Judaism: Repentance, Restraint and Relationship
Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
The acronym derived from the letters of the month of Elul is well known, A-L-V(u)-L stands for Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li, I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.
While this seems quite simple, the relationship that we actually strive for through understanding these words is anything but simple to achieve. What, in fact, does this catchy phrase mean,and how do we attempt to achieve this ideal relationship between ourselves and our Creator?
Perhaps we are given a clue to the process in Psalm 100, A Psalm of Thanksgiving. Verse 3 has an interesting anomaly referred to as kri uchtiv, homonyms that are written one way but are to be read another way. These anomalies in Scripture always beg interpretation, and the Sefas Emes offers us an explanation.
The verse reads “…He made us and we are His, His people and the sheep of His pasture.” The reading is “His”, spelled lamed-vov, while the written is lamed aleph, best translates perhaps as “we are nothing.” Herein lies a tremendous tool in building our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu (and indeed even with special human beings). If we can choose to nullify ourselves and our personal wills to accept God’s will as our own, then we can come closer to bonding with Him, for personal pride and ego cannot coexist with the forging of a committed relationship.
This nuance was perhaps lost on the father of all mankind, Adam. Rabbi Akivah Tatz delves into the psyche of Adam as he received his only commandment from God as he was placed in the Garden of Eden, “Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, for on the day you eat of it you will surely die.”
Rabbi Tatz constructs a hypothetical dialogue in the mind of Adam. Adam understood that part of the Godlike image he was endowed with was free will, independence to choose for himself to do what he felt he wanted or should do. Adam also recognized his lofty nature, only one step removed from the angels. Obeying this one command, according to Rabbi Tatz, did not present enough of achallenge for Adam. Adam wanted to prove that he could descend into a more physical realm of existence and still remain true to his Creator. He would in fact prove that he was even willing to die for his Lord. He could use his free will in such a way as to actualize his great potential.
But this insubordination to God’s explicit command was not so much an exercise of free will as a product of ego, for part of human nature in the desire for independence is the revolt against outside control. However, what Adam failed to understand was that the willing nullification of self to a higher order is the greatest exercise of free choice. When man claims his right to independence, he is nothing, a mere cog in the physical world; when he willingly negates his ego he becomes part of the greater Existence and thereby achieves personal existence.
In other words, getting back to the Sefas Emes, when one can internalize the lo anachnu, we are nothing, and nullify his personal, physical will, to God’swill, then he can declare, “Lo anachnu,we are His, His people.” And we are to carry this a step further, for not only are we to avoid sin as part of negating our own will, but we are also to be careful that our motivation in doing mitzvoth is also to fulfill His will rather than to achieve personal kudos and recognition.
Touching on this idea, the Daas Schrage cites a Gemarrah that presents the case of the impoverished daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion. Nakdimon ben Gurion was a great man as well as very rich and philanthropic. How did God allow his daughter to fall into such dire straits? Even when Nakdimon went about his business in town, he would roll out expensive “carpets” and then leave them for the poor to gather and sell.
This seems to be an act of great chessed, kindness and tzedakah. However, for a man of Nakdimon’s stature, the chessed and tzedakah were tainted, as they were a byproduct of his own ego and personal desire to walk on the “red carpet” rather than strictly for the purpose of doing Hashem’s will and benefitting the poor. Halekach Vehalebuv points out, the main purpose of mitzvoth is to help us forge a bond between ourselves and Hakodosh Boruch Hu at every moment, not just as an afterthought.
There are so many mitzvoth that we can observe. The question is always do we observe them with the proper motivation and intent (kavanah).Not everything is difficult. There are simple things we can do with our mitzvoth that will enhance their observance. In fact, in Shaar Elul the author cites the Gemarrah in saying that we are held more accountable for transgressing those mitzvoth that are easier to fulfill and that would require relatively minimum effort on our part than for transgressing more challenging mitzvoth.
The trick is to train ourselves through easier observance or through partial improvement and build upon that success. For example, if you find it difficult to say a blessing with complete intent, at least hold the fruit in your right hand while you utter the words. Uplift the quality of the mitzvoth you already observe so that slowly you begin to feel the connection with Hashem.
Along this idea, the Netivot Shalom teaches that it is easier to do teshuvah on transgressions than on mitzvoth that are performed with improper thoughts and motivations.
When the prophet Jeremiah admonishes the people and says, “Let us search our ways and examine them,” he is not referring only to transgressions but also to the mitzvoth and the manner in which they are observed.
Rabbi Avigdor Miller focuses our attention on the greater purpose of Rosh Hashanah.While we would expect our liturgy on Rosh Hashanah to be replete with confessions of our sins and our sincere resolution to do better next year, that aspect of Days of Awe is not part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.
What we keep invoking in our prayers on Rosh Hashanah is the Sovereignty of Hashem and our relationship to Him. The teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah is more a teshuvah of the mind than of action. Rosh Hashanah impels us to think of Hashem as our King and as King of the entire universe. As such, He sees me every moment, He is with me constantly whether or not I am conscious of His presence, and He is thinking of me.
Rosh Hashanah is to bring Hashem’s presence into our consciousness, to know that as He cares for me every moment, so must I think of Him constantly. As He wishes to bond with me, so must I wish to bond with Him, and Rosh Hashanah provides the opportunity for us to bridge the gap that my thoughts or lack of thought has created between us.
There is always room for improvement. As Rabbi Frand points us, using the same verse cited earlier from Lamentations, there is a threefold process in returning to Hashem, in teshuvah. First, we must examine our ways, then we must engage in introspection, and only then are we ready to return to Hashem.
When we examine our ways, we may find that indeed we are keeping each detail of the mitzvoth, but when we do the deeper introspection, are we really maintaining the spirit of each mitzvah or are we doing it by rote? Are we keeping every law of Shabbos but nevertheless not maintaining a Shabbos atmosphere in the home?Are we careful to pray at the appropriate times, but doing a rush job because we’re on our way somewhere else? In other words, are we so involved with each detail, with every twig and branch, that we lose sight of the forest, that we forget to contemplate how this mitzvah will help us connect to the Ribbonoh shel Olam?
Mesilas Yeshorim offers a different perspective on this idea. We must be mindful of the value of our neshama and as such we must not run mindlessly through life. Whatever we do, we must first stop ;and contemplate whether or not what we are about to do is beneficial to our neshama and its relationship to its Maker. We are responsible for ourselves and for our souls.
If we stop to think before we act, we are more likely to also contemplate the ramifications of our actions. Whatever we do has an effect not only on the moment, but also long range, and these results are hidden from us. Only Hashem knows the long range outcomes of everything. But our thoughts must play a part in our decisions.
Therefore, says Rav Aharon Kotler as cited in Leovdecha Be’emes, Hashem also holds us responsible for our thought processes as we go about our lives, whether we do our normal activities of living or the performance of mitzvoth or, lehavdil, transgressions. Perhaps a word you thoughtlessly shouted left psychological scars; perhaps a delay in making a phone call cost someone the job he had been hoping for. And, conversely,perhaps your kind word gave someone the encouragement he needed to go on another day.
If our thoughts are truly meaningful, we should heed the advice of Rabbi Itamar Schwartz in "Building a Sanctuary in the Heart". We must ask ourselves continuously what is our purpose in life, and the conclusion would be that it is dveikus to Hashem, cleaving to Hashem. Keep it as a constant reminder, post it on a refrigerator magnet. It is only this dveikus, citing the Mesilas Yeshorim, that will make us complete,that will enable us to approach human perfection, a perfection of the soul.
So if we begin by nullifying our ego, by understanding that we are nothing more than dust and ashes without Him, we can proceed to the stage of constantly seeking Him near us. We will go from loanachnu, we are nothing, to loanachnu, we are His, and fill our lives with meaning as we do the introspection that will lead us back to true meaning in this life, closeness with Hakodosh Boruch Hu.