Last year, I had the zechus of writing in these pages about the “Gifts of Elul.” This year, as something of a follow-up, I would like to point out the great simcha that Elul can and must generate.
Now, this approach is more than counterintuitive. On one level, it seems nearly blasphemous. In my own family, we were privileged to have a bubby, Chaya Sarah Szafransky a”h, who grew up with her cousin, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, in Kelm. We often heard her describe the absolute awe-struck atmosphere of her city of mussar from the moment everyone bentched Rosh Chodesh Elul.
On other occasions, I heard Rav Nochom Velvel Dessler zt”l, son of the Michtav M’Eliyahu, depict the waves of teshuvah that enveloped Kelm during Elul, extending even to the gentiles.
The Elul characterization reaches back even further and higher, when we speak of the early baalei mussar giants. It was said of Rav Yisroel Salanter’s Mussaf after bentching Rosh Chodesh Elul that everyone could instantly recognize the difference between his Shacharis and Mussaf, once Elul had been announced (Otzros Hogadodoh, Yiras Shomayim, page 187).
When the Chofetz Chaim heard the momentous words, “Rosh Chodesh Elul yihiyeh beyom…,” he began to shake so violently and cry out so loudly that fear and trepidation befell the entire shul (Rav Y.Y. Yasher, Toldos Chofetz Chaim).
Lest one think that this reaction to the arrival of Elul is limited to the Lithuanian or mussar tradition, one must note that the Munkatcher Rebbe, the Minchas Elozor, was always the chazzan for bentching Rosh Chodesh. When doing so for Elul, he would always add the words “veliseshuvah sheleimah” after “refuah sheleimah,” meaning that all should now proceed to repent for their sins.” His voice and tone were so penetrating that the entire Munkatcher kehillah experienced an overwhelming inspiration to return to Hashem (Darchei Chaim Veshalom).
The underpinnings of these anecdotes were once described in a penetrating parable. A soldier in the army of the Russian Czar Nikolai once spotted someone who was staggering around drunk in the middle of the night. The officer demanded that the shikur identify himself, but the man was too inebriated to take heed. When he had called upon him a second time to no avail, he raised his voice and demanded, “I am a soldier in the army of Czar Nikolai and I command you to identify yourself.” When the hapless fellow still did not respond, the soldier shot him and wounded him. Later, both were summoned to judgment, the drunk for public intoxication and the soldier for shooting without provocation. The two “litigants” argued. “Why did you shoot me?” the now chastened alcoholic demanded. The soldier responded, “Because you refused to respond properly.” Now, in a defensive mode, the man retorted, “But you saw that I could not answer soberly. What did you want from me?” The soldier drew himself up to his full height and responded in solemn tones, “When you hear the name of our esteemed Czar, even someone stone drunk should be shaken out of his stupor” (Moreshes Avos).
One of the three great talmidim of Rav Yisroel Salanter, Rav Yitzchok Blazer zt”l, was known for the powerful drashos he gave during Elul in Europe and later Eretz Yisroel. One of his most famous mesholim (see introduction to Kochvei Ohr) was the parable of the caravan that became hopelessly lost in a thick forest. Finally, to their joy, one day they met a man walking in the thicket. “Won’t you please help us get out of here? We have been lost for weeks.” they cried. The man looked at them with pity, “You have been here only for weeks, but I have been lost for months. I, too, have no idea how to escape the danger. However, there are certain paths that I have discovered to be dead-ends and others that simply do not lead out. Let us therefore search the other opportunities together.” Rav Itzele raised his voice gently and announced, “I, too, am lost and do not know the way, and I am worse, since I am older than you and have been lost for longer. But let us beg for Hashem’s help during Elul to get through the Yomim Noraim intact and in good health.”
With this classic approach to Elul, it certainly seems difficult to even insert the word simcha into the equation. What can simcha possibly have to do with this intense focus on dealing properly with our sins, foibles and transgressions?
Perhaps one place to begin is an incredible insight from Rav Aizik Ausband zt”l, rosh yeshiva at Yeshivas Telshe Cleveland. He pointed out that the mizmor of Elul, extending throughout the Yomim Noraim, is L’Dovid, which repeatedly reminds us that we have nothing to fear. Rav Ausband teaches us that we are actually released from all other worldly fears so that we can concentrate upon the fear of Heaven, which we so profoundly require during these crucial days (quoted by Rav Yitzchok Sorotzkin in Gevuras Yitzchok, Elul, page 114). Elul, therefore, is a respite from corporeal concerns and worries, so that we can achieve eternal needs without merely materialistic anxieties.
Furthermore, last week’s parshah, which ushered in the month of Elul, begins with the word vehayah, which Chazal (Bereishis Rabbah 42:2) teach signifies simcha. The vov turns the past into the future, thus creating the wonderful opportunities that may have eluded us in the past. The Shela, Bnei Yissoschor and other meforshim note that the hope for the future inherent in tocheil shanah uvirchoseha is buttressed by the great joy that through our own avodah during Elul, we can bring about wonderful changes for the better in our lives.
The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (Devorim 11:13) added that in the beginning of the second section of Krias Shema, which represents the yoke of performing mitzvos, it also begins with the joyous vehayah, since Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles) teaches us that it is only the joy of mitzvos that is lasting. All other ostensible joys are fleeting and ephemeral. Therefore, if one is engaged in seeking to improve oneself during Elul, the process represents the greatest joy of life.
To return to our dichotomy of the baalei mussar and the Chassidim regarding the joy of Elul, we may now demonstrate that all are actually on the same page of the Elul siddur. The talmidim of Rav Chatzkel Levenstein used to testify that the great mashgiach said of himself that he never experienced a depressing day in his life. Yet, some marveled, how could this be? He spent a lifetime demanding perfection of himself and insisting on constant spiritual growth. How could there never be a moment of disappointment? They finally answered that Rav Chatzkel constantly lived with and by the knowledge that Hashem was helping him rise to the next level, and that Hashem was smiling at his efforts and supported each and every step toward becoming the ideal Jew (Rav Dov Yoffe, Le’ovdecha Be’emes, 1:18). The Baal Hatanya, too, taught his Chassidim that there was a time when it was easy to transition from depression to joy, but in his own era he understood that this was no longer the case, so he insisted that the fallback condition of a person should be joy, although it is necessary to assign a period of time to be pained by one’s sins. This, however, also should be done with the joy of knowing that our sins can be eradicated and that Hashem is anxious to accept our teshuvah (ibid., page 19).
Finally, the Bnei Yissoschor (Maamorei Chodesh Elul 1:2) teaches that during Elul, our repentance should be through simcha, since the mazel of Elul is besulah, which adds up to the gematriah of eim habonim semeichah hallelukah. He offers another source for Elul being a fount of simcha, because the posuk (Yirmia 31:12) states, “Az tismach besulah b’mechol – Then the maiden shall rejoice with dance.” The word mechol, which means dance, here also refers to Hashem’s forgiving us during Elul. This is both the greatest news that we could possibly receive and also an impetus to repent out of the joy of knowing that our forgiveness is waiting for us.
The Rizhiner Rebbe was known to point out that Purim is greater than Yom Kippur, since it is Yom Kippur that is likened to Purim. This is because the teshuvah of Yom Kippur comes through fasting and confession, but that of Purim comes through joy (see Ikvei Abirim, page 214). However, Elul, which arrives before we actually fast and recite viduy, should also be upbeat based upon the purity (mazel besulah) of the essential soul and Hashem’s promise of a new better year, be’ezras Hashem. May we go forth into Elul with the joyous mission of doing teshuvah and helping to bring about a gut gebentched yohr.