Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein
As we enter the month of Elul and approach the Yomim Noraim/ Days of Awe, we struggle with the same paradox our Sages and Rabbis have struggled with throughout the ages: Every year we do teshuvah, we regret our past sins and resolve to do better. Yet, here we are again, not having met our past aspirations. How can we not feel despair over our past failure, and what can we do to be more successful in the coming year?
During this period of preparation, during the month of Elul, we listen to the sound of the shofar every day. Yet, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, we do not blow the shofar. As Rabbi Rothberg points out in Moda Labinah, we are aware that blowing the shofar is halakhically mandated only for the days of Rosh Hashanah even as it has become a universal custom to sound the shofar this entire month dedicated to arousing us toward repentance. We do not need to be reminded of this difference, so why not blow the shofar on the very day leading into Rosh Hashanah?
If we begin our discussion with the chapter of Tehillim we read every day now, Chapter 27, we may begin forming some insights into our question, although we may begin with an additional oft discussed question. King David asks, “One thing I asked of Hashem, that shall I seek: That I dwell in the house of Hashem all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of Hashem and to visit in His Sanctuary.”
The often asked question is that David Hamelech says he is asking only one thing, yet he seems to be making two requests. But Rabbi Rothberg adds an additional question: If I am already sitting in God’s house all the days of my life, am I not already there? Why do I also ask to visit His Sanctuary?
To understand our goal in Chodesh Elul, it is important to review the historical perspective of the month. Moshe ascended Har Sinai three times. First, on Shavuot he ascended, brought down the first luchot, but smashed them when he witnessed Bnei Yisroel sinning with the Golden calf. He ascended for a second forty day period, descending on Rosh Chodesh Elul, and bringing down the second set of luchot, tablets that he himself had hewed from stone but whose text had still been written by the finger of God. But the relationship between Hashem and Bnei Yisroel had not yet been fully repaired.
Moshe ascended a third time, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, pleading with Hakodosh Boruch Hu to fully forgive Bnei Yisroel and reengage intimately with us. It is on Yom Kippur that Moshe descended again with Hashem’s promise of “Solachti kidvarecha/I have forgiven as you/Moshe have said.” It is within this context that we interpret ELUL as an acronym for (E)Ani Ledodi (U)Vedodi Li/I am to my Beloved (Hashem) and my Beloved is to me, writes Rabbi Bernstein.
Elul is interpreted as the acronym for several other additional verses. Among them is the verse discussing the cities of refuge for one whose negligence caused someone’s accidental death, This is described as, “VehaElokhim Ena Leyodo (U)Vesamti Lach.../And Hashem ‘forced his hand’ and I [Hashem] have paced for him [a place of refuge].” This the acronym Rabbi Rothberg uses to discuss the function of the month of Elul. On Rosh Hashanah, we don’t recite Hallel even though it is a holiday, for we are filled with fear and awe at our imminent encounter with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. But Hashem has prepared this safe place in time so that we can less fearfully approach Him on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in spite of our sins.
What is the connection between Elul and the atonement that will be finalized on Yom Kippur? While Hashem gifted us with the first set of Tablets, completely formed and written by Hashem, these could not survive in a flawed, human society. The second set of luchot were chiseled by Moshe’s human hand, representing an “arousal from below,” the stirring of humanity toward the relationship with Heaven.
Humanity has to prepare for itself the “Tablets” to receive the writing of God. That connection, writes Rabbi Rothberg, would be permanent, culminating in the forgiveness on Yom Kippur and the repair of the relationship. Our task during Elul is to prepare our personal luchot so that Hashem’s presence can come down into this world, and into ourselves.
When we first accepted the Torah, we were on the level of total perfection of Adam before the sin, fully ready to accept God’s presence. While we no longer have the luchot, they are symbolically contained in our hearts, writes Rabbi Wolbe. [This explains why the luchot are generally depicted curved, as a heart.] But those original tablets were broken, and we must prepare to imprint them again on our hearts. While Moshe was preparing the physical stones for Hashem’s writing, Bnei Yisroel were also doing teshuvah to prepare to receive Hashem’s word anew. Hearing the sound of the shofar helps us prepare down below to receive Hashem’s Sovereignty from Above.
The Torah itself was not affected by our sin, writes Rabbi Rothberg, but our Sinai experience was damaged. We create the sounds of the shofar here on earth to try to recreate the scene of receiving the Torah at Sinai, when the sounds of the shofar came from above. Our teshuvah did not end on Rosh Hashanah, when Hashem again revealed Himself to us, but on Yom Kippur, when we received the second set of luchot. Both revelation and receiving the Torah were one combined experience on Shavuot, but the experience of the second luchot was divided into two stages, Revelation of God’s Sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah followed by a recommitment to Torah on Yom Kippur.
Returning to the question we asked about Psalm 27, we can follow the reasoning of Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz who maintains that David Hamelech was not asking for two separate things, but making one request with a necessary corollary. David, as king, was involved with many issues of state. He could not sit and study Torah day and night. What David requested was that no matter where he was and what he needed to do, he would always feel Hashem’s Presence beside him and keep building the relationship.
This is a lesson we can also learn from Yaakov Avinu, writes Rabbi Belsky in Einei Yisroel. Yaakov Avinu metaphorically took the Throne of Glory wherever he went to whatever he was doing. Therefore, when the angels ascended the ladder in Yaakov’s dream, they saw Yaakov’s image at the top of the ladder, for Yaakov never left Hashem’s Presence behind. This is indeed what the month of Elul is all about.
The Torah itself has a similar verse. Devarim 10:12, “And now, what does Hashem ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, to go in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.”
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach suggests a commonality between these two verses. He posits that in each verse, There is truly only one thing being requested, and that one thing is the heading and general, comprehensive category that encompasses all the other requests. “To visit in His Sanctuary” is one example of dwelling in the house of Hashem, and “to fear Hashem” covers loving Him and serving Him. All is included in the Oneness of Hashem, in the knowledge that nothing exist outside of Him. The one thing that David wants, and that Hashem wants of us, is that our entire life be a unified whole, being lived under the constant umbrella of creating and maintaining our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Absent this unifying factor, our lives become fragmented and confusing.
It is not enough, however, just to have an awakening. One must follow up with action. The word shofar shares its root with leshaper/to improve. One must take the message in the sound of the shofar as the impetus for improving ourselves, teaches Rabbi Kofman in Mishchat Shemen. One should not begin with trying to do a complete overhaul, but by trying to make one small improvement at a time, perhaps reciting one or two daily brachot more mindfully. When we ask Hashem to help us improve, we must make our own effort as well. We must be proactive.
One must take action at the time of inspiration. Our Sages have told us that Hashem needed to take Bnei Yisroel out of Egypt at the precise moment He did or we would have sunk to the lowest level of depravity and would have lost all opportunity for redemption.
Rabbi Schwadron questions this premise, saying we were at a higher spiritual level at the end of the redemption process that at the beginning. From merely having faith in Hashem and in Moshe, Bnei Yisroel were taking action, taking a lamb, one of the Egyptian gods, and tying it to the bedpost for all Egypt to see, to slaughtering it, to witnessing the death of the firstborn Egyptians while they themselves were saved – certainly Bnei Yisroel had achieved a high spiritual level. However, this is precisely the paradox Rabbi Schwadron sees. When one is on such a high spiritual level, it can dissipate very quickly. Had Hashem not redeemed us at that moment, the faith and inspiration would have fallen away so quickly that we would have sunk to an even lower spiritual level that ever before and would no longer qualify for redemption.
It was to that redemption that the Prophet Isaiah alludes when he writes that Hashem created a path for us through the Sea. Rabbi Biderman notes that there is no path through water, that each person must forge his own, personal path through the water. At the right moment, the smallest action can bring you to the greatest realization of and connection to Hashem.
One must know that one’s purpose in life is to have this closeness to Hashem, to develop it by following in His ways that can be achieved only by working on our midos, adds Rav Yechezkel Levenstein. If one’s midos are not whole, one will never come close to Hashem no matter how much Torah he learns. Work on the midos internally, not just externally, exhorts us Rabbi Kestenbaum. And the main classroom for this work is in your own home with your own family. Reframe tasks at home as opportunities for chesed, for emulating Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Carve your heart to resemble the luchot.
You may think the task of changing your midos is too big. You would be right. Rabbi Wolbe understands human nature and suggests the smallest of steps. Just five minutes at a time can change your life. Begin with resolving to not speak loshon horo for only five minutes, for example. Those five minutes will be the hole Hashem enlarges to a wide open gate to help you overcome this negative tendency further. With this process, we can understand that we do not return to the same point of the teshuvah process each year, writes the Tallelei Chaim. The process is a spiral from year to year. We may return to the same shortcoming, but we can see some improvement from year to year, all from five minutes of change.
Hashem judges each person ba’asher hu sham/where he is at at that moment. On Rosh Hashanah are we ready to crown Hashem as King over us? Can we be serious about any resolution to bring us closer to Hashem, even for five minutes at a time? It seems that eleven months later we really haven’t improved, writes Rabbi Rothberg.
Rabbi Schlesinger provides us with an encouraging metaphor. If we picture a tightrope, we will note that it is high at one end, then it sags in the middle, but returns to the high end again at the other end. We begin the New Year on a high, but as the year progresses, our resolution flags and the “rope” sags. Then comes Elul, and we hear the shofar that reminds us of our previous resolution so that we can begin working on it anew, even though we weakened in the middle of the year.
But we don’t sound the shofar right before Rosh Hashanah because this month has been dedicated to following through from last year’s Rosh Hashanah. Hence, the Shofar of Elul is a reminder of the commitments we made last Rosh Hashanah when we heard the Shofar, and we break for a day, before we encounter the Shofar of this year’s Rosh Hashanah.
Elul gives us the opportunity to save face, to exit the year on a regained high. We can now focus on the second half of our initial verse, not only to dwell in Hashem’s house, but also to visit. It is difficult to maintain a constant momentum, but at least let me visit to reignite the relationship with God. Let us return to the loving relationship with Hashem that the name of the month alludes to.