In this week’s parsha Moshe Rabbeinu instructs the Bnai Yisrael of the laws of Yefas To’ar – the woman that the Jewish soldier brings home from battle with designs on marrying her. The Torah prescribes a waiting period of a month within which [amongst other things] the woman is told to “Uvachsa es aviha ve’es imah yerach yamim”- “She should cry over the loss of her father and mother for a month of days”. [According to Rashi the purpose of this is to hopefully remove the man’s desire for her by him seeing her constantly crying.] The Mefarshim wonder why here the Torah uses “yerach” – the rarer Hebrew word for month – instead of the more usual “chodesh” (See Baal Haturim)?
Perhaps on a homiletical level we can say the following:, the Ohr Hachayim hakodosh cites the Zohar Chadash that the missive of the above-mentioned passuk (crying over a father and mother for a whole month) is really being directed to every single Jew, for he, too, must weep over his lack of allegiance and fealty to Hashem (father) and the Congregation of Yisrael (mother) during “a month of days”-a reference to the month of Elul. For it is specifically during that month that man sobers up from his actions of the whole year and readies himself for the Yamim Nora’im – The Days of Awe. He does this through retrospection of his actions of the past year, causing him to weep over the missed opportunities of connecting on a greater level to Hashem and to the majestic nucleus known as Klal Yisrael. It is also a time of disconnect, for man must tear himself away from the bad habits and bad influences that have led him astray, allowing him to turn over a new leaf and make new and lofty resolutions for the up-coming year.
The Levush (Even HaEzer, Siman 126:3) tells us that the minhag when writing a date on a Get (a divorce document) is to use the word yerach when referencing the month, whereas on a Kesuba (a document of obligation that the groom gives his bride at the time of marriage) we use the word chodesh. (He bases this on the wording of psukim in the Torah.) I once heard a beautiful understanding as to why. A marriage is the start of a new life and dreams, hence the word chodesh which has the same letters as chadash which means new. A Get on the other hand is a document that separates the husband from wife, driving an eternal wedge between them. We therefore use the word yerach which is (rooted in and) similar to Yarai’ach – the moon – who, due to its complaint against the sun at the time of creation (that two rulers cannot rule over the same sky) drove a wedge between itself and the sun. An action of divorce is therefore (on many levels) akin to the actions of the moon, and thus it is the minhag to use the word yerach.
With all the above we can now understand why in our passuk we, too, use the word yerach. For the avodah of the month of Elul as we have mentioned is to drive many wedges: Between man and his evil inclination, between man and his bad habits and between man and his bad influences. A veritable moon fest indeed.
Similarly we find that the word yerach is used when referring to the month of Tishrei. The passuk calls it “Yerach HaAisanim” – “The month of giants” (Melachim 1, 8:2). For in order to have a successful Tishrei, a month of gigantic proportions due to its being full of different mitzvos (Shofar, Yom Tov, fasting, Sukkah, Lulav & Esrog, Simchas Torah), man, too, must separate from his usual life of worldly pursuit and replace it with a pursuit of spirituality. He must separate from his usual schedule and set aside more time and days for tefillah-prayer. He must separate from his natural need for food, and instead fast for 24 hours. He must tear himself away from his palatial home and move into the temporary dwelling of a Sukkah. A lot of separating indeed. Thus, it is not a Chodesh but a Yerach.
Perhaps we can add that the title Yerach HaAisanim is not only a description of the month but also of those who embrace it. For one who travels through this month and grabs every opportunity Hashem has given to re-energize and renew his commitment to Him, is truly a giant. Thus yerach, for it is the month that separates the men from the boys, the spiritual giants from the Lilliputians, the beloved from the personae non gratae.
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.