Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
We are now into the second week of the month of Elul, the time reserved for reviewing our actions over the past year in preparation of the yemei hadin. We should not only examine what we did wrong and seek to improve our conduct, but also recognize what we did right and realize that we are essentially good people, capable of acting correctly. Concentrating only on what we did wrong can be depressing and lead us to think that we are incapable of conducting ourselves properly.
A cheshbon hanefesh should leave a person feeling empowered to get things right. Although we have sinned, we need not view ourselves as losers. We are given the opportunity to ameliorate our actions and correct the accumulated wrongs. We have the intelligence and strength to grow and persevere. Hashem helps those who seek to improve themselves but find it difficult. Lest someone feel that the task is too difficult, Chazal (Medrash, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 5:2) provide positive reinforcement. They say that Hashem proclaims to us, “Pischu li pesach kechudo shel machat va’ani eftach lochem pesach kepischo shel ulam. Show some effort, show that you care, and I will help with the rest.”
No one should underestimate their worth by thinking that they are ill equipped to follow all the mitzvos and act with proper middos in a world in which it seems that people are competing against each other for everything, from money to social status. There are so many temptations and problems. It is difficult to earn the money we need to make ends meet. People can’t seem to catch up and keep their heads above water. Everywhere you turn, there are higher bills, higher taxes, and higher rents, mortgages and tuitions. Who can blame you for feeling inadequate when you can’t keep up with the neighbors and your children feel as if they are lacking?
Everyone needs to be reminded not to judge themselves by comparing themselves to others. Don’t live based on what other people think. Don’t live to make superficial impressions on your friends. Get your priorities together and concentrate on what is really important. Don’t waste your time on fleeting pleasures, and don’t waste your money on things that are not really important.
Elul causes you to reflect and identify what is significant and central to you and your family. Keeping your family strong and satisfied is of prime importance. Improving yourself, learning Torah, observing halacha and being a mentch are important.
Finding time for what is crucial is possible even in our world, where it feels as if there is never enough time in the day to accomplish what must be done.
Concentrate on the meaningful things. When your focus is on the personal growth and wellbeing of yourself and your family, and that remains paramount in all your decisions, you will be successful and rewarded with a healthily functioning family and a healthy you.
Adjusting what takes precedence in your life is part of the Elul process and helpful as we seek to prepare ourselves for the Yom Hadin.
Elul should empower us to find avenues of chizuk and not be afraid to admit that we have made mistakes. As we go through the process, we become stronger. We improve and grow during these special days. We set goals and achieve them. We show ourselves to be good people looking to live good lives, and Hashem helps us attain what we seek.
Rav Elimelech Biderman quotes anonymously a rov from a previous generation to explain a Gemara in Maseches Tomid (32a). Alexander Mokdon asked the chachomim what a person who wants to live should engage in. They responded, “Yomis es atzmo,” that he should kill himself. Rashi explains that to live, “yashpil es atzmo,” a person should subjugate his ego.
The old rov remarked that a person who wants to live should “kill” his wild ambitions and desires that bring him down and cause him to be sad. If a person is driven to achieve a certain prestigious position that remains out of his reach, and he is frustrated and depressed over it, he should kill that urge. If a person is jealous of someone and becomes consumed by that jealousy, he will live longer and better if he kills that enviousness. If he is driven to be unrealistically wealthy, or to be respected by others, and it’s not happening, he should kill those motivations and accept himself the way he is and stop comparing himself to other people.
People ruin their lives chasing false dreams, seeking public recognition and accolades. They spend money they don’t have and occupy their time with ideas that lead them to depression and sadness.
Elul is the time to get our lives back, breaking free from the shackles that keep us from happiness and accomplishment.
“Yashpil es atmzo.” Practice humility and your life will be greatly enhanced.
This message is alluded to in the opening posuk of this week’s parsha: “Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha – When you go to war against your enemy.” While the Torah is discussing rules pertaining to declaring war on Klal Yisroel’s enemies, it also hints to what we are to be engaging in during the period when the parsha is read.
We have no greater enemy than the yeitzer hora. He causes us to act in ways that are detrimental to our wellbeing and life. He causes us to become arrogant and consumed by bad middos, which ruin our personality and drive people and success away from us.
During Elul, we do battle with the yeitzer hora. We rediscover ourselves, finding out who we are and who we really want to be. There are many layers and levels of thoughts and actions that contribute to who we are. During Elul, we peel apart those layers, inspecting and rectifying them until we return to our core of goodness and kindness.
“Ki seitzei lamilchomah al oyvecha unesano Hashem Elokecha beyodecha.” The posuk guarantees us that if we set out to battle the yeitzer hora, Hashem will help us beat him.
He who wants to live and he who wants a good life looks forward to Elul. Although teshuvah is welcome a whole year, during this month of rachamim we are given extra assistance as we recharge ourselves. It was during this month that Moshe went up to Heaven to plead for the Bnei Yisroel after they sinned with the Eigel. Ever since then, Elul has been the month of personal and communal teshuvah.
The word teshuvah literally means to return. People who engage in teshuvah return to their inner peace and goodness. It may be difficult to get the ball rolling and look at yourself and your wants and desires seriously, but once you get started, the rest flows and the results are exhilarating and liberating.
There was a Lelover chossid in der heim who was struck with a terrible lung disease. The doctor had no relief to offer him, so he sent him to a place with a higher elevation and crisp air, hoping that it would help the sick man. When he arrived at the European spa site, he was turned back, as the directors feared that his illness would spread and they wished to take no chances with him.
The poor man passed by Lelov on his return home to ask Rav Dovid Lelover for a brocha. The rebbe wanted to comfort the man and searched his kitchen for a delicacy. All he found was old salty cheese and some wine. He set the wine and cheese in front of the visitor and invited him to make a brocha. The man refused, saying that the doctor warned him against salty foods and forbade him from drinking anything alcoholic. The rebbe insisted. “I am now engaging in the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim,” he said, “and you are my partner in this. Shomer mitzvah lo yeida dovor ra. You won’t be harmed.”
The man did as the rebbe said, but the cheese was so salty that he kept on drinking wine to quench his thirst. Eventually, he fell asleep. When he awoke the next morning, he felt all better and was, in fact, cured. He thanked the rebbe profusely for saving his life and went on his way.
He returned home and was greeted exultingly by his family. The man went to see the doctor for an examination to determine if he had indeed been cured. He told the doctor the story with the rebbe. Amazed by his patient’s supernatural recovery, the doctor, Professor Chaim Dovid Brand, became a baal teshuvah.
Dr. Brand went to see the rebbe, Rav Dovid Lelover, who began to engage him in divrei Torah. Dr. Brand asked the rebbe, “Why are you discussing with me such deep ideas? I was just recently not observant. How can I have so quickly progressed to be able to discuss such topics?” The rebbe responded that such is the power of teshuvah. One day you can be so low and separated from Hashem, but after doing teshuvah the next day, Hashem brings you close to Him and you are worthy of plumbing the depths of Torah.”
Let us not think that we cannot return to the status we reached prior to our sins. We should never think that our middos ra’os are so entrenched in our being that we cannot rectify them. We are never locked into anything. We all have the ability to climb out of whatever rut we are in and rise to be great people, connected to Hashem.
The Gemara (Shabbos 133b) quotes Abba Shaul, who derives from the posuk of “Zeh Keili v’anveihu” that we are commanded to emulate Hashem. “Mah Hu chanun verachum af atoh heyei chanun verachum. Just as Hashem is compassionate, so should we be.” Now, as we seek Divine mercy, and as we seek to rectify ourselves so that we may find favor in His eyes, we should also seek to justify others and not rush to condemn and attack. As we behave with others, so can we expect Hashem to act with us.
There are several pesukim in Tanach that hint to Elul. One is the posuk in Megillas Esther (9:22) that states, “Umishloach manos Ish Lerei’eihu Umatanos L’evyonim.” The first letters of the last four words here spell Elul.
The words indicated refer to sending gifts to friends and gifts to the poor. We can explain that during this period of Elul, when we engage in teshuvah bein adam lachaveiro, if we send gifts to friends and pacify the people against whom we have sinned, then Hashem will show compassion to us, who are poor – lacking – in mitzvos and Torah, and gift us His assistance in doing teshuvah for mitzvos bein adam laMakom.
If we demonstrate a longing for improvement and personal betterment, Hakadosh Boruch Hu assists us in achieving our objectives. The Gemara states (Yoma 38b-39a), “Odom mekadeish atzmo me’at mekadshin oso harbei… Haba letaheir mesayin oso.” If a person purifies himself and increases his connection with holiness, or even if he just begins the process and attempts to purify himself, he earns Divine assistance and achieves holiness and purity.
Baalei mussar of old would repeat a posuk or thought with great intensity for hours on end until they felt that the thought pierced their soul. We once wrote the story about the Elul that the Alter of Kelm sat at his shtender for seven hours and repeated the same words from Tehillim (118:19) with great devotion: “Pischu li shaarei tzedek. Please, open for me the gates of righteousness.” Finally, he stood and proclaimed, “Der tir is doch offen! Gei arein! The door is open! Go in!”
The story is a good one, but it goes deeper.
The posuk that the Alter recited, “Pischu li shaarei tzedek,” is followed by “Zeh hashaar laHashem tzaddikim yavo’u vo – This is the gate to Hashem, for the righteous to enter through,” and then, “Odcha ki anisoni vatehi li liyshuah – I thank You, Hashem, for Your salvation.”
We can understand that initially a person seeks to enter the shaarei tzedek, but is unable to, for they only open for tzaddikim. He engages in teshuvah and seeks to absolve himself of sin so that he may be termed a tzaddik, but he is unable, on his own, to attain that degree of teshuvah until he is blessed with the assistance of Hashem. When he is able to enter, he thanks Hashem for the yeshuah brought on by the Divine support in aiding him to achieve teshuvah.
The Alter worked on teshuvah for seven hours so that he may enter the shaarei tzedek. Finally, after seven hours, he felt that he had achieved teshuvah. He then stood up and proclaimed that the door had opened and he was able to enter the shaarei tzedek.
May we merit that level of devotion and teshuvah.