By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Did you ever wonder from where we derive that Elul is an auspicious time to do teshuvah? The Vilna Gaon writes that Elul is a month of rachamim. We can always repent for our sins, but during Elul Hashem is more forgiving and accepts our teshuvah easier. How do we know that?
The Gaon’s mechutan, Rav Avrohom Danzig, writes in his sefer Chayei Adam that “these days of Elul have been yemei ratzon since the time we were chosen as Hashem’s nation.” When the Jewish people sinned with the Eigel and the Luchos were broken on Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, Moshe ascended the mountain and davened that Hashem forgive them. Hashem acquiesced and told Moshe, “Pesol lecha,” that He would deliver to Moshe a second set of Luchos.
“Moshe went up on the mountain on Rosh Chodesh Elul and remained there until Yom Kippur, when their forgiveness was complete… And since those forty days were days of acceptance then, every year the mercy of Heaven is renewed for us on these days… And therefore, Yom Kippur was established as a day of forgiveness for all time.”
It all goes back to the Eigel. Let us examine the sin of the Eigel and see how it applies to us.
In Parshas Ki Sisa, we learn of the tragic downfall of the Bnei Yisroel as they sinned with the Eigel. Moshe Rabbeinu had gone up to Har Sinai to receive the Torah. When he failed to return at the time the people had calculated, the nation that had ascended to exalted levels descended to worshiping a calf that they had formed from their jewelry.
We wonder how the people who stood at Har Sinai and proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma,” fell so shamefully. How was it possible for this noble people to fall so far, so fast? What caused them to be led astray? Did they really think that an image they themselves created from a collection of golden jewelry was able to acquire Divine powers?
Rashi (32:1) explains that Moshe told his people that he would return in forty days and they erred in their calculation. Rashi quotes the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (89a), which explains that the Soton “confused the natural order,” creating a mirage of Moshe’s body being carried in heaven as if in a casket.
And now we wonder: How can we blame the Bnei Yisroel? How were they supposed to know that what their eyes were seeing wasn’t real?
Indeed, they erred in accepting those images at face value and not contemplating their veracity. Nowadays, we know that every picture can be Photoshopped and changed, but even before the days of Photoshop, they should have known from previous experiences that there is often more than meets the eye and that something was wrong with their snap conclusion about Moshe Rabbeinu’s premature death. There is always another side to the story and an alternate explanation.
When the image presented facts that were diametrically opposed to everything they had seen and experienced going back to their time in Mitzrayim, they should have sought to understand how it could be and not accept the image at face value. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to consider whether they misunderstood how long Moshe said he would be gone for.
Instead of being misled to conclude that Moshe would never return, they should have trusted Moshe’s promise and sought to figure out how it could remain viable and consistent with what they saw. They should have restrained the impulse to rush to invent an immediate substitute for Moshe.
The urge to offer an instant response is one of the Soton’s ploys. The Soton achieves his goals by goading people facing a quandary or tragedy into making quick impulsive decisions, spurred on by tension as well as fear. No matter what is going on around us and how dire the situation is, it is vital to remain calm as we attempt to steer our way through. Once a person becomes ruffled, anxious and nervous, it becomes difficult to think clearly and make proper decisions.
The worst thing to do in a crisis is to give an immediate response. It takes time to think through the proper course of action and how to proceed. If you answer on the spot without thought, your response will generally be mistaken.
I have a rule: If a person proposes something to me and then says, “You have to give me an answer now or else the deal is off,” I always respond that the answer is no. You should never be forced to give a response without having the opportunity and time to think it through.
The slope from holiness to depravity is so slippery that, in a few short hours, the Jews slid from the apex of spiritual achievement to the lowest rung possible. Such is the ability of the Soton to use tension to capitalize on human frailty.
Upon Moshe’s return, he called for those loyal to Hashem to rally around him. Only shevet Levi responded to his call. The shevet that dedicated itself to the study of Torah and was free of Egyptian enslavement was the only one whose mind and heart weren’t clouded by the Soton’s devices and lined up behind their leader, Moshe.
The others panicked in a time of perceived crisis. The people couldn’t wait until the next day, when they would perhaps be calmer and more level-headed about their predicament and better able to analyze the situation.
Instead, they let themselves be fooled by the Soton and were convinced that Moshe wouldn’t return. Even when their worst fears were proven false when Moshe did in fact return when he said he would, they couldn’t bring themselves to accept the reality of their error. They were too far gone. Thus, when Moshe called out, “Mi laHaShem eilay,” they ignored him.
Life often throws challenges. We lose ourselves, make wrong choices, and then continue to rationalize our actions even as we slide into self-destructive behavior.
The Soton destroys overnight what took painstaking effort to construct simply by sowing insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. We can outsmart him by remaining calm enough to act rationally and thoughtfully. Rather than falling for his guises and disobeying the word of the Torah and Moshe, it is of course preferable not to sin to begin with.
During this month of Elul, we learn from our past mistakes and seek to rectify them through contemplation of our thoughts and actions, resolving not to repeat those mistakes again. It is not enough to regret what we did wrong. We must also understand what was at the root of those misdeeds so that we can ensure that we will not transgress them again.
We live in an age when politicians and leaders engage in demagoguery instead of offering real solutions to the many problems that confound their countries. In order to solve problems, it is necessary to thoroughly understand the issues. That doesn’t seem to happen anymore, when politicians demonize the opposing parties and play groups against each other, alternately calming and inciting the masses as they feel necessary to maintain popularity. They create one crisis after another, never solving them, utilizing the quagmire for political opportunism.
Governing well and solving problems requires hiring the best people, hard work, a thorough understanding of the issues, and the ability to effectively negotiate solutions. It is simpler to demagogue and manipulate people’s thought processes, spreading fear and anxiety and polarizing the groups who don’t support you. “It’s all their fault,” they tell their supporters, setting up straw men to blame and knock down. “If we could only bring them into line and make them pay their fair share, the economy would improve and your life would be blissful,” they proclaim. The way the government is dealing with the Delta variant of the coronavirus is a case in point.
The Afghan debacle removed the focus temporarily from the Democrats’ efforts to get the rich to pay their “fair share,” as if they don’t already pay a large enough portion of their income in taxes, so that they can begin to pump trillions of dollars into all types of boondoggles and socialist gambits.
President Joe Biden doesn’t talk much. The most he does is read a statement that has been prepared for him, slowly and haltingly. He walks off the stage without answering any questions. On the rare occasion that he is forced to answer questions, such as last week, he invariably has a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face as he offers weak, lame and not necessarily truthful responses. He is not bright and is an awful decision-maker, and once he sets on a course of action, he continues along that course even as it is being proven to be wrong.
Biden saw polls that indicated that the American people have tired of the war in Afghanistan and thought that it would help his poll numbers to pull out of there. Since he is unable to give issues much thought, he hastily set an arbitrary exit date, dismissing the advice of people who tried explaining to him that it wouldn’t work.
He was in a big rush. He said that everyone would be gone and all operations would cease by September 11th. That sounded like a good date and had a ring to it that he envisioned using in campaign advertisements to demonstrate his resoluteness as leader of the free world. Because he acted without thinking, he ended up being his own worst enemy.
When it didn’t go as planned, he dug in his heels and lied. He did not have the capacity to own up to the truth and adjust his course of action.
He had said that his departure from Afghanistan would not be a chaotic mess and would not resemble the U.S. retreat from Saigon. In a way, he was correct. This departure was not as bad as the one from Vietnam. It was worse.
When asked about it last week, he said that he always knew that there would be chaos when it came time to leave Kabul. Just one month ago, he said that he had faith in the 300,000-man Afghan army and its billions of dollars’ worth of American equipment and training. Now he says that it didn’t work out because of Donald Trump, the Afghan army, and intelligence failures.
While throughout his career Biden has shown exceedingly poor judgment, he was sold to the voting public as an accomplished statesman who would be a competent and steady leader. He hasn’t been either. Throughout this disaster, he has barely been seen or heard from.
Neither the secretaries of state and defense nor the chairman of the army’s chief of staff or the national security advisor inspired any confidence or displayed intelligence in their comments on the situation. They projected weakness instead of strength, haphazardness instead of strategy, chaos instead of planning, yet they stand at the helm of the greatest country and armed forces in the world.
A leader can either be loved or feared. Biden is neither. By now, he is an embarrassment. Reagan and Trump were feared and thus able to accomplish what they did. Although he said that he would return America’s respect on the world stage, Biden is now a laughingstock. His poll numbers are dropping, and it won’t take long until his Democrat colleagues pick up on that and begin distancing themselves from him lest they fall in next year’s election.
From the president on down, it appears as if no one in his administration has the ability to make any decisions or fashion a policy of determination, strength and durability.
The vice president, Kamala Harris, was the only one more closeted than the president. One could be forgiven for thinking that their aides are working feverishly to keep both of them away from microphones, lest the American people realize that these leaders have no understanding of strategy and tactics.
The president committed America’s biggest foreign policy blunder, conducting the withdrawal backwards. Instead of first getting Americans and their allies out of the country and then ferrying out the billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, he first pulled out the soldiers to make an arbitrary deadline and then tried to do the other things. He created a humiliating situation of devastation, defeat and catastrophe.
It is easy to laugh at Biden, but we need to turn the spotlight on ourselves during these days of Elul introspection as we approach Rosh Hashanah. How often do we act rashly, without thought and foresight, only to be embarrassed later?
The Soton confuses us. He paints visions in our heads that are not consistent with the truth. In everything he does, the Soton has one motivation: to put us in a situation where we will behave in a way that will harm us. He makes us think that people are against us and betrayed us, when they did nothing of the sort. He convinces us that we are smart, and then that we are stupid, in order to get us to do what he wants us to do. Sometimes he pumps up our self-esteem and other times he lowers it like a boom – whatever it takes to get us to mess up, to sin, to act in a way that robs us of our share in the World to Come.
And as he did at the time of the Eigel, he makes it appear as clear as day that the words of the Torah and Moshe are not relevant. We dare not fall for him, no matter how logical a pose he adopts.
In this week’s parsha of Ki Savo, we learn of the mitzvah of bikkurim, which we bring as an acknowledgement of the many gifts Hashem has bestowed upon us. Hakoras hatov is at the root of being a Yid.
It seems to me that we need to show our appreciation for the gift of these days of rachamim and ratzon that are the month of Elul. The way to express our appreciation is by engaging in teshuvah, asking forgiveness for not having properly followed the word of Hashem and seeking to return to Him.
We live in a time of great disturbances and terrible tragedies. Just last week, an 18-year-old bochur was killed inside a yeshiva. The news spread like wildfire, shaking every ehrliche Yid to the core. This is a reminder to us that nothing is guaranteed and nothing can be taken for granted.
Hakadosh Boruch Hu sends us reminders that we must do teshuvah and that the yemei hadin are upon us. He sends us floods and fires, pandemics and collapses, and when that isn’t enough, he brings bullets and death into the most hallowed halls of Torah.
We still have over a week left of the yemei harachamim of Elul. Let us take advantage of them and merit the kapparos we seek.