Judaism: Elul - Solidarity and Sensitivity
The month of Elul is meant to be a time of introspection leading up to Rosh Hashanah. However, as Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz points out in Tiv Hamoadim, most people are very lax in this area, being even less cognizant of our Master than an ox is of its master. The yetzer horo convinces us that we’re so busy with the physical aspects of yom tov preparation that we neglect the spiritual aspects of the yom tov that also require preparation.
While we tend to think that we must focus almost exclusively on our relationship with God at this time of year, it is at least equally important to focus on the “social”mitzvoth that foster our relationship with our fellow man, especially since proper attention to this area will indeed bring us closer to the One God Who has created us all.
Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon clarifies this point in Matnas Chaim, by quoting the Mabit, in explaining that the luchot, the two Tablets of the Law that Moshe brought down from Sinai, were equal. How is that possible when the first five utterances, those traditionally referring to the mitzvoth between man and God and carved into the first tablet, contain many words while the next five utterances, traditionally the societal mitzvoth, bein adam lachavero etched on the second tablet, are quite terse? Rabbi Solomon explains that to make the two sides equal, Hashem enlarged the letters on the second tablet so the “printed” area of the two tablets would be equal. Hashem was teaching us that both aspects of serving Hashem, the spiritual and the societal, are of equal importance, and one should not sacrifice acts of chessed on the altar of “religious observance.”
The Matnas Chaim makes another relevant point: We tend to think that we keep the mitzvoth bein adam lachavero because they are logical, because society would revert to chaos without them. But our reasoning is faulty. Just as we observe the laws bein adam laMakom, between man and God, simply because they are Hashem’s wish and command, so are we to be motivated to observe the laws bein adam lachavero, for even if their logic eludes us, we must observe them because these too are still God’s will.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Yaakov Hillel points out in Ascending the Path that Many Jews are so punctilious in their observance of laws they deem to be between man and God that they will go so far as to examine an etrog with a magnifying glass for example, while being much less vigilant in their business practices. We must always remember that while Torah study and avodah (religious service) comprise two pillars upon which the world is balanced, the third pillar is gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness between man and his fellow man. Unless this third pillar is equally strong, the edifice of the world will topple.
Rosh Hashanah, for which we are preparing in the month of Elul, is the holiday on which we coronate Hashem as King over the world. However, if there are no subjects there is no sovereign. How can we ensure that Hashem’s kingdom, we, the Nation of Israel, remain His emissaries to the world? Rabbi Lugassi notes that an integral verse of the High Holidays liturgy is “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Why, asks Rav Lugassi, do we need to “hear”; would it not be enough to say, “Know Israel?” In our context, the logic is irrefutable. While knowledge can be individual, hearing requires an audience, in our case, a nation of listeners. We attest as a nation that we accept Hashem as our God and our King. To do this, we must minimize the “I” for the benefit of the whole. The spirituality of the individual is inextricably intertwined with the spirituality of the
Further, in Moda Labinah, we can rely on the verse from Deuteronomy to help us understand this concept: “He became King over Jeshurun when the numbers of the nation gathered – the tribes of Israel in unity.” In other words, it is the unity of Bnei Yisroel that guarantees the sovereignty of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. How can we achieve that unity and prevent divisiveness? By practicing “veohavta lerayacha komocha - loving your fellow Jew as yourself.”
That level can only be achieved through unity and caring for each other. Rav Shmuel Tal explains in Tal Chaim that we achieve this by joining with the collective in prayer, not just to pray for ourselves, but also to pray for the collective and for individuals within our collective nation. We contribute to the collective and offer our services, and do acts of chessed for individuals within the community, and thus become part of something greater than ourselves from which we and the community all benefit. The collective prayer and actions then fuel the energy that powers our personal prayers and needs.
Hashem wants our prayers, for our voice is pleasing to Him. Rabbi Tzvi Mayer Silberberg offers an additional, beautiful interpretation to this verse from the Hebrew, “Ki kolech orev umarech noveh.” When is your voice pleasing? When it contains within it orevut, caring, responsibility, an intermingling of my personal needs with the needs of others. My introspection during this month needs to include how I can create unity within my nation, how I can repair relationships, and how I can contribute to the wellbeing of the community
To emphasize this point, Moda Labinah cites a lesser know acronym for the month of Ilu”l – Ish Lerayehu Umatanot Loevyonim. This key mitzvah of Purim, that one Jew should love his fellow Jew and give gifts to the needy, these acts of chessed, was what Mordechai foresaw would unify the Jews and create the world of (Alu’l) Ani LedodiVedodi Li, I am for my Beloved God, and He is to me, the best known acronym for this month’s name. (I have changed the English spelling of Elul to conform to the vowels of the silent first Hebrew letter.)
Being sensitive to others, to their emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs perhaps even more than to their financial needs is key to this mindset. We must love and interact with our fellows as we would love and observe ourselves, with a kind eye, writes Rabbi Castle in Live among Friends. He presents us with a wonderful analogy. When we look in the mirror and notice a smudge, scrubbing the mirror will not remove the dirt on our face. Similarly, when we observe a fault in another, we must remove any negative feelings from our hearts, because generally it is this “dirt” within our own hearts that is sullying our impression of our fellow Jew. When I correct my vision, I will see the beauty and value of another.
This vigilance must extend to being sensitive to the inner world of others so as not to cause anyone undue pain. Rabbi Moshe A. Stern cites several instances fromTana”ch when the pain one inflicted caused undue ramifications generations later, even when the pain was inflicted totally unintentionally and even in the performance of the mitzvah of honoring one’s parent. The first instance he cites is Yaakov causing Esau to “cry a loud and bitter cry” when Yaakov instead of Esau received Yitzchak’s blessing, according to his mother’s instructions. This phraseology is repeated when Mordechai, Yaakov’s descendant, cries a “loud and bitter cry” at the edict against the Jews that Haman, Esau’s descendant, had promulgated.
A second example Rabbi Stern cites is about Menashe, son of Joseph. He followed his father’s instructions and placed the royal goblet in Binyamin’s sack, paving the way for Joseph to accuse Benjamin of thievery and causing the brothers who were responsible for his safety to rend their garments in grief. Even though Menashe was obeying his father, when Bnei Yisroel were about to enter Eretz Yisroel, his tribe would be rent in two with one half staying on either side of the Jordan though they had not requested any land on that side.
How many times are we oblivious to the challenges of others, gloating over the accomplishments of our children while some in our company remain childless, or revel in a job promotion when our friend may be jobless? If we are to remain united and whole, we must anticipate the pain of others and train ourselves to refrain from any speech or action that may cause pain.
On the other hand, to maintain a peaceful and loving relationship with others, one must be willing to light up one’s face with a smile upon meeting others. After all, writes Rabbi Lugassi in Knesset Yisroel, it was Shammai, the seemingly stern sage, who insisted that greeting everyone with a happy countenance is an explicit law in the Torah. In this respect, every human being is in need. We all have the need to be validated with a smile, a verbal embrace, whether it’s a child, a parent, a colleague or a friend, or even a passerby on the street. Resolve to smile at others for a specific period of time each day and notice how the surrounding energy improves.
Resolutions for self improvement in the coming year cannot be merely cosmetic, but must deal with the foundation of our being, with our emunah, our faith. Rabbi Rabinowitz explains the connection between emunah and our relationship to others. If we have complete faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, we do not get angry at someone for not living up to our expectations, for we realize that Hashem is in control. Further, we must understand, points out the Matnas Chaim, that the world of “between man and his fellow man” is not a book of rote etiquette, but rather a guide to how Hashem wants me to interact with other human beings, and Hashem generally does not want me to get angry at others.
However, with Elul upon us, we do want to strive to improve our service to God. Along these lines, Rabbi Wagschall offers some suggestions in Shaarei Elul. First he explains that there are two categories of sins, infrequent ones, like eating something without rabbinic supervision, and others that are so frequent we tend to forget that they’re even sins, like speaking loshon horo or davening without proper intent, arrogance and jealousy. Those in the first category are more easily fixed than the sins in the second. However, success must be counted in small steps. Pick one category and devote your energy to a small section of time within that category, creating a minimum and maximum of effort. For example, if you choose to work on your speech, you may resolve not to speak loshon horo for a particular time of each day, from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. Your resolution will have the maximum of one hour while your minimum may be twenty minutes. Similarly, you may resolve to daven with the proper intent for one blessing in theShemoneh Esrei, the silent devotion. Your maximum may be one entire blessing while your minimum may be just the first and last lines of the blessing.
Year after year we take on resolutions, often the same ones, without success. We fail because we do not include Hashem in our resolution. The purpose of these resolutions must be to bring us closer to our Creator, to build the relationship between myself and my Beloved. To do this, we must make ourselves aware of Hashem’s constant presence in our lives. This awareness teaches us the worth of every human being who is also a child of God and worthy of our smile, our respect, our prayers on his behalf, and our help. For only as a united people can we create the atmosphere where all of Israel can hear, and indeed all the world will know that the Lord our God the Lord is One.