Already as a young boy, the holy tzaddik Rav Aharon of Belz would tremble from the fear of Elul to the extent that his body temperature went down and it was necessary to cover him with blankets to warm him. Chassidim related that in later years, they brought him hot water bottles to be comfortable. One of them asked him, “Doesn’t the Gemara say that Elul is the hottest time of the summer” (Yoma 29a)? The rebbe answered, “Yes, that is true, but when I was a young boy, my older sister told me, ‘Ahrele, you should know that in the month of Elul, even the fish in the sea tremble out of fear.’ These words really penetrated, and I thought to myself that if the fish in the sea, which lack intellect, are afraid, then surely humans, who possess understanding and know what tzaddikim of previous generations said, that from the fifteenth of Av they begin to move the chairs of those who sit in judgment on the Yom Hadin, surely we must tremble and be fearful of the Yom Hadin.”
Undoubtedly, this old adage about the fish has been passed down from great people. If so, the words of tzaddikim need to be studied. Why were the fish in the sea singled out in particular as examples of those who are apprehensive in Elul?
It has been suggested that the fish are less physical and less prone to do aveiros. During the Mabul, they were spared from destruction because they did not sink to the depravation of people of that generation. So, if they are anxious at this time, surely we should be.
Others explain that the fish live in a realm totally isolated from the rest of the world. Covered by the waters of the world, they are oblivious to what transpires on land and are not influenced at all by the corruption of man. Yet, they are in great alarm of the Yom Hadin. Surely, then, we, who are a part of society and are definitely influenced by its moral decline, most certainly should dread these awesome days.
Furthermore, there was a time when we were like those fish. We lived in our own land on the holy soil of Eretz Yisroel, where the Shechinah dwelled. We had the Bais Hamikdosh and lived in a world of our own with very minimal outside influences. Yet, there was a tremendous feeling of awe during the period of the Yomim Noraim. Surely, then, after so many years of living in golus, when we have been so tainted by outside influences, and certainly in this period of ikvisa deMeshicha when the world is constantly changing into a spiritual abyss, we must be afraid.
One reads the famous letter of Rav Yisroel Salanter bemoaning the fact that in previous years one was gripped with shuddering at the thought of Elul and now, over 140 years later, we are lacking that fear. His demeanor totally changed from the moment before they bentched Chodesh Elul to the moment after. We hear how the Brisker Rov, Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, sat with talmidim on Shabbos Mevorchim before Elul and mentioned that the Yemei Hadin are approaching. He then started shaking from fear. It’s hard for us to wrap our brains around this. What were these tzaddikim, who were medakdeik in every minute detail of halacha, so afraid of? And how is it that we, who are so far removed from their level of avodah, are not frozen in fear at the arrival of the Yemei Hadin?
While we are far removed from the level of tzaddikim of yesteryear and cannot evaluate their thought process, we are very aware of our failings. Although we know what the seforim say about these days and believe every word of it, we don’t feel it. If we would be summoned to a court for a major traffic offense, we would take it very seriously. Certainly, if we were defendants in a lawsuit of millions of dollars, we would lose sleep at night and find it hard to eat. But we don’t feel the judgment in heaven with our senses. It takes time and effort on our part to picture ourselves standing in front of the Bais Din Shel Maalah and facing judgment. The earlier generations literally felt it.
Furthermore, our gedolim were fluent in the entire Torah with all the poskim. They knew exactly all that is required of a Yid, all of the halachos and their minute details. With their vast knowledge, they had a much greater awareness of what a Yid is held accountable for. This is why they were so full of trepidation. But for many of us, ignorance is bliss. We are not even aware of what the prosecutor can say about us. When we klap Al Cheit, we wonder why we are even saying it if we never committed this aveirah. But chances are that if we were more knowledgeable, we would understand how we transgressed the aveirah in one form or another.
Rav Chatzkel Levenstein once commented that someone who keeps the entire Shulchan Aruch is a borderline Jew, for the basic halachos are the minimum that we are required to keep. How many of us can say that we keep every halacha in Shulchan Aruch? How many of us can say that we are fluent in just one cheilek in Shulchan Aruch or even one area of halacha, say hilchos Shabbos? One positive step in doing teshuvah would be to learn and master even a small area in halacha and fulfill it with all its details.
Another area where we could put more positive thought is the value of life. One of the main requests we have during these days is that Hashem grant us life. During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, we add to the Shemoneh Esrei, “Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life.” Then again after Modim we say, “And inscribe all of the children of Your covenant for a good life.” At the end of Sim Shalom we say, “In the book of life, blessing and peace, good livelihood may we be remembered…” The Selichos contain numerous supplications for life. But do we really know what we are asking for?
Of course, we want a life of health, parnassah and happiness, and we know that this is all at stake during these days. But this is just scratching the surface. Every moment of life on this earth can mean eternity. One mitzvah, the answering of one amein, earns us nitzchiyus. Every word of Torah is everlasting. The Chofetz Chaim explained the words in Birkas HaTorah of “Vechayei olam nota besocheinu – And implant internal life within us.” What does this mean? Through limud haTorah and fulfilling mitzvos, our moments on this world become eternal.
If we view life as merely a physical existence of enjoyment and comfort, then one might be hesitant to go through the discomfort of the teshuvah process to gain other comforts. But if one realizes that every moment of a spiritual life is forever, then our cries for life take on much more meaning. There is a lot more at stake, which arouses more trepidation on our part. The gedolim understood the full value of every moment of life and therefore trembled over their upcoming judgment.
Chazal tell us, “Better one hour of spiritual bliss in Olam Haba than the entire Olam Hazeh” (Avos 4:22). And yet the very same Mishnah says that one hour of teshuvah and maasim tovim in this world is better than the entire life in Olam Haba. There is endless potential in every moment of life and its value is beyond our comprehension. But the knowledge that every minute has infinite value should inspire us to intensify our work in Elul to attain more of these vast treasures.
Rav Reuven Karelenstein, noted mashpia in Eretz Yisroel, related: “I was invited to deliver a speech in a school, and they hired a taxi to bring me there. We reached the entrance to the area, but we still had to drive through to get to the school itself. In the entrance stood two bochurim deeply engrossed in conversation and they were blocking the passageway.
“The taxi driver, wanting to drive through, honked his horn once, but no reaction. He honked a second time, but they continued talking. Then he honked a third time, but they didn’t budge. He honked once more a bit longer, and this time one of the bochurim turned to him and exclaimed: ‘Beseder! Beseder! We heard you!’
“At this point, the driver lost his patience, rolled down his window, and screamed out, ‘Fool that you are! If you heard, then move a little!’
“I sat in the car and my heart skipped a beat. Gevald! It’s already close to a full month that we are also hearing the sound of a horn, the blowing of the shofar throughout Elul. Why is it being sounded? So that we should move a bit. That we should not remain standing in the place we were in before.”
The shofar calls out to us, “Awaken sleepy ones from your sleep… search your deeds and repent!” And what do we answer? “Beseder. Beseder. We heard you.”
If we heard the answer from Shomayim, it would be, “Fools that you are! If you heard, then move a little!”
It is up to us to stop and contemplate the value of life, envision the Yom Hadin, and make positive strides to improve our avodah. Then we can merit another year of health and menucha to earn for ourselves more eternity.