Saturday, Jul 13, 2024

The Gifts of Elul

The story is told (Rav Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik zt”l, one of the great baalei mussar, in sefer Va'ani Sefilah, maaamar tzarah bli shutfim, repeated in Chochmas Hamatzpun 4:230) that the impoverished Ibn Ezra yearned for many years to visit the Rambam. However, since he could not afford the journey, his righteous desire was denied until he had saved up some funds and then finally was helped with the remainder by one of his admirers. Arriving at the Rambam's door after all the decades of anticipation, the Rambam met the Ibn Ezra briefly and then shockingly commanded a guard to throw him into a dark dungeon, where he was fed only bread and water. The Ibn Ezra could barely get over the mortification of his treatment at the hands of the Rambam and began to wonder if he had fallen into the hands of an evil imposter. Days went by with no respite, and he began to cry bitterly over his strange fate. Suddenly, his jailer visited the prisoner, presenting him with bizarre instructions. If he ever wanted to be released from his incarceration, he was to cry into the large cup he was given and not to spill the precious liquid until he was freed.

Soon thereafter, he was ushered into the Rambam’s private chambers, tears in hand. The famed author of the Mishnah Torah hugged the Ibn Ezra with great emotion, escorting him into a private room where he could bathe and eat until he was clean and satiated.

Finally, the Rambam revealed that he, too, was excited to meet the Ibn Ezra and they exchanged Torah thoughts. The puzzled traveler could no longer contain himself and begged his “host” to explain this strange welcome.

“You know,” began Rabbeinu Moshe Ben Maimon, “that I am also a doctor. The moment I saw you, I diagnosed that you had a dangerous eye infection that could cause you permanent blindness, chas veshalom. The only cure we have for this horrible illness is to cleanse the eyes with one’s own tears. The kindest method I had at my disposal to cause you to weep was the way you were treated. Please accept my apologies, but let me show you the proof.”

The renowned physician brought a powerful magnifying glass and demonstrated to the Ibn Ezra the toxic creatures that had inhabited his eye. Only then did the Ibn Ezra truly understand what amazing Hashgachah Protis he had on his long journey.

Rav Chaim Zaitchik’s conclusion is that during Elul, we all need to take a similar expedition, doing whatever is necessary to bring ourselves to tears of teshuvah. Others, however, suggest a different path for the days of Elul ahead. Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l (Alei Shur 2:434) suggests that we take our cue from Nechemiah’s advice to many of the returnees before their first Rosh Hashanah back in Eretz Yisroel: “Do not mourn and do not weep…do not be sad; the enjoyment of Hashem is your strength” (Nechemiah 8:9-10). My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, maamar 1) also sees this posuk as seminal to a proper approach to Rosh Hashanah.

Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l (Ohr Yisroel, letter 7) teaches that everyone should choose a short mussar sefer, reading until something “hits home,” and then work on what he personally needs to improve and correct. Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l says that “the main avodah of Elul should be to perform positive acts of goodness and mitzvos, not being so concerned with sins and negative actions” (Leket Reshimos, Yomim Noraim, page 5). Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l, too, says to do acts of chizuk that will focus us positively on the spiritual work of the year ahead (Michtav M’Eliyahu 2:56-57).

Is there a way that we can reconcile these disparate approaches to the month of Elul? Surely, they are all important, but some seem contradictory to each other. The key may be a beautiful Medrash regarding these important days: “During the second period of 40 days when Moshe ascended Har Sinai, they declared a day of fasting in the beginning, and on the last day they again declared a fast… The Bnei Yisroel met Moshe when he descended, they crying toward him and he crying toward them, until their cries went up to heaven. At that moment, Hashem took pity upon Klal Yisroel and forgave their sin. They had a revelation that Hashem was promising them good tidings and consolation. Then Hashem declared, ‘My children, I swear by My great name and My throne of glory that your cries will turn into great joy and exaltation and this day will become for you a day of forgiveness and expiation for you, your children and your grandchildren until the end of time’” (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Zuta 4). Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l (Kovetz Sichos 2:224) concludes that our great zechus is that those tears were able to establish an eternal day of absolution.”

These buoyant words must be joined with the extraordinary chiddush about Elul taught by the mashgiach of the pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva, Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l: “The secret of Elul is that all we have to do is prepare ourselves and be ready to receive the incredible beneficence of goodwill that is being showered upon us from heaven during these days of ratzon we have been granted” (Daas Chochmah Umussar 2:73). According to Rav Yeruchem, we need only be proper receptacles for the divine blessings that have been readied for us. This means that it is all in our attitude.

In Yiddish, there is an expression to shtell tzu, which means to associate and identify with something. Reb Yeruchem is showing us how to shtell tzu to Elul. It is not any particular action that makes the difference. It is how we orient ourselves to the season upon us. Do we truly want Hashem’s blessings? Surely. But do we also want the closeness with Hashem they imply? Are we truly overjoyed to become closer to our Creator or do we just want His material blessings from afar? These are the key questions that define the success or, G-d forbid, failure of our Elul labors.

So we need not cry tears of pain, like the Ibn Ezra. But we must at least shed tears of joy that we have the privilege of serving Hashem. Even if we were not perfect before, we learned from Rav Yeruchem that Elul itself will put us back on the path, but like our GPS, we must listen and turn the wheel. Elul itself is granting treasures and restoring lost glory. All we need to do is hold the vessel firmly right side up. The blessings will fill up all by themselves if we truly want the kirvas Elokim, the divine presence constantly in our lives. Elul should be a time of sublime joy, coupled with submission to the will and direction of Hashem.

Finally, Rav Shneur Kotler zt”l unifies all the Elul approaches for us by reminding us what happened during the very first Elul. It is true that Rosh Hashanah is our day of judgment because that is the day we were created – zeh hayom techilas maasecha. But, Rav Kotler points out, the days before were days of creation, too. He demonstrates that everything in the universe (see Bereishis 1:6 with Rashi and Iyov 26:11) reverberates with yiras Hashem. Man need but access the creative powers inherent in Elul, combined with the natural middah of yirah in the universe, to achieve the goal of recreating himself.

Instead of fearing Elul or running from its rigor, let us eagerly embrace its gifts, crying tears of happiness that it has arrived to, G-d willing, usher in a wonderful year, be’ezras Hashem.




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