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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

Elul is the most propitious month of the year for the sort of personal change and growth we call "tshuvah". Now, the term tshuvah is usually translated as either "repentance", "penitence", or the like, but to my mind those terms have a certain un-Jewish tone and feel to them. We prefer "return"-- the return to the relationship you'd had with G-d or others before you erred.

The truth be known, we all make mistakes. We all, sad to say, hurt others, perform mitzvahs perfunctorily or by rote, lack for spiritual spark, or crave un-G-dly things. Hence, we all have to turn ourselves round back to where we'd been before-- or to even greater heights-- through tshuvah.

Elul thus serves as the season of tshuvah, the special and rare moment we'd been waiting for, the appointment we'd set for doing tshuvah for our mistakes.

In fact, that's why Elul is known as the month when G-d Almighty is most approachable, most at hand. And we'd do well to take advantage of the moment and prepare ourselves for an encounter with Him.

In his holy work "The Gates of Repentance" (2:15) Rabbeinu Yonah advises us to be ready to great G-d all the time. As such, Elul is the best of many times to do that.

Nonetheless Rabbeinu Yonah offers us a touching scenario based on the words of our sages to illustrate the point. He speaks there of a sailor’s wife who was all dressed up and made up, waiting by the shoreline, even though her husband was overseas.

Her neighbors asked, "Hasn't your husband gone very far away? So why are you making yourself attractive for no reason?"

She replied, "My husband is a sailor. The winds might reverse at sea, and he could easily come right home to find me. That's why!” (based on Kohelet Rabbah 9:8).

We, too, should be "dressed up" and "made up"-- beautified by mitzvahs and good intentions, loftiness of character, and a zeal for goodness. And we should take advantage of the opportunity that Elul serves to do that.

But there are a couple of other aspects of Elul as well. Elul also serves as a "training period" for Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur; a whole month to prepare ourselves for those Holy Days. And the blowing of the shofar after morning tephilla we experience in Elul helps in that.

For as Rambam says in Hilchos Tshuvah (3:4), the shofar sends the following message to us each year. "Awaken, you sleepers!" it says. "Arise, you slumberers! Examine your deeds, do tshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who ignore the truth for passing fancies, and those beguiled all life long by vanities and emptiness... should look into their souls, improve their ways and rectify their deeds!"

And Elul serves one other purpose. It allows us to time to ready ourselves for the year to come. After all, our fate is about to be determined on Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. And the thought of that is often daunting.

Who knows what's coming our way! We're sure G-d will have mercy on us and guide us in the best way to live out the next year. Still-and-all, though, it's sometimes frightening to consider the possibilities.

So the pious Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv ("The Alter of Kelm") suggests we ready ourselves for that eventuality by dwelling in our minds upon three different things in Elul.

  • The fact that G-d alone is in charge of the universe, no one else, and certainly not ourselves. It seems we always need to remember that, but especially now, when G-d is about to manifest his sovereignty in our life in the year to come.
  • We'd do well to concentrate upon the fact, The Alter continues, that everything that G-d does is good. After all, we're taught that "G-d is good to all and merciful toward all His creatures" (Psalms 145:9). We tend to either forget that, though, and to lose sight of it in the roar and rumble of our lives.
  • And finally, it would serve us well to develop the noble traits of patience and resignation in the month of Elul. In fact, we in modernity have a lot of trouble with those very traits. We're invariably agitated and impatient, determined and aggressive. We want everything right now, and we want it "just so".

    Few are as blessed, though, as the patient and resigned, and few are as truly free as they. Would that we ourselves enjoyed that blessing.

So, let us hold fast onto this holy and awesome month of Elul, learn its lessons, grow as a consequence of what it has to offer, and always strive to be the best Jews we can be.

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