Slow Down: A New Message for Elul

We all know many of the acronyms for Elul, as taught by the Mishnah Berurah (581:1) and many others. But one that is not so well known can give us our road map and GPS for every moment of this precious month. The Yalkut Hagershuni (Kuntres Acharon, page 309) quotes the Shaar Hamelech, who says that one of the acronyms flows from the posuk that Yaakov Avinu said to Eisav to save his family from the baleful influence of his brother. He declared, “V’ani esnahalah l’iti l’regel – I will make my way at my slow pace” (Bereishis 33:14). The bold letters spell out the Hebrew word Elul, which signifies that one should not rush unprepared into the Yomim Noraim, the awesome Days of Judgment. We were granted the gift of Elul to slow down and prepare properly for the rigorous days ahead. He goes on to quote the ruling of the Rambam (Hilchos Mikvaos 1:9) that “one who jumps into a mikvah is loathsome” because purification requires careful preparation and introspection, the antithesis of jumping.

With this approach, we may suggest a new understanding of a Mishnah in the beginning of Pirkei Avos (1:1). One of the teachings of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah is “be deliberate in judgment.” An ancient question about this statement is that this teaching seems to be limited to judges and those rendering decisions (as Rashi, the Bartenura, and Rabbeinu Yonah explain). What does it have to do with the average person?

Although many excellent answers have already been given (i.e., we all make multiple decisions daily), the Yalkut offers us a novel interpretation. The Hebrew original of this statement is hevu mesunim badin. The Mishnah may be reminding us to approach Elul and the days of judgment with readiness and well-armed to defend our requests for the new year. Indeed, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (Sichos Mussar 5733, No. 15), after discussing the obligation of a dayan to be careful in judgment, quotes Rav Yisroel Salanter that everyone should constantly be evaluating and judging himself to ascertain if he is on the correct path. We may certainly add that this is true all the more during the month of Elul.

Rav Yechezkel Levenstein (Ohr Yechezkel, Elul, Shoftim 5721) adds a sharp diagnosis to this picture: “Anyone who imagines that Elul is just like other days of the year is mortally ill.” He likens this situation to one who is r”l in great danger but has no idea how serious his illness actually is. In another place (volume II, page 38), the great mashgiach gives us a personal example of how to prepare for Elul. He relates that one morning he was reciting the tefillah of Brich Shemei, which is said upon taking the Torah out of the aron kodesh. As he repeated the words “Not in any man do I put trust, nor on any angel do I rely – only on the G-d of heaven…in Him do I trust,” he stopped to think: “I have, boruch Hashem, reached my sixties, and I have recited these words thousands of times. Do I really understand and mean these words?” Rav Chatzkel demanded of himself, and by extension of us all, that we rethink and reevaluate our daily declarations. Are they thought out and genuine or are they merely clichés and banal platitudes? That is how we should use Elul to plan for Tishrei, by subjecting everything we think we hold dear to the acid test of authenticity and absolute truth.

Another approach, from a Chassidic source, offers a different way of utilizing these precious Elul days. The Mishnah at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah teaches that Rosh Chodesh Elul is the “Rosh Hashanah for maaser beheimah.” The literal translation of these words is that on the first day of Elul, the new year begins for tithing our animals. However, the Koznitzer Magigd exclaims that another meaning is that this is the day to begin removing our animalistic tendencies and perfecting our character and personality traits through middos improvement.

Last week, Parshas Eikev, Rashi taught us the importance of keeping the seemingly “small” mitzvos, which are sometimes neglected or fall by the wayside. Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach uses this lesson in an incredibly personal way. He was already well into his seventies when he developed a dangerous growth on his head that required delicate surgery. Tefillos were recited worldwide for the rosh yeshiva’s recovery, which boruch Hashem were fulfilled with his return to the leadership of Klal Yisroel for over thirty years. Although the entire hospital staff took care of the rosh yeshiva with dedication, one secular nurse in particular was extremely devoted to him. She stayed beyond her required hours and even carried his bags to the car when he was discharged. Rav Shach asked the driver to wait while he thanked the nurse for her mesiras nefesh.

“I would like to give you a gift that will remain with you forever,” the rosh yeshiva began in serious tones. “I noticed that you smoke and I would like to explain to you why it is forbidden and extremely dangerous.”

For 15 minutes Rav Shach depicted why it is so terrible to smoke and how harmful it can be to a person. Finally, the nurse promised that she would indeed completely stop smoking and Rav Shach repeated that he had given a great present. In the car, he explained what had just occurred to his somewhat puzzled talmidim and family.

“I owed that nurse a great deal of gratitude for all she did for me, and, of course, the greatest gift I could possible give her would be to convince her to begin keeping Torah and mitzvos. However, I know that this was impossible at the present time. Since I noticed that she was addicted to smoking, not being religious, she undoubtedly smoked on Shabbos as well. Had I asked her to stop smoking just on Shabbos, I know that she would have dismissed my request with the usual attitude of, ‘Oh, he’s just another religious rabbi.’ However, now that she believes that it is best for her health – which is absolutely true – I have done her a great favor. Even if she continues to be mechalel Shabbos in every other way, even one cigarette less each Shabbos is a tremendous improvement.”

This should be our attitude toward Elul as well. We must be realistic in our commitments and forward planning. Instead of grandiose promises that we will not keep even for a moment, we must formulate realistic kabbalos that we can and will accomplish. Then, later, these can lead to others and beyond. But Elul must be a time for pragmatic down-to-earth strategies that will actually be implemented.

According to Rav Elya Lopian, during Selichos, we receive a blunt reminder about how delicate this process can be. We implore Hashem, “Please do not cast us away from You and do not remove Your ruach hakodesh from me.” “Imagine,” marvels the mashgiach, “even someone who has attained the incredible madreigah of standing directly lefonecha – before Hashem – and has been granted ruach hakodesh, almost a form of prophesy, can lose it all because of one sin. As Dovid Hamelech stresses (Tehillim 51:13), “We can literally be thrown away in an instant.”

This fear and trepidation must inform our every move and thought during Elul. Yes, there is much that we can achieve. But we must be vigilant and cautious not to lose these spiritual accomplishments.

The wonderful news is that Hashem is nearby, available and accessible to us. However, as always, that closeness carries great responsibility and requires the highest deference. Let us seize the wonderful opportunities this coming month provides, but let us also slow down to do it right. Each day can bring its own brocha so that when Rosh Hashanah finally arrives, we are not only ready, but have earned the right to ask for and receive a kesivah vachasimah tovah.