During Elul, we are all candidates. We are all running for something. We are running for our lives. Elul is when we review our rÃ©sumÃ© and contemplate and reflect on the successes and failures of the past year. We seek to make the achievements permanent and rise above our challenges as we craft a plan to make the case that we are deserving of a year of life, good health, and success in all areas.
Introspection and reflection are catalysts to action. Our ability to think clearly is the first step on the path to accomplishing our goals.
A beleaguered rosh kollel once approached Rav Yitzchok Lorincz and threw his hands up in despair. “I can’t do it anymore. I simply can’t,” he said.
To bolster his claim, the rosh kollel recounted that he’d gone to a mental health professional, who’d agreed that he wasn’t suited for the responsibilities of running a kollel and also shared his opinion that the rosh kollel would ultimately collapse from the pressure.
Rav Lorincz suggested that the careworn rosh kollel join him on a visit to Rav Lorincz’s grandfather, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
Rav Shlomo Zalman welcomed the visitors and asked the dejected man how long he had been serving as a rosh kollel.
“25 years,” the man said.
“Did you ever have worse times than you are experiencing now?” asked Rav Shlomo Zalman.
“Yes,” the man responded.
“Did Hashem help you in your difficult times?”
“Yes,” said the rosh kollel. “Every time, in fact. But every month, the situation repeats itself, until I finally come up with the money for the kollel.”
“So,” Rav Shlomo Zalman remarked, “each month you are privileged to see anew how Hashem controls everything. Why do you worry?”
Rav Shlomo Zalman continued: “You are not the only person who experiences financial pressures. Every rosh yeshiva has these pressures, as does every business owner trying to make payroll and every parent on the verge of marrying off a child.
“Rather than worrying about what will be, you can react to the situation by developing a real and complete faith in Hashem. How do you arrive at that? Get yourself a small notebook and keep it with you. Every time you experience a yeshuah, however small it might appear, write it down in this little book. When you daven Shemonah Esrei, take out the notebook before you say Modim and glance through it.”
Rav Shlomo Zalman concluded, “I guarantee that if you follow my advice, your worries will disappear.”
Now is the time when we also must buy a notebook and pen, so that we can begin to live with the cheshbon that will inspire us as we face the holiest days of the year. If we contemplate the realities of life – both the daunting challenges and the glorious successes – we will feel how He guides us, and we will understand how beholden we are to His kindness.
Life is worrisome. There are so many things to be anxious about. There is no end to the list of matters for one who is looking to be concerned. We can drive ourselves crazy with anxiety. We can give up what we have spent our lives building. We can lose our present and our future because of excessive worrying.
Once, when the master mechanech, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l, hired a fundraiser, the fellow wanted to know how much he would be paid. Rav Shraga Feivel replied with a joke about an impoverished shtetel Yid whose wife always reminded him that he was a failure. She would wail that he was doubly cursed: Not only couldn’t he feed his family, he also didn’t seem to care about it. His happy-go-lucky attitude bothered her as much as his lack of success. “At least you can show signs of worry,” she would berate him.
One day, the poor Yid arrived home accompanied by another man. He explained to his wife that he hired the gentleman as his official worrier. “I’m paying him ten rubles a week, and he will be worrying about our finances.”
“What has come over you?” his wife cried. “We have no money and can’t afford the basics. From where will you get the money to pay him ten rubles?”
The fellow shrugged and grinned. “That’s what he’s here for – to worry. So let him worry about it. That’s his problem.”
We must not be like that simpleton. We must own up to our failings and overcome our fears. In order to have the ability to soar, we have to let go of the worries that weigh us down. We can do that by strengthening our bitachon. We must examine our situation and recognize and be thankful for everything that goes right. We must notice the chesed that is ever-present, even in times of din. We must realize that we are not alone. We have bitachon that we were placed in this world with a unique mission and that every person was given the ability to succeed in his mission. We must have bitachon that Hashem doesn’t allow us to be confronted with challenges that we cannot overcome.
The month of Elul is a time predestined for this type of introspection. We begin the month announcing our faith, stating, “Hashem ori veyeshi,” and proclaiming that when we have proper faith in Hashem, “mimi ira,” we have no reason to fear.
In this week’s parshah, the posuk tells about the rallying cry of the generals to Klal Yisroel before heading off for war: “Mi ha’ish hayarei verach haleivav – Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house” (Devorim 20:8).
The Gemara (Sotah 44) explains that the posuk refers to a person who has sinned and therefore worries that he is lacking in merit. The Gemara states that even if a person had transgressed an aveirah derabbonon, he should return home rather than fight. The example Chazal give is “afilu soch bein tefillah l’tefillah,” even if he spoke out and interrupted between putting on his tefillin shel yad and his tefillin shel rosh. That is reason enough to return home.
The Vilna Gaon explains why the Gemara uses the example of tefillin to portray a man who is unworthy of being a fighter.
Rashi in Parshas Vezos Habrochah teaches that when the shevet of Gad went to battle, their victims could be recognized. Shevet Gad had a unique way of attacking, and they were able to assail their enemies with a single motion, cutting off both the head and the arm. This is referred to in the posuk which states, “Toraf zeroa af kadkod – Tearing off arm and even head” (Devorim 33:20).
The Gaon posits that this power represents the piety of warriors who knew how to connect head and arm in kedushah, elevating their own “zeroa vekadkod.” This is because the head represents machshovah, thought, and the arm represents ma’aseh, action. The battle successes of shevet Gad represented their accomplishment in this area. Their machshovah and ma’aseh combined to complement their performance of Hashem’s will.
The mitzvah that most symbolizes this is that of
tefillin, with which we bind our mind to our arm; reflection and action.
The members of shevet Gad were the “bnei gevurah” known for their military power. However, their strength was attained through connecting mind and might.
Thus, the Gaon explains why the Gemara uses the example of the person who speaks between putting on the shel yad and the shel rosh, for doing so indicates a separation between machshovah and ma’aseh. A warrior who does not combine the two is unable to succeed in battle.
Elul is the month when we reflect with our machshovos and recommit to heightened asiyah, accomplishment. It is the most serious month on our calendar and provides us with the strength and ability to withstand the inevitable rigors of life.
After describing the proper preparations for war, the parshah concludes with the mitzvah of eglah arufah and the words “Ve’atah tevaeir hadom hanoki mikirbecha ki saaseh hayoshor be’einei Hashem – But you shall remove innocent blood from your midst when you do what is upright in the eyes of Hashem” (Devorim 21:9). The method to overcome fears is by doing what is proper in the eyes of Hashem.
If we wish to be protected, if we wish to be successful, if we wish to be calm, if we wish to be zocheh in din, then we have to properly do the avodah of Elul. We have to live with a cheshbon, but never may our teshuvah come at the expense of Jewish blood or hurting others.
An emotional chossid visited the Chiddushei Horim during Elul. He confessed that he had sinned and fallen into the abyss of impurity. The man said that he was heartbroken and that he was seeking an avenue towards repenting.
The rebbe responded that “hamo’ar sheba machzirom lemutav,” the toil of Torah learning is the surest path to repentance. The man bid the rebbe farewell and turned to leave. The rebbe stopped him.
“Go out through this door,” the rebbe said, indicating a door behind his seat, leading to the back courtyard. “Why do all the chassidim waiting outside have to see your red eyes and add to your humiliation?”
That is the fusion of machshovah and ma’aseh, the heights of aliyah, but without losing sight of the feelings of a Yid.
On the eve of the Second World War, the Klausenberger Rebbe spent Sukkos with his wife’s grandfather, Rav Shulem Leizer’l of Ratzferdt. They were speaking aloud, trying to find a limud zechus for Klal Yisroel to evoke Divine mercy.
Rav Shulem Leizer’l declared, “Every Jew is worthy of Hashem’s salvation, even if all he does is recite Shema.”
The Klausenberger answered, “Yes, it is so. Rav Shimon bar Yochai agrees.”
He was referring to the Gemara in Maseches Sotah (42a) which Rashi cites in this week’s parshah. The posuk (20:3) states that prior to going to war, the kohein approached the people going out to do battle and said to them, “Shema Yisroel, atem kreivim hayom lamilchomah al oyveichem, al yeirach levavchem ve’al ta’artzu mipneihem — Listen, Am Yisroel, you are now about to go to war against your enemies. Let your hearts not be troubled; do not fear them, because Hashem, your G-d, will accompany you to fight your enemies with you and help you.”
From the fact that the Torah uses the words “Shema Yisroel” to convey this message of faith, Rav Shimon bar Yochai deduces that “even if your only source of merit is Krias Shema, that is sufficient for Hashem to save you.”
Each morning, as we tie tefillin to our arm and head, we commit to connect machshovah and ma’aseh, and we then recite Krias Shema.
That combination makes us unbeatable. It is often said that the parshah, while appearing to speak of battles against our nation’s physical enemies, also refers to the battles we must wage against the yeitzer hora, which seeks to overwhelm us daily. Perhaps we can say that this reference is present in this posuk as well. As you do battle against your yeitzer hora, do not fear him. Do not think that you cannot overcome him. Do not think that you have sinned and are weak and unworthy. For if you have even the merit of Krias Shema and sincere faith in Hashem, He will help you defeat your enemy and realize the mission He placed you in this world to accomplish.
That being said, as we prepare our Elul campaigns, we bear in mind that people today are fed up with prepared, canned, clichÃ©d answers. They want the truth. They want to feel that the person they are voting for is interested in them and respects them enough to be truthful. They want a person with a plan, but they want that person to be authentic in how he presents it. They want him to be moral, truthful, and committed to the people. They want him to know enough about himself and his inner feelings to be able to communicate and present himself by himself, without the need of a teleprompter and multiple aides who tell him what to say and the proper tone in which to express himself.
Lehavdil, Hashem wants no less from us. We have to work on our machshavos and maasim, with humility and authenticity, so that we recognize our core and are faithful to it.
We all know the path to victory. Let’s follow it.