Among the verses that provide an acronym for Elul is a lesser known one that comes from the chapter in the Torah about cities of refuge. What connection can there be between someone who is forced to flee to a city of refuge for negligent manslaughter and Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah?
Perhaps we can see the connection if we recognize the city of refuge as a holy place. Here, in the city of refuge, one can escape the dangers and lures of the physical, material world that have contributed to his negligence, and he can let his soul break free. Here he has the opportunity to live again and develop his spiritual essence.
How can we also enter into a holy enclave? In giving instructions for the service of the High Priest on Rosh Hashanah, the Torah says, “B’zos yavoh Aharon el hakodesh – with this shall Aharon come into the Sanctuary.” Simply interpreted, “this” refers to the incense pan and the incense which Aharon brings into the Sanctuary to perform the service. But our rabbis see many layers of meaning in this verse, instructions on how we, too, can enter into our personal sanctuaries and holy places.
We each have a sanctuary within ourselves, our holy souls, and our wise men see the instructions to Aharon as he enters the Sanctuary as having relevance to each of us, to help us enter our personal sanctuaries. Indeed we have a very strong holy place to enter into on earth.
Rabbi Shlomo Friefeld in "In Search of Greatness" discusses how we can enter into a holy realm through the portal of Shabbos. Rabbi Friefeld explains that when one lets the sanctity of Shabbos enter his soul, his entire being becomes suffused with sanctity, a sanctity that will permeate not just Shabbos, but the entire week. R.Matityahu Salamin draws on a line in the beautiful Lecha Dodi poem with which we greet the Shabbos Queen each Friday night: “To greet the Shabbos Queen let us go, for it is the source of the blessing.”
How can we tap into the blessings of Shabbos? Our Rabbis teach us that the anticipation of Shabbos should prompt us to greet it early, to bring Shabbos into our homes earlier than the time of candle lighting, and in this way show our love for this special gift God, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, has given us. By doing so, we tap the wellsprings of blessings Hashem wants to rain down upon us, from our physical sustenance, to finding our soul mate, to raising children in the proper environment. When we show Hashem that we can’t wait to spend intimate time with Him, He reciprocates that love with material as well as spiritual blessings. Therefore, anticipate its arrival all week, and remember it both with preparation and by keeping Shabbos as the focus of the week.
When we tap into the sanctity of Shabbos, we must be even more aware of our actions and speech. Shabbos is a time for tranquility, for pleasant speech, for a table aglow with the spirit of Shabbos even as the candles may be off on an adjoining ledge.
Rabbi Friefeld quotes from the Midrash an additional method by which we can enter the sanctuary, through Torah learning. The light of Torah will suffuse our beings if we take the time to toil in Torah. While women may not have as strong an obligation to study Torah as do men, (According to the Maharal, this is because women by nature tend to be more tranquil than men, and therefore more receptive to spirituality than men.) they are nevertheless required to study those laws pertinent to them. These include all the negative commandments, the laws of Shabbos and kashrus, and many others. By creating a timeframe in which one can immerse oneself in Torah study, even for just a few minutes each day, says Rabbi Segal, we demonstrate that the resolutions we make on Rosh Hashanah are not just empty words.
We live our lives on the stormy waters of a physical world, yet our souls yearn for the spiritual and holy. Here again Rabbi Friefeld instructs us by using one word that Rabbi Yochanan says in the Midrash: “Captain.” We are not in control of the sea, but we must be in control of our actions, and we must accept responsibility and the consequences of our actions. To get through our lives and reach our destination of actualizing our spiritual potential, we must retain control and be consistent in our actions. Hashem sends us choices and challenges.
If we are the captains, we must recognize that the constantly frustrating situations we face daily may be there to teach us patience, that this is the character problem our particular voyage faces. This is the attitude we must assume whenever we are faced with multiple challenges of a similar nature. Perhaps we need to learn how to navigate toward a generous spirit, and so we are constantly fielding requests for charity.
Hashem has sent our souls to school with the particular curriculum designed for each of us.
We live in a physical world with other people. We are responsible for our actions and our speech towards them as well. As such, continues Rabbi Friefeld, we must be cognizant of how our words and actions may impact someone else. Do we take the time to acknowledge the efforts of someone serving us with attention to detail (even if it takes a few moments away from Torah study)? Are we careful not to denigrate someone, especially a child or a student, for he may keep that hurt and that label within himself for a long time? We are the captains; we must always act responsibly, in our private lives, with our family members, and with the world.
Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller offers us food for thought. She asks us to contemplate how we define ourselves. Do we base our worth and self image on externals, such as the size of our office, the luxury of our car and home, or on the potential of our holy soul and the talents and characteristics Hashem has invested in us? We live in reality, not in practice, and the choices we make must be carefully considered.
In his book "Sichot Hitchazkut", Rabbi Zvi Mayer Silverberg points out that each of us has two major names signifying our identities. One name is given us by our heavenly Father and the other by our earthly parents.
Our lifelong challenge is to synchronize the two so that our earthly identity matches our God given potential.
Along these lines, Rabbi Leff in Shiurei Binah explains that when Hakodosh Boruch Hu called to Avraham Avinu, the Patriarch, as Avraham was about to sacrifice Yitzchak, Hashem called out Avraham, Avraham, signifying that Avraham had reached the point where his physical existence matched his spiritual potential
Rav Avraham Yaakov Pam uses the concept of our heavenly image and name to offer guidance in doing teshuvah. We must be aware, writes Rav Pam, that the image of our perfected selves already exists and is real. We are not creating something new.
Our mission is to exercise our independence as human beings to achieve the reality of our true selves, a reality that already exists.
Our choices must reflect the vision of our higher self, the one God has created exclusively for us.
Each of us is the “master of my fate; the captain of my soul,” and we must steer the ship of our lives to the safe shore our souls demand.
Dedicated in honor of the yartzeits of Tova Yehudis bas Meshalum, 17 of Elul (Edith Gross) &, Chava bas Aharon,19 of Elul (Audrey Seide) by Holly Gross of Miami Beach.
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein