By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The late Slonimer Rebbe, Rav Sholom Noach Berezovsky zt”l, is known for his sefer, Nesivos Sholom, which has become a classic work. The Rebbe once called his chassidim together to relay his dream of the previous night.
He dreamt that he was sitting on Motzoei Simchas Torah, but he had no recollection of the weeks of Elul and Tishrei that led to that night. In his dream, he was broken, wondering how he could have reached Motzoei Simchas Torah without experiencing the landmarks that define the path leading to Simchas Torah. How could it be, he cried out, that he didn’t experience the hopeful concern of chodesh Elul?
“Did I miss the triumphant awe of Rosh Hashanah?” he asked. “Did Yom Kippur’s sweet brokenness skip over me? Was I not worthy of sensing the joy of Sukkos and the last minute desperation of Hoshanah Rabbah? How can it be that I missed out on the awesome day of Simchas Torah, the culmination of the weeks and experiences going back to Rosh Chodesh Elul?”
The Rebbe told his chassidim that when he realized that he missed out on Elul and most of Tishrei, he cried over the precious gifts that passed him by. Then he awoke and realized that it was all a dream. His sadness turned to joy as he appreciated that he had so much to look forward to.
We are now where the Rebbe was when he awoke. We have most of Elul ahead of us. We have Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Hoshanah Rabbah, Simchas Torah and so much more to look forward to.
We stand at the foot of a ladder that reaches to the heavens. If we take the mission seriously and decide to climb the ladder, we can ascend to a realm of blessing and happiness. But in order to successfully reach those high levels, we must first have our feet firmly planted on the ground, as we contemplate the process we face.
It has become de rigueur prior to a fast for people to wish each other “a meaningful fast.” I was never really sure what that meant, but I think that it would be appropriate at the outset of chodesh Elul to wish each other “a meaningful Elul.”
A meaningful Elul calls for us to endeavor to be the very best that we can possibly be. We have to examine ourselves and determine what about us is good, what isn’t, and what we can do about improving that which needs betterment. It takes courage to honestly assess our position at the outset of the Elul climb, but if we want to have a meaningful Elul, then we have to find within ourselves the strength and tenacity to begin the climb and to successfully ascend to the top.
This week’s parsha begins with the words, “Ki seitzei lamilchamah al oyvecha – When you go to war against your enemy.” While the Torah is speaking of a time when the Jewish people will go to combat against a physical enemy, many meforshim understand the posuk to be referring allegorically to Jews battling their yeitzer hara. In fact, the Chofetz Chaim remarked, “The most dangerous enemy man has is the yeitzer hara. We can never rest in battling him or we will be defeated by him.”
Elul is meaningful, for it is during this month that we determine anew that we must and can defeat him.
Last week, we read about the preparations Am Yisroel engages in prior to going to battle. Weak soldiers are weeded out, lest their presence lead to defeat.
The posuk (Devorim 20:2) relates that before the Bnei Yisroel go to war, the kohein announces to the entire nation not to fear battling their enemy for Hashem will be with them assisting them and ensuring their victory.
Following that, the shotrim address the people and seek out those who fear war, “Mi ho’ish hayorei verach haleivov? Yeileich veyoshuv leveiso – Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him leave and return home” (Ibid 20:8).
What is it about this fellow that causes him to be afraid to go into battle, after the kohein promised that Hashem will be joining them in the war and guaranteeing their success? Rav Yosi Haglili (Sotah 43a) explains that the man who leaves is afraid to go into battle because he is a sinner. In order to be worthy of fighting in Hashem’s army, every soldier must first purge himself of sin. In order to be worthy of victory, there can be no ra – no evil or sin – because ra separates man from Hashem. In order for a soldier to merit Divine beneficence, there can be no aveiros disconnecting man from Hashem.
In order for us to be able to emerge victorious in our battle against the yeitzer hara, we also have to be purged of sin that erects a boundary between us and Hashem; bringing us down and causing our defeat.
A successful campaign is contingent on proper preparation and planning. Therefore, the avodah of Elul begins with the blasts of the shofar each morning, calling to us to awaken from our slumber and begin working on strengthening ourselves, becoming powerful warriors filled with vigor and power and properly equipped to fight the yeitzer hara.
The Munkatcher Rebbe, Rav Chaim Elazar Shapiro, the Minchas Elazar, was drawn to Rav Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari, the elderly Yerushalmi Sefardic mekubal. The fiery Hungarian zealot had been corresponding via mail when Rav Alfandari finally invited the Rebbe to travel to Eretz Yisroel to meet him.
The Rebbe and an entourage made the journey to the Holy Land, eager to meet his mentor. The trip and visit were fascinating, though a few weeks after the Rebbe’s arrival, the 113-year-old mekubal passed away. Many observed that it was Rav Alfandari who had been waiting to meet the Rebbe. The only language they had in common was Lashon Hakodesh, and it was in that patois that they conducted their conversation.
“Mosai yavo Moshiach?” asked the Rebbe during their first meeting. “When will Moshiach arrive?”
“Yeish ikkuvim. There are things holding him back,” was the answer.
The Rebbe hesitated before posing the follow-up question, very quietly and with much hesitation.
“Ha’im anochi bein hame’akvim? Am I one of those who are a barrier to his arrival? Are my chato’im preventing him from coming?”
The Rebbe was an effectual and dynamic leader. It would have been easy to blame Moshiach’s delay on others. As a kanna’i, the Rebbe surely had no shortage of what to blame the hindrances to Moshiach’s arrival on, but in the presence of the Kabbalistic master, he wasn’t looking outside. He was looking internally at himself.
Ki seitzei lamilchamah, when we go to war, al oyvecha, against our enemies, and we seek to do what we can to hasten the redemption, we must look at oyvecha, our personal enemy, the adversary within each of us, and when we defeat him, we can set out to join the army preparing the world for Moshiach.
Where do we start? What can we do to enhance the meaning of Elul personally and for others, thus helping ourselves and those around us merit a successful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, leading to a joyous Sukkos and an uplifting Simchas Torah? The parshiyos that we layen these weeks offer many lessons and examples for us to follow.
Through looking inward and analyzing what is going on in our own souls as we strive to become better people, we will not only understand ourselves better, but also each other. The Torah commands us to love our fellows as we love ourselves, “V’ahavta lerei’acha kamocha.” By connecting love for another with self-love, the Torah is revealing how we can achieve that level of loving other people.
Our meaningful contemplation allows us to get in touch with ourselves, “kamocha,” and then to apply what we have learned to “rei’acha,” our fellow man.
Great men don’t only understand the words and inflections of the Torah, but through it they also understand people and their needs.
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the iconic Yerushalmi rov, asked why the Torah is so strongly critical with regard to charging interest for loans. After all, he wondered, why is it worse than charging rent for a property? When you rent a property, what you are doing is charging the person for using your home or item. Interest is essentially a charge to a person for using your money.
Rav Sonnenfeld answered this question by explaining the mitzvah of shiluach hakan found in this week’s parsha. The Torah says (22:6) that if you chance upon a mother bird sitting on a nest containing her chicks, you must send away the mother and you may then take the offspring. Why, asked Rav Sonnenfeld, is there an obligation to send away the mother?
A mother, he explained, will instinctively do anything to protect her offspring. Generally, if a person approaches a bird’s nest, the bird will sense danger and fly away. However, if the bird’s children are in the nest, the bird will resist the urge of self-preservation and will instead hover over the nest, despite the impending danger, because her concern for her offspring overrides her concern for herself.
The Torah commands us to send away the mother before taking the small chicks to teach us not to take advantage of the mother’s mercy. It would be so easy to capture a mother bird when she stands guard over her nest and chicks. We are not to take advantage of another’s predicament for our own benefit.
The Torah adds that one who heeds this command will merit a long life. Hashem demonstrates mercy for those who demonstrate mercy toward others.
Similarly, the Torah forbids one to take advantage of a person who is in financial stress and needs to borrow money. The Torah seeks to impart an important lesson through this commandment and others. We mustn’t act randomly and without thinking of how our actions will impact others.
It is incumbent upon us to seek to help others, not cause them pain. We must ensure that we don’t take advantage of others and that we help them and advise them without seeking anything in return.
We must seek to help the abused and do what we can to try to bring a stop to abuse in our world. We must not ignore it, looking the other way as people take advantage of others.
If we see that children of our neighbors and friends are, at this late date, still not registered in schools, we should move heaven and earth, treating their predicament as if it were our own children who have been left out.
If we know of children who are at risk, we should do what we can to reach out to them and bring them back, showing them that someone cares about them and loves them.
If we know of someone who is single and in need of a shidduch, we shouldn’t leave it for others to help them. We should do what we can to find a suitable match for them.
If, regrettably, we know of women who are being held as agunos by people who refuse to give them a get, we should use any power and influence we have to bring that cruelty to a halt, preventing people from taking advantage of others in such a fashion.
The Torah is a Toras chessed, and as bnei and bnos Torah, it would surely be a source of merit for us as we seek to experience a meaningful Elul to do what we can not only to help ourselves, but to help others as well.
As we prepare for the Yom Hadin, we have to engage in serious introspection. We must look into our hearts and determine if we are holding back Moshiach through our aveiros. We must ensure that we are ready to go to war by having purged ourselves of chato’im that can cause separation between us and Hashem, leaving us vulnerable in battle.
May we all merit a meaningful Elul.