By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
All of a sudden, Elul is upon us. The summer barely started and Elul has arrived. What happened to the glorious vacation that just a few days ago was beckoning from the horizon? It started with so much promise and vanished so quickly.
What about all the plans to get away, take a break, or go on a trip? We’ve barely caught a breather and the summer is over.
The days just seemed to roll by. Sun shining, green fields beckoning, country air penetrating our senses… Just as our nerves finally release the accumulated tension, it is Shabbos morning and we’re in shul as the words “Rosh Chodesh Elul yehiyeh beyom hashlishi ubeyom harevi’i” ring out. And with that, it’s as if summer has ended, vacation has come to a dead halt, and it’s back to serious stuff.
Elul is here. The shofar is blown every morning. The Yom Hadin is only a month away. The boys are going back to yeshiva, and elementary and high schools will soon get underway. Elul. It is time to get serious again.
Elul is a most serious time, with a difficult task at hand: self improvement. Elul represents an awesome challenge. We feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with it. Where do we start? Is it doable? Can we really improve ourselves in a month? What should we focus on? How do we get started?
Just like the shevatim, we each have our own distinct missions to carry out in life, referred to in sifrei chassidus as a “shlichus.” We are all part of a Divine plan and fit into the Divine jigsaw puzzle. To the degree that we touch other people’s lives and become indispensable to our fellow people, we become vital to the larger picture and an integral part of Klal Yisroel.
Someone who becomes part of a larger group makes themself necessary to the greater world, while those who sit by themselves, benefit no one and give Hashem less reason to grant them life.
As Rav Yisroel Salanter is said to have advised, if we wish to be zoche in the din of Rosh Hashanah, we should strive to be part of the klal. If we wish to be granted life, health and happiness, we need to make ourselves needed.
We need to live for others. We need to become involved with the klal, doing things that we do not necessarily enjoy, even performing acts that we may think are beneath our dignity. The more people need us, the more sunshine and happiness we bring into the world and spread around, the more reason there is for Hashem to keep us here.
We need to recognize that there were twelve tribes of Klal Yisroel and each one was distinct in its mission. Together, they formed the Shivtei Kah, the Chosen People, Am Yisroel.
Making yourself part of a community doesn’t mean surrendering your personality and individuality. The challenge is to be who you are without letting that compromise your loyalty to the community. The challenge of achdus is to subordinate your selfish inclinations and conquer your hubris so that you can work with others for the common good.
But it is more than that. When we are alone, we are vulnerable and isolated. Uniting with others allows us to benefit from their support, and to have friends with whom to celebrate joy and lighten sadness. If you live only for yourself and by yourself, life is as small as you are.
There are always excuses not to get involved and not to help. Elul is a time to resist the pull of habit and throw oneself into the effort to help others. With a little creative thought, we can make ourselves indispensable, or nearly so.
We stand a much better chance of a positive verdict if we are judged as part of the group and based on our connection with others, as opposed to standing trial alone.
“Tzedakah tatzil mimovess – Charity saves from death.” The more we give and the more we share with others, the more selfless and humble we become and the greater our chances of a favorable outcome on Judgment Day.
The more we realize that all we have is but a gift from G-d, to utilize not only for ourselves, but for the benefit of our fellows, the more He will give us.
The more we realize that we are part of a group ruled by Hashem, the closer we will be to realizing our goal. When we truly grasp that kol Yisroel areivim zeh bazeh, and we comprehend that we have little to offer when standing alone but can achieve so much when united, the more we find favor in Hashem’s eyes and in the hearts of our fellow Jews.
Chazal say, “Eizehu chochom? Halomeid mikol adam. Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” The isolationist remains with his tunnel vision, deprived of the scope and richness he could have acquired had he been humble enough to learn from others.
As much as we learn from others, we must take lessons from our own actions and mistakes. That is the work of Chodesh Elul. We all make mistakes. “Ein tzaddik ba’aretz asher yaaseh tov velo yechetah.” There is no one who accomplished anything with his life yet did not made a mistake or two along the way.
What Chazal are hinting is that we should be aware that if we make a mistake, it is not the end of the world. The point is to learn from our mistakes and emerge from them stronger, more honest and more ehrliche Yidden. The only people who don’t make mistakes are those who take no initiative and therefore accomplish nothing.
Elul is the time for cheshbon hanefesh, to examine what we did right and what we did wrong and what we can do to correct those errors and reinforce the good. The process of teshuvah involves charatah al ha’avar, kabbolah al ha’asid, regret for the past and positive resolutions for the future. The two must be linked. Engaging in charatah over our past failings must bring us to undertake specific kabbalos to better ourselves in the coming year and to conscientiously carry them out.
Perhaps a deeper understanding of Rav Yisroel Salanter’s advice to become indispensable to the klal is that dedicating oneself for the greater common good requires a refinement of many middos. To become needed and important to the klal, one has to develop the attributes of savlanus, anavah and chesed, among many others.
Rav Yisroel Salanter was saying that one who wants to emerge victorious in the judgment of Rosh Hashanah has to uproot his evil inclinations and replace them with good ones. By vanquishing the malignant turpitude which lies in the heart of one who doesn’t learn mussar and which prevents him from doing good for others without ulterior motives, a person will be acquitted in judgment.
The Botei Mikdosh were destroyed because we lacked achdus and judged others with a jaundiced eye. To merit the redemption, we have to overcome the temptation to judge people cynically and belittle others who are different, based on superficial, false notions.
This week’s parsha ends with the mitzvah of eglah arufah, the procedure to follow when a body of an unknown person is found at the outskirts of a town. The elders of the city must wash their hands over the eglah arufah and state that their hands did not kill the person and their eyes did not witness it: “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh ve’eineinu lo ra’uh.”
Obviously, no one would suspect the elders of murdering a person. The lesson of the eglah arufah is that they must declare that they set everything in place under their jurisdiction to prevent the possibility of murder. They proclaim that they established a proper system of justice and compassionate treatment of strangers. They go to the outskirts of the city to state for all to hear that the murder victim did not die due to negligence on their part. With the kohanim at their sides, the zekeinim state that they did all in their ability to ensure that no person suffers abuse, especially of the kind or degree that would lead to such a tragic demise.
In our day, as well, we must all be able to proclaim that we have joined together and worked together to set up institutions of jurisprudence, kindness and charity. We have to be able to act as one, courageously and without fear, to ensure that we can all say with complete honesty, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh,” our hands did not spill the blood – both literally and figuratively – of the unfortunate victims in our community.
Elul is a good time to start.