In the twilight years of his life, Rav Elya Lopian retired from serving as mashgiach in Yeshivas Kfar Chassidim and moved into the home of his son-in-law and daughter, Rav and Mrs. Kalman Pinsky, in Bayit Vegan. Two years before his petirah, the day after Yom Kippur, his daughter noticed that he was very pale. He complained about an infected wound on his body and he groaned from the pain.
The rebbetzin, who was so devoted to her father, treated the wound with great care, and slowly but surely, the pain subsided until the wound was totally healed. While he was still in pain, the rebbetzin asked him, “Tatte, such a serious wound does not develop in one day. What happened to you? Didn’t you realize that the wound was getting worse?”
Rav Elya, amidst the pain, answered in a whisper: “It was the Yomim Noraim! I did not notice it. How do you expect me to notice these things at such a time?”
Rav Yisroel Salanter related in his old age that, as a little boy, he would enjoy playing with his friends in a sandbox. When it would get late and he had not yet returned home, his older sister would call out to him, “Yisroel, what are you doing playing?! It is the month of Elul and even the fish in the sea are trembling.” That call resonated with him for the rest of his life.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe related that two wagon drivers were waiting at a corner with their wagons and horses. Suddenly, they got into an argument that started with words but quickly advanced into pushing and shoving. A Yiddishe woman, seeing this quarrel, quickly stuck her head out of her kitchen window and yelled, “Elul!” Immediately, the fight ended. This was the atmosphere during Elul in days past. Even the simplest folks, the wagon drivers, felt the fear of Elul.
We hear these anecdotes and how can we not be impressed? But are we inspired enough to awaken and act? Are we aroused to make definitive changes in our lives so that we may grow? For some of us, hearing the stories just makes us sulk. We think to ourselves: Those were different times when the spiritual air was purer. Nowadays, life is so much more complex, and we are so far removed from the level of those generations.
We are told to think about the tragedies that happened this past year. About the people who are sadly no longer with us but were amongst us last year. How if we had davened harder last year during the Yemei Hadin, perhaps much of the pain and sorrow could have been averted. How our own lives, our health, our sustenance, and the success of our families are hanging in the balance and dependent on our avodah these days. For some of us, these words are motivating, but for others, they could have the opposite effect. Within their hearts, there is panic and the thought that we don’t stand a chance. How do we overcome these thoughts and succeed in these pivotal days?
Rav Dovid Braverman, a noted mashpia in Eretz Yisroel, related: “A number of years ago, I approached Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and asked him what I should speak about when I am giving a drasha in the yeshivos and seminaries during Elul. There is so much to point out… What are the key points to emphasize?
“Rav Shteinman answered, in short, that I should speak about the hope for great things that the Yomim Noraim provides us with. I was bold enough to ask him why I should stress this point in particular. Rav Shteinman answered that today’s generation is much weaker than previous ones. If we harp on the fear of the Yom Hadin, it could have the opposite effect. The enormity of these days might be just too hard to handle. But if we think positively, it could more easily galvanize us into action.”
The Yomim Noraim are not merely days when harsh judgments are decided. They are days that bring forth many success stories. How many people anxiously awaiting shidduchim got married? How many people recovered from their illness? How many healthy babies were born to ecstatic parents, some of them to people who were told they would never have children? And how many people had uneventful years with health, parnassah, and menuchas hanefesh? All of these were decided during last year’s Yemei Hadin.
Rav Yitzchok Kolodetsky says that in our generation, especially during Elul, we must look at the countless opportunities we have to perform mitzvos. In previous generations, he says, the main avodah was in fearing Hashem and His majestic greatness. But today, we are much weaker and are far from understanding this. And when we think about our aveiros, we are gripped with a deep fear that could just discourage us.
For this, we must think positively. How many mitzvos do we fulfill throughout the day? What a powerful impact they have on us and the entire briah. We tend to forget how important we really are and of what magnitude our deeds are. Even the simplest Yid is a giant who keeps the briah functioning. Every morning, when we wake up, we begin with Modeh Ani, declaring that Hashem is our Creator, who, with great chesed, returns our neshomah daily. Do we have any idea what this accomplishes?
From there, we begin to accumulate treasures as we go along. Every brocha is a gem – tefillin, tzitzis, every single word of tefillah, standing before Hashem during Shemoneh Esrei and humbling ourselves before Him. Then there is the essence of the world…limud haTorah.
Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm once said: “Even if the world would be empty for its entire 6,000 years and just one person would come along and say one boruch Hu uvoruch Shemo, it would have been worth it for Hashem to create the universe. And it is well-known that one thousand boruch Hu uvoruch Shemos do not equal one amein. And it is well-known that a thousand ameins do not equal one amein yehei shmei rabbah. And it is well-known that one amein yehei shemei rabbah does not equal one word of limud haTorah!”
How fortunate we are to amass so many treasures in one day. And what about the holy women, who are blessed with raising children with great mesirus nefesh to go in the ways of Hashem? Every second of the day (and sleepless nights), they are accumulating countless mitzvos. We are carrying vast treasure houses on our shoulders, and we don’t give it much thought.
Perhaps this is an avodah that we can be mekabel upon ourselves during these holy days. To wake up every morning as if we are expecting to win a lottery worth millions. Because even on a regular day, we are accumulating vast treasures. We should approach every day with a positive attitude and with such simcha.
But it doesn’t stop there. Like anyone who is blessed with vast amounts of money, you would like to see your fortune expand. Wealthy people don’t just let their money sit in the bank idly. They invest it in stocks and bonds, and real estate, and their fortune grows. We, too, can expand our fortune. First, if we breathe life into our countless mitzvos, the fortune takes on a totally different look. By having kavanah for the mitzvah, by doing it with simcha that we are fulfilling the will of our Creator, by thinking about the words we say during davening and the reciting of brachos, even if it is just a select group of brachos or tefillos, we are gaining so much.
We ask Hashem to imbue us with life and vitality. If our mitzvos come alive with the thoughts we instill in them, and with this we create robust, vigorous malachim, they undoubtedly are melamed zechus on our behalf for Hashem to grant us a happy and healthy year.
And while we’re talking about maximizing our power, we should mention one of the most potent ways of doing so: caring about and providing for the needs of others. Giving tzedakah to the needy, volunteering to do acts of chesed, or davening for those who need a refuah or have other problems goes a long way for us, especially during these days. “Merubim tzorchei amcha,” the needs of Hashem’s people are many, and Hashem acts with us middah keneged middah, the way we act to others.
Just as important is the fact that when we care for others, we connect with the rest of Klal Yisroel. Then we feed off each other and the zechus of the rabbim is much more powerful than the zechus of an individual. What a nachas ruach it gives Hakadosh Boruch Hu when we care for each other.
We would all love to take a summer vacation in a remote place where the surroundings are beautiful. The rays of the sun by day nurture us and the brisk fresh air in the evening is so refreshing. Imagine spending a full month in this wonderful, serene place where you feel strengthened and invigorated.
This, says the Mirrer mashgiach, Rav Yeruchem Levovitz, is what Elul does for our neshomah. It is the summer of the soul. It heals the neshomah, it cleanses it, and it invigorates it. Just as we welcome a vacation, we should embrace Elul. And just as we value our time in a resort area where we are pampered, we should value every moment of Elul and the Yomim Noraim, not only for the blessings it brings us for the coming year, but also for the impact it has on our neshamos forever.