Would we not be ecstatic? Wouldn’t we dance all the way home? Perhaps we’d even make a Kiddush, as we thank Hashem, repeatedly, for such wonderful news and this phenomenal gift.
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Elul is a scary month. It is the lead-up month to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, awesome days of judgment and decision, days on which our very lives — and everything pertaining to them — hang in the balance. Were we scheduled to appear in a civil court on charges for which we might, even potentially, face the death penalty, no one doubts that we’d be in a tizzy of preparation, giving every last second our all. Indeed, how much sweat, effort and emotional involvement do we expend when scheduled for an appearance for nothing more than a simple traffic ticket?
On a certain level, though, while Elul is certainly a crucial month whose importance and centrality — as we’ve just illustrated — can in no way be minimized, it need not necessarily be a scary month. Yes, it is a month dedicated to teshuvah, going back to the time when Moshe Rabbeinu first went up during this period of time to Shomayim, after we sinned with the Golden Calf, to beg Hashem’s forgiveness (seeTur, Orach Chaim 581, which also brings Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 46.)
At the same time, our seforim mention how the posuk of “Ani ledodi vedodi li” (Shir Hashirim 6:3), which refers to the intense love with which we and Hashem are bound, form the acronym of Elul. As the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim, ibid.) explains, it is through this closeness and positive connection that we turn to Hashem, seeking merit and forgiveness. This is an awesome act of chesed bestowed upon us by our Creator. Even — or especially — during this month of repentance and return, He brings Himself unusually close to us so that we can come back to him through love and passion, rather than just fright.
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With this thought in mind, we can go back to the start of our article. It is true that none of us — at least no one whom we are aware of! — ever merited a bas kol after our Yomim Nora’im davening, pronouncing us for another year of life. Yet, Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l would say (as retold by Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen) that now, during Elul, the fact that we are alive and standing at the threshold of a new year tells us, as a positive fact, that we did in fact merit just such a pronouncement last year! We are alive now, so clearly we were granted life after last year’s Yomim Nora’im up until now.
Have we stopped for a moment to thank Hashem for such a wonderful p’sak, such a merciful judgment, last year? Had we known about it then, we’d have danced. Well, we can still dance now and thank Hashem for what, in retrospect, was a year in which we were granted life.
Besides for just life, who among us cannot also think of myriad blessings with which we’ve been showered over the past year? Whether it is our health, our family’s health, a simcha, a job, a friendship, a goal reached, or any of thousands of other items, are there not millions of merciful decrees that Hashem threw our way last year?
People say that we’ve had a hard year, and no doubt, in various areas, this is true. From our people’s safety throughout the world to so many heart-rending local tragedies, it’s been a difficult year, a year filled with clear wake-up calls.
We mustn’t ignore these calls or lose focus gained through these tragedies. At the same time, we must never allow the negative occurrences to blind us to the thousand-fold more chassodim that Hashem is constantly throwing our way. When things go right, we accept them as “the way things are supposed to be.” As a result, we fail to recognize the awesome — and undeserved — benevolence shown us by our Creator. Too often, it is only when our lives are thrown off-kilter that we stop and take notice and thus bemoan the “terrible year we’ve been through.”
Yet, while not to minimize even a single tragedy in the slightest, have we not been dealt millions of times more good than bad? How many thousands of healthy children have been born to us? Does Hashem owe that to any of us? How many simchos have taken place? How many millions of heartbeats pumped in awesome perfection throughout our communities over the past year?
We all take notice and grieve — rightfully so — when a trip or vacation ends in tragedy. Have we similarly taken notice of how many thousands of our families took trips, visited myriad locations, drove millions of collective miles on highways, and came back in perfect health over the past year? All of that was chesed from Hashem, bequeathed to us in His overriding mercy at the culmination of last year’s judgment days. Have we thanked Him for it yet?
Ani ledodi vedodi li. Yes, these are days of teshuvah, but these are also days when Hashem is so close, and we have so much for which to thank Him. When we do so, when we recognize the unending love shown towards us, that in itself can bring us to a powerful teshuvah, a return to the Source of all our blessings.
In Dalyos Yechezkel, in his introduction to the Yomim Nora’im, Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt”l writes how, today, the way to teshuvah in Elul is first and foremost through ahavah. “Through remembering the good that Hashem has bestowed upon us as well as His love for us,” Rav Yechezkel explains. “This is what is hinted to in Elul being an acrostic for ‘Ani ledodi vedodi li,’ which is from Shir Hashirim, which is kulo ahavah… And the chapter that we recite every morning and evening to enthuse us towards teshuvah is ‘LeDovid Hashem ori veyishi.” This mizmor does not mention fear of retribution, but speaks solely of bitachon and ahavah and dveykus baHashem.”
When we thank Hashem for his myriad acts of loving-kindness, we recall His eternal love for us. That, in itself, is a most powerful tool of bringing us to teshuvah, towards leaving our less-becoming ways and seeking to act in a manner pleasing to our beloved Creator.
Rav Chaim Brim zt”l would relate how Rav Yechezkel Abramasky zt”l had been exiled for some time by the Russians to Siberia. Understandably, Rav Abramsky suffered immeasurably from the intense cold, the inhumane labor and the brutal conditions. Years later, Rav Abramsky would talk about one morning when he woke up and began reciting Modeh Ani.
“What do I have for which I can thank Hashem?” he asked himself. “I have no food, no clothing, and hardly any opportunity to perform mitzvos. For what can I thank Him?
“Then, when I got to the end of Modeh Ani,” Rav Yechezkel explained, “when I reached the words ‘rabboh emunasecha,’ I realized how much I have for which to be thankful! That, even here in Siberia, I can still recognize Hashem’s goodness, for that alone I am filled with immense gratitude!”
Many of us have suffered, lo aleinu, and many of us are suffering in various situations. There isn’t necessarily any magic to make things better — at least not until the ultimate redemption will arrive, let it be soon in our days. Yet, the fact that we are here and still have the ability to thank Hashem for the good that he does is itself something for which to be greatly thankful.
Yes, we have much for which to do teshuvah, and we are aware of so many situations for which we seek Hashem’s mercy and forgiveness. We have a lot to do this Elul as we prepare to merit a better year next year. We also have so much for which to be thankful. Of the cases Hashem judged last year, we may not have won all of them, but we won millions of them. Before looking forward, let’s look back and say, “Thank You.”