Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Elul - Even the Little Things Make a Difference
The month of Elul, sefarim write, is reserved as a time of preparation
for the upcoming Days of Judgement and Awe. It is said that in the
tiny shtetlach of Poland, Hungary, and Russia, one could feel the
month of Elul in the air; the fear and trepidation were palpable. There
were some great talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) who set aside
their regular daily routine of Talmudic study, and devoted the month
of Elul principally to the study of mussar (ethics and character
refinement). At the very least, people set aside time for cheshbon ha-
nefesh (self scrutiny) and getting oneself ready for the upcoming
month of Tishrei.
There were (and still are) those who take upon themselves in Elul
additional stringencies (chumros); matters regarding which they may
not be particular all year round, yet during the month of Elul (and
continuing through the Ten Days of Teshuva [1-10 Tishrei]) they "go
the extra mile" and accept minhagim (customs) and halachos (laws)
which go above and beyond the letter-of-the-law. An example of this
can be found in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 603:1), which
encourages even those who have sanction all year round to eat bread
baked by a non-Jewish bakery (known as pas palteir, provided, of
course that all the ingredients are verifiably kosher) not to do so
during the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avodah
writes that there were those who would not scratch themselves during
the month of Elul, as a means of penance and self-mortification.
Even to this day, there are people who during this month will not
speak words of idle chatter or worldly matters; they reserve their
speech for divrei Torah and teshuvah.
I must admit that for many years, I had a hard time conceptually with
this idea: If these laws/customs/stringencies are indeed worthy and
important, should we not be observing them all year round? And if
they are such that to observe them year-round is beyond our means,
what is the relevance of going-through-the-motions one month a
year, knowing full well that after this period ends, we will just go back
to doing what we did before? Whom are we fooling?
Fortunately, I came across the commentary of the famed Dubner
Maggid on this week's parsha where he, in his inimitable style, makes
use of the parable to clarify this concept.
It was not an easy move for R' Mendel and his family to make, but in
their little village, they just could not make ends meet. With his family
growing and expanding, he had no choice but to make the move to
the big city, where they knew no one and had no contacts. Not long
after the wagons transporting their lives had arrived, the locals had
already gathered on the streets and sidewalks to gape and gawk at
the 'new guys on the block.' It was with interest that they observed
how, not long after they arrived, one of the local politicians was
already knocking at the door.
Although they were in the middle of unpacking, R' Mendel, who was
certainly not looking for any trouble, invited his "guest" inside, and
told his wife to prepare something to serve their noble guest. She did
as she was told, and proceeded to serve up a most sumptuous snack
in his honor. R' Mendel had his son bring in his best bottle of
scotch, and, having had his fair share of food and drink, the official,
seemingly satisfied with his welcome, took leave of them.
Two neighbors, having observed the royal welcome that the local
dignitary received, thought that a free meal and a drink wouldn't be
all that bad of an idea. Why don't we, they thought, form our own
neighborhood "welcoming committee!" They dressed up in the best
clothing they owned, and crossed the street to greet and welcome
their new neighbors. Knocking on the door, they were greeted by a
tired and weary R' Mendel. "We thought we'd just come over from
across the street to welcome you to our community," they said
"How kind of you," R' Mendel replied guardedly; it wasn't, in this area,
the norm for non-Jews to so quickly befriend their Jewish neighbors.
"Now you have yourselves a good day."
"Aren't you going to invite us in?" asked one of them boldly.
"Truly, we're really very busy right now. Just arrived and all. I must go.
Thank you." And with that he closed the door on them, realizing full
well what they had come for.
Some time later, R' Mendel was involved in some sort of litigation.
And, wouldn't you know it: one of his neighbors had been elected
to sit on the jury. When, during the time that the court case was
ongoing, they passed by R' Mendel's house, he greeted them warmly,
invited them to come inside, and told his wife to prepare for them the
best that she had.
"Tell me, Mendel," asked one of them. "Why is it that when we came
to 'welcome' you to our city, you treated us with such indifference. Yet
now, you ask us in, and give us to eat and drink? Were we not then
deserving of the same treatment as that dignitary?"
"Foolish men. Don't you see? When that government official came to
visit, I had every reason to be concerned. Were I to rub him the
wrong way, he could easily have used his influence to make my life
miserable. Thus, I took extra care to make sure he had no reason to
be upset with me. When you came knocking, however, you were just
a couple locals looking for a free lunch. And I wasn't going to bite...
"Now, however, the tides have turned. You're in a position of great
power over me, for in the event of a hung-jury, even one vote can
make the difference between a good verdict and a bad one. So
please, eat to your heart's content, and remember me when the day
of judgement comes."
All year round, explains the Maggid, our deeds are not under such
careful scrutiny. But during these days, as we prepare for the great
and awesome Yom ha-Din (Day of Judgement) which takes place on
Rosh Hashana, we realize that our deeds will be measured and
weighed, and we will be judged for the coming year based on their
merit, or, G-d forbid, lack thereof. Sometimes, in such a scenario,
even one small mitzvah can make the difference. Even observing a
custom or halacha which in truth goes far beyond the letter-of-the-
law, and is not a halachic necessity all year round. It's not that we're
trying to fool anyone. To the contrary, to ignore the fact that every
small deed makes a different during a period of judgement would be
nothing short of foolishness. It would be, in essence, a denial of the
nature of the time of year in which we find ourselves, and the
judgement associated with it. We do everything we can to ensure that
when the Day of Judgement arrives, we will have as many good
"character witnesses" as we possibly can.
Homiletically, he uses a section of this week's sidrah as an allusion
to this idea. (23:10) When a legion goes out (to war) against your
enemies; you shall guard yourselves from anything evil. During the
Days of Judgement, we are "at battle" with our enemies - our sins and
shortcomings - who threaten to besmirch our names and cause bad
judgement to be passed upon us, G-d forbid. Especially now, it is
important that we "guard ourselves from anything evil." Even ideals
and actions which are perhaps beyond our abilities all year round,
during Chodesh Elul we must go the extra mile and do everything we
can to get our accounts in order before the great audit.
Have a good Shabbos.