This is a strange year. Pesach and Shavuos were unusual, to say the least. Most of our Shabbosos for the past five months have not been the same as the past. We’re still unsure how our davening for the Yomim Noraim will look.
“Well, at least we have Elul,” we whisper gingerly.
But then we remember that Rav Itzele Peterberger used to say over a century ago that for us, the preparations for Rosh Hashanah should actually start on Rosh Chodesh Shevat (Chochmas Hamatzpun, page 143). By this, he seemed to mean that whereas in the past, a month of preparation was enough, these days we need half a year to get ready for judgment.
This attitude is far from the exclusive domain of the inner circle of early baalei mussar. When the Karliner Rebbe, Rav Asher, used to get up from the Seder, he said that he could hear a knock at the door summoning him to Selichos. Indeed, in the Novardoker yeshivos, the minhag was that starting during the summer, they would announce, “Five months to Elul… Three months to Elul…” (Amud Hayirah Veha’avodah).
At the very least, we should now spend our Elul knowing and realizing what precious moments we have ahead of us.
What exactly have we already missed that now must be made up?
The Belzer Rebbe, Rav Arele, used to repeat the stirring description of his father, Rav Yissochor Dov, when he returned from the city of Ratzfort. “I am jealous of the people of this city,” the rebbe reflected, “because their Elul began when they bentched Rosh Chodesh to the tune of Selichos.” However, in Belz itself, the Torah at seudah shlishis reflected powerful reminders that the yemei hadin had arrived. How did people become G-d-fearing in those days? Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, the rov of Yerushalayim, recalled that as a child growing up in Kovno, he went to hear the Elul drasha of Rav Yisroel Salanter. He was sitting on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh because every other seat had been taken. Rav Yisroel reminded everyone in frightening tones that Elul had arrived and we must all do teshuvah. Suddenly, he fainted right in front of the young Rav Frank at the base of the aron kodesh. That was Elul over a century ago (Bais Vaad, volume 2, page 33).
This is one side of our annual struggle to approach the yemei hadin with proper awe and trepidation. Perhaps this year, our awe is already overextended. But there is another side to Elul, which many of us need just as much this extraordinary year. It is the feeling of closeness to Hashem alluded to in the acronym “Ani leDodi veDodi li,” which the Mishnah Berurah cites as a primary definition of this important month. Even as we tremble and quiver, we are reassured that Hashem is close by. “The King is in the field,” we are told, meaning that we have access. His majesty is not on His throne, but in the vicinity, and each of us is invited, anticipated and expected to take advantage of the moment.
Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin used to tell a story he personally witnessed that he later turned into a parable about this aspect of Elul. There had been a tremendous famine and a father and son were dragging their exhausted feet down the road. Suddenly, the father spotted a shiny coin on the ground but didn’t feel strong enough to bend down and pick it up. Instead, he begged the child to do so for him. The boy did not realize that this coin could buy them enough food to save their lives and protested that he, too, couldn’t retrieve the life-saving treasure. Finally, the father made a superhuman effort, picked it up and joyously bought thirteen sweet apples. Of course, he split the wealth with his son, but the young man protested that they all belonged to the father, and since there was not really enough for a meal, he was forbidden from partaking of the repast. An idea apparently lit up in the fatigued father’s mind. He quickly ate one of the apples to gain strength and instructed his son to rest for a few minutes and then follow him home. Along the way, he wisely dropped apples here and there, where he knew the child would discover them. Now the boy applied the halacha (Choshen Mishpat 262:7) that one may keep stray fruits that are discovered on the road and immediately assuaged his hunger.
Rav Tzadok repeated the true story but asserted that this became a guiding light for the rest of his life. Had the child understood the value of that coin, he could have saved himself and his father a great deal of trouble. Hashem gives us a precious month to pick up mitzvos, do teshuvah and approach Rosh Hashanah spiritually strong and healthy. However, we often squander this precious gift by not realizing what an opportunity we have been given (Be’er Hachaim, page 15, note 13). Many tzaddikim and gedolim, such as Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover, adjured us “not to waste a second of these Elul days, since they can elevate us to the highest levels of closeness to our Maker (Shaar Bas Rabbim 4:63). It is well-known that even one or two generations ago, simple Jews would break out in tears when reminded that Elul had arrived (Drashos Rav Wosner, Shevet Halevi, page 300). Perhaps this year, after months of quarantines, riots in the streets, the passing of gedolim who didn’t even receive proper hespeidim, and the closing of shuls and yeshivos for long difficult months, just perhaps we are ready to truly embrace the presence of Hashem in our personal and communal Elul.
But what should we be asking for during this crucial month?
One of the darshanim in Yerushalayim related a true story, which is ultimately our own Elul story every year. But this year, perhaps we “get it” clearly for the first time. A cute little boy got onto an Israeli bus and caught the driver’s eye.
“What’s your name little fellow?” he inquired kindly.
“Yossi,” the boy replied.
“Is there anything I can do for you Yossi?” the driver continued.
“Yes,” Yossi replied confidently, “I want you to make an accident.”
The driver sputtered, “What?”
“An accident. My mother is always reading about traffic accidents. I would like to see one.”
The driver, of course, refused, even though the disappointed little boy began to cry and wail (Umasok Ha’ohr, Elul, page 25).
Another true story, but isn’t it what many of us ask for? We want things that will ultimately hurt us,
which are certainly not in our best interests, which are irrational and are counterproductive. But we cry, demand and carry on until…we get what we wanted. Perhaps not one of us wanted to lose our shuls and shiurim, our botei medrash and botei knesses for so long. But did we ever take off our tallis too fast before davening was over? Did we ever talk during chazoras hashatz and Kaddish? Did we reach for our cell phone in boredom during a weekday davening? Well, if we did, will we ever do it again? Have we changed sufficiently? I don’t know the answer. But I do know that here we are in Elul and Hashem is close by. He wants us to show Him that we are different. We have learned our lesson and we no longer want to see an accident.
Yes, there are two distinct elements to Elul. We must do teshuvah and utilize every moment. But we are almost in the king’s palace, which we will enter, G-d willing, on Rosh Hashanah (see Leket Reshimos, Rosh Hashanah). Here we need only marvel at the beauties of Hashem’s world, bask in His love for us and draw closer to His warmth. The result of these two approaches – the yirah and the ahavah – help us rediscover our bond with our Father in heaven. Earlier generations were able to achieve this connection simply through the palpable fear of heaven during Elul. We, who are further than ever from this exquisite sense of trepidation, must work on the more accessible of the two faces of Elul. If we don’t fully comprehend the yirah aspect, at least let us lean down and pick up the shiny coin. Now we know that Hashem put it there for us, not so we can pick it up, but so that it can elevate us once again. Let’s go for it!