What is Elul?
R’ Moshe Schwab z”l (1918-1979) writes: With the arrival of the month of
Elul, we are faced with the question, “What is Elul?” How is this month
different from every other month?
R’ Yisrael Salanter z”l said, “Every month should be Elul, but Elul is
Elul.” R’ Schwab explains: All year long, a person should act the way we
try to act during Elul. At least, when Elul arrives, one should be aware
that his life, both the material and spiritual aspects, hangs in the
balance. This is true of oneself, of one’s family, and of every member of
the Jewish People.
Elul is the time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days on
which, we believe with perfect faith, we will be judged. We understand that
everything that will happen, whether on a personal or communal level,
depends on those days. Yet, one cannot “leap” into Rosh Hashanah. One must
prepare for it. To the degree that one prepares himself, to that extent he
will experience Rosh Hashanah. Conversely, to the degree that one is lax in
preparing for Rosh Hashanah, to that extent he will miss out when Rosh
A person who knows that he has a court date in the distant future does not
let his life be overshadowed by that upcoming event. However, as that date
looms near, the litigant begins to fixate on it. So should we be when Elul
approaches. All year long, we know that Rosh Hashanah is in the distant
future, and we ignore it. When Elul comes, it is time to start focusing on
our upcoming court date. Chazal say that on Rosh Hashanah, “Every living
creature passes before Hashem.” This really means, “Every living creature.”
There are no exceptions. (Ma’archei Lev Vol. I, p. 57)
“Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your cities--which
Hashem, your G-d, gives you--for your tribes; and they shall judge the
people with righteous judgment.” (16:18)
Why does the directive to appoint judges and officers follow immediately
after the commandment to rejoice on the festivals (at the end of last week’s
parashah)? Our Sages explain that the Torah is instructing us to appoint
judges and officers to circulate among the people and ensure that there are
no frivolous gatherings of men and women, as can easily happen amidst the
R’ Avraham Saba z”l (1440-1508; Spain) adds: For the same reason, our Sages
ordained that one recite the berachah “Ha’tov Ve’ha’meiteev” after drinking
one wine and before drinking a better wine. This blessing was originally
composed to commemorate the miracle of the “Martyrs of [the city of]
Beitar.” Although the Romans did not allow these martyrs to be buried for a
long time, their bodies did not decompose. Because excessive drinking can
lead to frivolity and improper mixing of the genders, our Sages decreed that
one recall these martyrs in the middle of drinking in order to promote some
degree of solemnity. (Tzror Ha’mor)
The midrash comments on our verse: “Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘Where there is
judgment, there is no judgment. Where there is no judgment, there is
judgment.’ How so? Said Rabbi Eliezer, ‘If judgment is performed below, it
will not have to be performed above. If judgment is not performed below, it
will have to be performed above’.”
On its simplest level, this midrash is teaching the importance of setting up
courts. If mankind judges and punishes wrongdoers and protects victims and
the oppressed, G-d won’t have to do so. But, observes R’ Chaim Yaakov
Goldvicht z”l (rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh), there is another
message here also:
When Hashem judges an individual, it is not to punish or hurt him, but
rather to notify him that he needs to improve. Nevertheless, these
notifications from G-d can sometimes seem like “punishments,” and we would
prefer to avoid them. The midrash tells us how. If each person judges
himself honestly and acts on his findings, he will not need to be judged
above. However, if there is no judgment below, if man does not judge
himself, he will have to be judged above. (Asufot Ma’arachot: Devarim p.144)
“You shall arise and ascend to the place that Hashem, your G-d, shall
Rashi quotes a midrash: “This [the word ‘ascend’] teaches that the Temple
was situated higher than all other places.”
R’ Elya Meir Bloch z”l (1894-1955; founder and rosh yeshiva of Telshe in
Cleveland) observes: Of course we know that there are taller mountains than
Har Ha’moriah, where the Temple stood. What the midrash means is that
because the earth is a sphere, any point can be designated as “the highest
point.” Har Ha’moriah deserves that designation because it is the holiest
point in the world, and it is the place to which all people ascend to
experience spiritual growth. (Peninei Da’at)
“It shall be that when you draw near to the war, the kohen shall
approach and speak to the people. He shall say to them, ‘Shema / Hear,
Yisrael, you are coming near to the battle against your enemies; let your
heart not be faint; do not be afraid, do not panic, and do not be broken
before them’.” (20:2-3)
A midrash interprets the kohen’s words as follows: “Even if the only merit
that you have is that you recite Shema Yisrael, you deserve to be victorious.”
R’ Yehoshua Rokeach z”l (1825-1894; Belzer Rebbe) asks: We read (in verse 8
below), “The officers shall continue speaking to the people and say, ‘Who is
the man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his
house, and let him not melt the heart of his fellows, like his heart’.” Our
Sages interpret this verse as addressing those who are afraid of being
punished for the sins they committed--even [something seemingly as minor as]
speaking between putting on the tefilin shel yad and the tefilin she rosh.
But, if Bnei Yisrael deserve to be victorious even if their only merit is
the recitation of Kriat Shema, why should they fear their sins?
He explains: Verse 3 contains the words of the kohen, while verse 8 contains
the words of the officers. These functionaries have different roles. The
kohen’s job is to pray for Bnei Yisrael; therefore, he must instil love of
the Jewish People in his own heart by focusing on their merits, no matter
how few those may be. Officers, on the other hand, must lead and direct the
people; therefore, they must warn them regarding the smallest infraction.
In a similar vein, R’ Alter Chaim Levinson z”l (a communal activist in the
time of R’ Yehoshua Rokeach) adds that he once came to Belz during the month
of Elul to discuss with the Belzer Rebbe proposed solutions to certain
breaches in religious standards, but the Rebbe refused to see him. R’
Levinson was perplexed, because the Rebbe’s door was usually open to him.
He shared his confusion with R’ Yissachar Dov Rokeach z”l (1851-1926; son
and successor of the Rebbe), and the latter explained that during Elul, when
the Rebbe was focused on praying for the welfare of the Jewish People, he
did not wish to hear about the breaches in society. (Quoted in Igra D'bei
From the Haftarah
“Anochi, Anochi / It is I, I am He, Who comforts you.” (Yeshayah
Why is the word “Anochi” repeated? R’ Yaakov Chaim Katz shlita (Brooklyn,
N.Y.) suggests: “Anochi” alludes to the Luchot that we received at Har Sinai
(since that was the first word on the tablets). Lest we lose hope of ever
being forgiven and of ever having the Beit Hamikdash rebuilt, Hashem tells
us: Just as there was a second “Anochi,” i.e., just as I gave you another
chance after you sinned and caused the Luchot to be broken, so I will give
you another chance to have the Beit Hamikdash.
Letters from Our Sages
This letter was written by R’ Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005), one of the
leading teachers of mussar in the second half of the 20th century. While
this letter addresses a specific concern of a young student, its message
applies to any person who wishes to make an honest accounting of his
thoughts and deeds.
It was worthwhile to see you last Thursday, for you brought me calm. I had
been very worried about the fact that you were unhappy in shiur / Talmud
class. The manner in which your attitude changed from despair to joy
testifies to the existence of siyata di’Shmaya / Divine assistance. The
“coincidence” that you took a notebook with you and suddenly felt an urge to
take notes--such are the ways of Divine providence . . .
As for why you originally rejected the shiur so strongly, you wrote to me
that it was too low a level. You related that the gaon and tzaddik R’ . . .
said it was laziness. I am confident that it was not laziness, for you do
want to hear an advanced shiur; in fact, you were complaining that the shiur
was not advanced enough. But, if it was not laziness, what was it? Why
didn’t you notice at first how intricate the shiur was? I think it was
because you had a negi’ah / bias. You thought that they put you in a class
that was beneath you, and that bias sealed your ears so you could not hear
the intricacy of the shiur. It is amazing how a bias can affect a person!
Of course, I am not writing this merely to explain the past, but rather
because of the incredible lesson that can be learned from this experience.
When the bias is negated--in this case, through siyata di’Shmaya--the ears
suddenly open and the shiur sounds different. Through your disgrace, we see
your praise, for you acknowledged the truth and recognized your error. That
is a very high level. See to it that you guard this trait and always
acknowledge the truth. Take care you discover your biases and negate them.
That is the primary benefit of studying mussar--it opens a window to the
heart, so one can see where his biases are and can negate them. After all,
we have many biases that affect almost everything we do!
All the best to you, my beloved, may your light shine. Be healthy and
strong, and rejoice in serving G-d. . . (Igrot U’ketavim, Vol.II no.263)
The editors hope these brief 'snippets' will engender further study
and discussion of Torah topics ('lehagdil Torah u'leha'adirah'), and
your letters are appreciated. Web archives at Torah.org start with 5758 (1997) and
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