The Messages of Elul

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

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In memory of Batya Furst z"l
Niftera 28 Elul 5765. 
Dedicated by her family.

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Adapted by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by Kaeren Fish
 
 
            What does Elul teach us? Several external features distinguish this month. Many communities recite selichot starting from Rosh Chodesh Elul; we blow the shofar every morning, and we add the psalm “Le-David Hashem ori ve-yish’i” each day at the conclusion of the prayer service. But what is the true significance of this month?
 
            At the end of his halakhot on massekhet Rosh Hashana, the Rosh quotes an excerpt from Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (also quoted in the Tur, Orach Chaim):
 
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha said: For forty days Moshe stood on Mount Sinai. By day he would learn the Torah and by night he would study the Mishna. After forty days he descended, and broke the tablets on the 17th of Tammuz. Then he spent forty days in the camp, while the Leviim killed those who had worshipped the golden calf, and he burned the calf and banished idolatry from among Israel, and determined the proper place for each tribe.
On Rosh Chodesh Elul, God said to Moshe: “Ascend to Me up the mountain.” A shofar was blown throughout the camp, announcing that Moshe had ascended the mountain, in order that they not repeat the sin of idolatry. God was elevated by that shofar blast, as it is written, “The Lord rose in a shofar blast,” and therefore Chazal ruled that the shofar should be blown on Rosh Chodesh Elul every year, in order to warn Israel that they should repent, as it is written, “Will the shofar be blown in the city and the nation not be afraid?” and also to confuse Satan, in order that he not prosecute Israel.
 
            Elul marks Moshe’s second ascent to receive the tablets, and the shofar blast is meant to serve as an announcement of that fact. This announcement contains two central messages: first, notification to all of Israel, by means of the shofar blast, that Moshe is ascending to receive the Torah; second, a cry or warning to prevent further sin and idolatry.
 
I. SETTING GOALS
 
            The first aspect – the notification as to Moshe’s ascent – was meant to tell the nation, “The road is long and difficult. You have to prepare yourselves; you have to know what you’re headed for. You are preparing to receive the Torah.” Our first task for the month of Elul is to mark our destination, our goal.
 
            In parashat Ki Tetze, we read the parasha of the “ben sorer u-moreh” – the stubborn and rebellious son. All in all, he is a thirteen-year old boy; what is his sin? The Ramban explains that his first sin is that he curses his father and mother, and his second sin is that he is a glutton and a drunkard. This latter sin doesn’t seem all that serious, especially if we bear in mind that the penalty of the ben sorer u-moreh (i.e., death) only applies if his gluttony is exercised on kosher meat; if he eats non-kosher meat, he no longer falls into this category. Moreover, even if he transgressed only a rabbinical command of kashrut in his eating, the penalty can no longer be applied to him. He has to eat food which is “kosher la-mehadrin.” If this is so, what is so terrible about what he does? By eating like a glutton, he transgresses the command, “You shall be holy.” The Torah teaches us, “You shall serve Him and you shall cleave to Him,” and we demand even of a boy of thirteen, “Be holy.”
 
            In order to fulfill this command of “being holy,” it is not sufficient to perform the mitzvot. This command contains an educational goal. Every person needs to strive to purify his personality, such that its very essence consists of being holy. If the Torah placed limits on the consumption of meat, it aims thereby to make man more spiritual, to ensure that material, bodily desires will not become the central focus of his life. A young person especially must strive to live a life which is more spiritual, more moral, more thought-out, more pure. He must strive to achieve closeness to God. This is what is demanded of every Jewish youth and of every person.
 
            A Jew has to strive to build his character such that it will be more genuine, more moral. Otherwise, he will turn into a naval bi-reshut ha-Torah, “a scoundrel within the bounds of Torah.” As mentioned, the Torah speaks about a “stubborn and rebellious son,” who is careful with the tiniest details of the laws of kashrut. And yet it is specifically he, the Torah tells us – the same person who is so particular about the kashrut of what he eats – who is in danger of becoming a “scoundrel within the bounds of Torah.”
 
            The first foundation of Elul which is to be learned from Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer is that of destination, the goal. I believe that we have an obligation to translate the goal into one single expression: to become a talmid chakham, a scholar. One must aim at gaining knowledge of Torah and being constantly involved in it. Today more than at any other time in history, it is imperative to become a talmid chakham – even just in order to be a simple Jew! Of course, Jews have always believed that “An ignoramus cannot be pious” (Avot 2:5). At the same time, in the past it was possible to be a good Jew even without being a talmid chakham, without involving oneself in Torah. Previous generations included plenty of simple Jews, manual laborers, with no pretensions in the area of Torah study, but nevertheless “good Jews.” Today this is simply no longer possible. Our era is characterized by a number of factors which no longer allow us to behave as previous generations did. Let us examine some of them.
 
            One factor is associated with the circumstances of our modern age. A Jew has to be aware of where and when he is living. At the beginning of Sefer Devarim the places and occasions when Moshe spoke his words to the nation are recorded: “on the other side of the Jordan,” “in the land of Mo’av,” “between Paran and Tofel, Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav.” This teaches us that a person has to know where he stands and in which period he is living.
 
            We live in a period of massive exposure to street culture, and this culture infiltrates every nook and cranny, in many different ways. Once upon a time a Jew used to live in a small town and wasn’t exposed to anything. His entire society was homogenous. He would go to the synagogue, return home, go to work. Today we find ourselves in a different world. We want to know what is going on in the world; we need to be connected. And the moment you read the news – and, in fact, everywhere you go – you are exposed. Therefore today we need a different standard of yir’at shamayim (fear of Heaven).
 
            The second factor has to do with our lifestyle. Today, people have a lot of free time, and a whole culture has developed around that fact. This means more than just a five-day week. People no longer work from daybreak until nightfall. Life is built around a lot of leisure, and one of our main problems is what to do with so much free time. As technology progresses, so the problem of free time becomes an increasingly universal phenomenon. Whatever time one does not spend on Torah, one ends up spending on other things. No pursuit is neutral. There is no such thing as a person claiming, “I’m not a lamdan.” If you don’t fill your time with learning, you’ll end up spending your time on less valuable or even harmful activities.
 
            The third factor focuses on the intellectual conflict in which we find ourselves, sometimes even unconsciously, every day and every minute. We live in a secular environment, a secular culture, a secular world which day and night declares its supremacy. Conflict arises at every turn. We encounter problems in our faith, in our yir’at shamayim, in our performance of mitzvot. The most dangerous thing is that we aren’t always conscious of this conflict. In fact, we are unaware of most of the conflicts, even though they penetrate deep inside us, and for this reason we need strong intellectual tools and weapons, grounded in Torah.
 
            The fourth factor concerns the modern job market. Let’s be honest – for most of us, the concept of a job is connected in our minds with some kind of intellectual pursuit; most of us want a career which requires thinking. Obviously this applies not only to those who are gearing their futures towards the rabbinate or teaching, but to anyone who is considering studying towards a profession. What will we become if we use the most important part of ourselves – our brains – purely for the purposes of making a living, promotion, a career, while leaving our Divine service to our mouths – we’ll eat matza; to our hands – we’ll wash them; to our legs – we’ll walk to the synagogue; but not to our minds? How can the intellect, the mind, the pride of mankind, not be the center of our service of the Creator? At a time when people in any case never dealt with theoretical questions or information – one person worked as a carpenter, another as a shoemaker – it didn’t matter so much. But we are accustomed to engaging our brains. Dare we do so only for our bodily needs, and not for our spiritual needs too?
 
            The fifth factor involves the events which have taken place in our era. We have merited to see hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews immigrating to Israel in recent years. I doubt whether a thousand of them knew when they arrived what Torah is, whether they had ever heard of Avraham Avinu. Their arrival in Israel is going to change the country’s entire social balance. If today Jewish studies are the pursuit of a minority of the population, there is a real danger that the division within the Jewish nation will only increase. We need to emphasize the specialness of Torah. We cannot leave hundreds of thousands of people who have never heard of Torah in the hands of hundreds of thousands of others who are themselves completely ignorant. An educational elite needs to be established to deal effectively with this situation, and this will be achieved only through Torah study.
 
            The last factor which I want to mention concerns our status in Israeli society. We do not aspire to cut ourselves off from society and communal matters. We are involved in and concerned about what is happening to the nation. The whole concept of a “hesder” yeshiva is an expression of this involvement. And I believe that it is impossible to be involved in a secular society without a strong Torah basis. Without Torah we will be left with nothing.
 
            The basis of the Torah is the Oral Law. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, made a covenant with Israel only for [the sake of] the Oral Law” (Tanchuma Bereishit 58). Everything rests on the disputes of Abbaye and Rabba. After that there is Tanakh, philosophy, etc., but the basis must be the Oral Law. It has its own special secret, its own magic. By studying the Oral Law a person communicates with God Himself. In the words of the Midrash on parashat Teruma (Shemot Rabba 33):
 
“Let them take for Me a contribution” (Shemot 25:1) – to what can this be compared? To a king who had a beloved only daughter. Then someone asked her hand in marriage... The king said to him, “She is my only one. I cannot tell you not to take her, for she is your wife. On the other hand, I cannot be separated from her, for she is my only daughter. I ask only this of you: Wherever you may go, build me a small chamber in order that I may dwell with you.” Similarly, God said to Israel: “I cannot be separated from the Torah.”
 
Once you acquire Torah, you simultaneously acquire closeness to God.
 
            No one understands this secret. But if a person attempts to base the crux of his learning on anything else – philosophy, Tanakh, other topics – it doesn’t work. The basis for everything – faith, Torah, fear of Heaven, love of mitzvot – is the Oral Law. Afterwards, of course, we have to add the rest – aggada and mussar, Tanakh and philosophy. But the foundation of all foundations is the Oral Law.
 
II. CONSCIOUSNESS OF FAILURE
 
            The second aspect which characterizes the month of Elul, following the excerpt from Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer quoted above, is the wish to avoid further sin, following the debacle of the golden calf. Let us imagine for a moment the feeling of frustration: once again the nation has to prepare itself to receive the Torah, following the failure of the first attempt when, upon receiving the Torah and the tablets, they immediately descended into idolatry. The memory of this failure plagued them as they prepared for the second set of tablets. “My sin is before me constantly” (Tehillim 51:5) is one of the principal themes of Elul.
 
            This does not apply to any single sin specifically. We need constantly to examine ourselves: How deep is our faith really? How careful are we in our performance of mitzvot? To what extent do we feel and express love for each mitzva? What is the nature of our relationship with others? What degree of responsibility do we display for our fellow man, for our society? What are our main goals in life, and what is secondary? What do we dream and strive for, and what problems occupy us? Our level of fear of Heaven, our relationship to Torah – are we really concerned enough about these?
 
            How many times a day do we repeat the words, “Who has sanctified us with His commandments”? This is more than simply the standard formulation of a berakha. As we recite these words we become, as it were, sanctified; we become different.
 
            Let us not be content with simply reciting the prayers. We must pay attention to the way in which they are said. Are we truly capable of pouring out our hearts before God? Do we pray in the spirit of “Let a man speak of the trouble in his heart” (Mishlei 12:25)? Do we truly feel, each and every moment, the huge gain from studying Torah, from fulfilling mitzvot?
 
            The prophet Malakhi (3:13) says, “Your words have been strong against Me, says the Lord, but you have said, What have we said against You?” God approaches the nation, claiming, “You have spoken harshly against Me.” Bnei Yisrael do not understand: “What did we say? Heaven forbid! We haven’t said anything against You!” The prophet rebukes them: “You have said, ‘It is useless to serve God; what have we gained by keeping His service, and by walking in abject awe of the Lord of Hosts? And so, we account the arrogant happy: they who have performed wickedness have endured; they have indeed dared God and escaped.’”
 
            “It is useless to serve God” – people say, “What difference does it make why we keep the mitzvot – do we gain anything from this? God commanded us to do, and so we do. Just as it says in the Mishna Berura.”
 
            If we do not constantly feel, every hour and every minute, what we gain by putting on tefillin, by keeping Shabbat, by performing the mitzvot, then our actions fall under the category of “Your words have been strong against Me... ‘It is useless to serve God.’”
 
            This is the second foundation of Elul – the consciousness of failure, the frustration.
 
III. CONSTANT EFFORT
 
            The third aspect of Elul is, “Carve yourself two tablets of stone” – God does not give us the tablets; we have to quarry the rock, to labor mightily. I once spoke about the yetzer ha-ra which is prevalent in the Beit Midrash.  The gemara recommends, “If this contemptible creature (i.e., the evil impulse) attacks you, drag him into the Beit Midrash.” R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk used to say, “Beware – in the Beit Midrash another contemptible creature awaits you.”
 
            One of the ways in which the yetzer ha-ra operates is that it inculcates within us the feeling that “the Beit Midrash is the answer to everything” – you don’t need to make any kind of effort; the Beit Midrash will create the right atmosphere for you, it will influence you. But know this: there is no such thing as Elul without “Carve for yourself,” without hard work. Certainly, the atmosphere adds something, but anyone who builds his life on atmosphere isn’t going to get anywhere. A person has to invest himself personally. One can’t rely on being in the right “mood” – we have to get up and perform God’s work whether we feel like it or not. We have to get to the Beit Midrash on time, and to open the Gemara, no matter what mood we’re in.
 
            Constant self-evaluation is hard work. Nothing reassures you. In other areas – preparing for an examination, for example – the moment you receive your grade, that’s the end. This isn’t true of avodat Hashem (serving God). The effort is constant and unrelenting.
 
            These are the most productive years of your lives. I envy you. But you have to make proper use of this time. If a person is presented with such possibilities, can he possibly be forgiven for not making the most of the opportunity?
 
IV. MODESTY
 
            The last message Elul conveys is, “And no one will ascend with you” (Shemot 34:3). Rashi comments on this verse that the fate of the first tablets was due to the “ayin ha-ra” (evil eye) aroused as a result of the fanfare and noise accompanying their appearance.
 
            There is no more worthy trait than that of modesty – not creating a big impression; not making a big noise; not the external aspect but the internal one. It expresses a different scale of values. Whoever feels that his external aspect is the dominant one, should correct the situation. Fear of Heaven as it is expressed externally and inner fear of Heaven are two completely different things.
 
Our aim during Elul has to be the raising of the standards in all our personal characteristics. In this world we can increase our fear of Heaven with little effort. We can achieve integrity at little cost. Opportunities abound to increase our honesty. We go to the synagogue, buy kosher food, recite birkat ha-mazon. These things are so easy to do, but they must be elevated. If the basic standards which we expect from ourselves are raised, everything becomes much more difficult. Fear of Heaven is a great thing, and so it faith; so is love of mitzvot. We have to raise the standard.
 
            We have to raise the standard – and that is why we gather in the Beit Midrash. Sometimes, we are likely to give up in despair. That is one of the dangers – that a person will lose faith in his own power. But we have to strengthen ourselves in faith, too, as Chazal taught: “Open for Me an opening the size of the eye of a needle” – that is sufficient – “and I will make an opening for you the size of the Temple doors.” The mussar masters taught: It is possible to create an opening the size of a needle in some fabric, and the opening immediately disappears. It’s there, but it’s invisible. The commitment here is that the opening the size of a needle will remain open, that there will truly be an “opening the size of a needle” – and then we are promised that God will grant us an opening as wide as the Temple doors.
 
[This essay appears in Rav Amital’s book, When God Is Near: On the High Holidays (Maggid, 2015).]