Yes, Elul has arrived, but has it actually changed our lives? Are we thinking and acting differently than last week because of it? In a way, this year, we are. Schools are starting earlier, and camps are ending because counselors are leaving, so Elul is in the air. But is it in our minds, hearts and souls?
I often heard from my rebbetzin’s Bubby a”h, who grew up in Kelm, the city of mussar, with her cousin Rav Elyashiv, the famous line that “even the fish in the water trembled when Elul arrived.” But she also related that once, two merchants were arguing over money in the street, and an elderly woman leaned over the porch, loudly shouting the magic word “Elul.” Mundane discussions rapidly ceased.
Rav Asher Arielli reported hearing from Rav Shlomo Wolbe that a robber was fleeing a home in the city of Mir with his booty when the owner screamed “Elul,” causing the thief to drop all and flee. Rav Arielli pithily pointed out that in our time, we would undoubtedly scream out, “Police!” but in Mir they knew that saying “Elul” was more powerful.
We don’t live in Kelm or Mir, but we did announce Elul last Shabbos. What do we do now?
I once saw Rav Chatzkel Levenstein during Elul, and that was frightening enough. But we unfortunately can’t see him anymore. Actually, even he was once dissatisfied with his own reaction to the advent of this crucial month. Rav Shlomo Brevda used to share a pivotal Elul moment during Rav Chatzkel’s tenure as mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva in the United States. His description was that “the mashgiach was like a king leading his troops in battle, surrounded by four hundred talmidei chachomim who hung on to his every word. His face was as radiant as that of a ministering angel, even though he barely looked outside of his personal four amos.
“Yet, one day, something extraordinary occurred. Rav Chatzkel walked into the bais medrash on one of the days of Elul wearing his white kittel. When asked why, he answered softly but with the power of millennia: ‘I feel that since I arrived in the United States, my sensitivities have weakened. I am not as affected by the advent of the yemei hadin as I used to be, so I decided to wear my kittel, which is similar to the shrouds of the dead. I must use this garment to remind myself of the day of death so that I can strengthen my trepidation.”
That was Rav Chatzkel, who lived and appeared like a malach. What should we do?
One answer may be gleaned from a line in the Gemara (Nedarim 81a). Chazal tell us to “be careful with children from poor homes, for Torah will come from them.” The Ran (first interpretation) explains that “the poor will succeed in their Torah studies because they have nothing else to divert their attention.” He apparently means that poor people don’t have to worry about businesses and assets, so they can concentrate on their Torah studies.
In our present world, the distractions are so multitudinous that even the poor barely have time to think about things such as Elul.
Yet, what the Ran is teaching is that we must prioritize our lives, especially during this time of year, so that we, in fact, make the time to consider our spiritual needs as well as the perennial materialistic things that generally preoccupy us. This surely means, as a basic beginning, setting time to study mussar seforim and other uplifting learning, which will reset our clock for Elul and Tishrei beyond.
Another avenue for our thoughts during this season is to consider what a gift the month of Elul truly is. It is said that the Maharil, the source of much of Ashkenazic halacha, ruled that one should accept the most lenient amount of time for tosefes Shabbos and Yom Tov upon the entry of Rosh Hashanah so as to preserve and not lose a single moment of Elul. A sharp moshol given about this by baalei mussar is about a woman who goes berserk after an argument with her neighbor. She walks into her house carrying a baseball bat, smashing everything in sight. Later, her embarrassed husband arrives, apologizing, explaining and prepared to pay for all the damages. The monetary remuneration has been completed, but surely the relationship will never be the same. The victim here will never call her neighbor a best friend. Yet, during the year, we transgress, we break and destroy our relationship with Hashem and His statutes. But when Elul arrives, Hashem allows us to start again from scratch, as if nothing ever happened. He is willing to look toward a better future and give us yet another chance.
The Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 7:6) writes dramatically, “Yesterday this person was hated by Hashem, rejected, distanced and found abominable. Yet today he is beloved, considered sweet, close and a friend.”
We must take the time to think about what a present we receive each and every year. We don’t have to write a thank-you note, let alone return the favor. But if we would reflect upon Hashem’s incredible kindness, perhaps we would be moved to simply become better and different this Elul.
Another approach to these halcyon days of ratzon from Hashem may be gleaned from a maamar from my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah 1). He quotes the words of Nechemiah and Ezra to Klal Yisroel just before the first Rosh Hashanah after Klal Yisroel returned to Eretz Yisroel following the churban Bais Hamikdosh: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared…” (Nechemiah 8:9). Rav Hutner points out that “acts of chesed and kindness to others are embedded in the essence of the special holiness of Rosh Hashanah.” The maamar explores a profound aspect of the Rosh Hashanah connection with chesed. But one lesson we may glean from this important citation is that while Adam himself was created on the sixth day of creation, which was the very first Rosh Hashanah, each of the five days before that were also days of creation. Rav Hutner reminds us that “Olam chesed yibaneh – Forever will Your kindness be built” (Tehillim 89:3). This means that the world was created by and for chesed. That is most manifest, as we explained earlier, by the fact that Hashem allows us to return year after year, even when we have done much worse than break someone’s furniture and utensils. Our response to this should be the performance of acts of chesed, mirroring and emulating the Creator’s own chesed in creating the world.
Ezra and Nechemiah conveyed this sentiment to Klal Yisroel by telling them not to be depressed or anxious before Rosh Hashanah. They had indeed strayed far from the path, yet their leaders taught them that this can be a time of great joy and positive change, precisely because Hashem is so kind. Like the Luchos themselves, when we engage in acts of bein adam lachaveiro, we are in effect coming closer to Hashem as well.
Rav Shimshon Pincus used to offer at this time of year another approach to the avodah of Elul. He quoted a famous question from the Alter of Kelm (Chochmah Umussar 1:83). Why is it almost universally true that things that we learned when we very young, such as about creation and the exodus from Egypt, no longer astound us when we grow older? He answered that we heard these things when we were too young to appreciate or fully understand their importance. Later, when we hear about them again and again, we are already jaded and unimpressed, because we think that we aren’t hearing anything new or exciting.
Rav Pincus adds that a pauper who enters a store and has only a dollar for something that costs two is very sad. But a millionaire who discovers that he has only a dollar in his pocket is unmoved, because he knows that he has access to millions, “We are all millionaires,” says Rav Pincus. “We have a vast encyclopedia of knowledge, wisdom and experience to draw upon, but we don’t realize the scope of our treasure-trove.” Yeshaya (29:13) laments that we do mitzvos by rote, but a baal teshuvah who experiences his first Shabbos, hears his first Kiddush, and watches his first Havdalah is often changed for life. Why? Because it is new and fresh. That is the power of Elul, the time the world was created and our invitation to approach the Throne and present ourselves as new human beings. Both our job and our ability during this time is to go back to our potential and our essential goodness and reinvent and recreate ourselves.
It has been noted that the poskim ordained that beginning in Elul, we should recite L’Dovid twice a day until the close of the season. This is not a psalm about teshuvah or exhortation to cease the sinning. It is an inspiring poem about Hashem’s love for us and of our bitachon and trust in Hashem. That is ultimately what defines these special days. We must be more aware of the greatness within us and Hashem’s trust in us as well. Let us unwrap this beautiful gift and use it to its fullest, so that we can enjoy, G-d willing, a kesivah vachasimah tovah.