Elul is a paradox. On the one hand, we know that in cities such as Kelm, Slabodka, Novardok and Pressburg, Elul was terrifying. Gentiles used to whisper to each other that they could trust every Jew during that month because even the least religious were completely scrupulous and credible.
Our grandmother (my rebbetzin’s, a cousin of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l) used to relate to us the proverbial line that during Elul “even the fish in the water trembled.” I once had the privilege of seeing (I didn’t dare speak to him) the mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l, during Elul. He looked like a malach elyon, a heavenly angel, and his face shone with an otherworldly light. After the incredible Shanghai period, during which the mashgiach had led the Mirrer Yeshiva through many crises and experienced many open nissim veniflaos, he found himself briefly in the American Mir. Rav Shlomo Brevda zt”l related dramatically that one day during Elul, Rav Chatzkel came to Shacharis wearing a kittel. When asked for the reason, he explained astoundingly, “I have begun to experience that my sensibilities have cooled off since I arrived in the United States. I no longer fully feel the aimas hadin – the full awe of judgment – that I used to experience in these days. So I decided to wear a kittel, which reminds me of tachrichim – shrouds of the dead – so that I will remember the upcoming days of judgment.”
On the other hand, the days of Elul are either called the “yemei rachamim veratzon” or “rachamim veselichos,” either way representing a positive opportunity for forgiveness and acceptance. How, therefore, do we enter Elul, and what should be our avodah during these crucial days?
Rav Matisyahu Salomon (Matnas Chaim, Elul) offers us a parable. A powerful king assigned several days during the year when he would pay a visit to select families in his realm. The notice of the king’s arrival was always sent thirty days in advance so that everyone could prepare properly for this august visit.
A poor couple living in a simple forest hut opened the mail one day to the shock of such an impending royal visit. The shaken husband read and reread the letter with trembling hands. “How can we welcome the king to this hovel?” he asked his wife. “Our chairs are all shaky,” he lamented, “and the table isn’t even symmetrical. Nothing matches anything else and it is impossible to sit anywhere comfortably.”
The wife listened carefully but responded logically, “Fine, but what do you propose to do about all this?”
Her husband retorted with certainty, “I am going to change everything. We must get a new table and chairs, put up some drapes and fix the broken front door.”
“But for years now I’ve been begging you to do just that,” she replied, “and you kept saying that we don’t have the money.”
“True,” was the husband’s rejoinder. “We still don’t have the money, but I will now borrow what we need and fix up the house.”
The woman’s logic did not fail her. “My dear,” she inquired patiently, “why don’t we just leave everything alone? The king wants to see how we live. This way, he will see the reality.”
The husband now concluded definitively, “You would be correct if the king just dropped in unannounced. He knows very well in what poverty we live. But since he has given us thirty days’ notice, he wants to see how much we can change in this month.”
Rav Salomon offers his nimshol: Our King knows that we cannot change everything in a month. But He wants to see if we really take His visit seriously and are at least attempting to change.
So Elul is neither judgment nor joy. It is a month of pure opportunity. How exactly do we do this?
Rav Akiva Kister, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Yad Aharon, who passed away last year, offered an amazing halachically-based suggestion in his posthumously published sefer Yekar Tiferes. The posuk (Devorim 20:19) states, “When you besiege a city…do not destroy its trees… Only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it you may destroy and cut down.” The Netziv and Malbim note that this posuk seems to refute the Rambam’s view that when there is a doubt concerning a de’Oraisa (a Biblical issue), we are lenient (see first Shev Shmaatsa). This posuk seems to make clear that we may only chop down a tree if we are certain that it is not fruit-bearing. If there is any doubt, it would seem to be forbidden, proving the position of the Rashba that we are strict and negating that of the Rambam.
Although there are a number of other halachic answers, Rabbi Kister cites the Sefer Chareidim (1:20), which, in turn, quotes Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:17), who says that the mitzvah of Uvocharta Bachaim (Devorim 30:19) requires us to literally run away from any semblance of a possibility of sin.
If I may insert a metaphor, imagine a home where the exterminator has just performed his service. There is a jar lying on the floor and no one can remember if it is rat poison or the new drink we were going to try. Will anyone suggest that we should feed it to the children because it may be okay?
That should be our attitude toward any even remote possibility that we might be doing something the Torah forbids.
Rav Kister suggests that this is the avodah of Elul. For this reason, during the Ten Days of Teshuvah we accept stringencies we don’t keep the rest of the year (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 603). We are trying to train ourselves after Elul to disengage from all negative behavior in order to be judged favorably when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive. The injunction to “choose life” implies many things, but at the very least, during the month of Elul, it means that must eschew any hint of wrongdoing or malfeasance at all.
Another aspect of the avodah of Elul is to remember that Hashem loves us so much that He will accept even the tiniest bit of teshuvah. We should not resist repenting because we cannot become perfect, for Hashem is telling us, “Open up the door for me even the size of a pin and I will open [the door of forgiveness] as large as a mansion” (Medrash, Shir Hashirim 5).
The baalei mussar give an example to illustrate the incredible kindness of Hashem with this promise. Someone breaks his friend’s glasses. The one who did the damage offers the victim his old pair as compensation. The half-blind man without spectacles takes the offering in his hand, holds up the bent ancient glasses to his face and screams, “Are you crazy? I want payment in cold cash. I have to buy a pair of new glasses because of your carelessness. I can’t accept this old pair.”
Hashem, however, tells us, “Just give Me anything at all; I will do the rest.” This is the other side of Elul, the rachamim and ratzon, the great gift of Elul. All Hashem wants from us is a show of progress, of effort, movement, change, even the offering of a somewhat improved human being. That is the unique benefaction of Elul.
Finally, we will borrow from one of the special halachos of Elul. The Mishnah at the beginning of Maseches Rosh Hashanah teaches that “the first of Elul is Rosh Hashanah for maaser beheimah.” The primary meaning of this statement is that we cannot tithe the animals of the new year for the old (Bechoros 53b). However, many of the Chassidic seforim add that this also means that on Rosh Chodesh Elul, we begin to remove our lowest, most animalistic traits. We elevate ourselves from our baser instincts and attempt to become the lofty beings we can be when we try to connect with our holy neshamah.
This is the greatest potential of Elul, to become our very best, to welcome the king at our finest, to approach our Father our King with our innermost soul shining through at its very best. May we truly have a powerful Elul, leading to all the brachos of a kesivah vachasimah tovah.