against the yeitzer hara will Hashem deliver him into your hand. If not now, then when?