A SPECIAL MONTH
The well known acronym of the month אלול isאני לדודי ודודי לי – I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me. The sign of the zodiac for this month is a virgin. This month is a month of immense love between G-d and His People.
The custom to say Selichot for forty days is not a preparation for Rosh Hashana. It is that each and every one of the forty days of Elul is precious in its own right. הישאג אריה ביער : the word ארי”ה stands for א’לול , ר’ ”ה , י’ ו’הכ , ה’ ושענא רבה . These days were the very days of the Jewish Calendar when so many years ago G-d looked past the Sin of the Golden Calf while Moshe spent forty days with Him. These are days of grace and mercy. We do not want to lose even one of them: they are especially auspicious for getting close to G-d, and therefore we take full advantage of the time saying Selichot. G-d told us that the way to get close to Him is by reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy in the Selichot. When we do, He simply cannot withhold His Mercy.
In his book Tzror Hamor, the father- in- law of the Beit Yosef points to the particular wording used by G-d as mentioned in the Talmud ( R”H 17a) כל זמן שישראל עושים לפני כסדר הזה Whenever perform this service before Me ( the Thirteen Attributes)… Why does it not say, more appropriately, אומרים לפני כסדר הזה say or recite before Me instead of perform before Me?
The answer is that the main way to connect to G-d and attain his Mercy is by living according to His Attributes and practicing them. Some people pass through the whole of Elul saying the Selichot, but forget about putting the teachings of the Selichot into practice. R’ Yehuda Ades, shlit”a, once relayed how a couple approached him seeking aid in resolving their dispute. InIsrael, it is common for the Selichot to be said after midnight, and they are well attended by women as well as men. This young couple, after having had their first few children, reached a dilemma: it just could not work out for both husband and wife to attend Selichot. No babysitter would be available at such hours. One of them, father or mother, would have to stay home, and they could not come to an agreement as to exactly who that would be.
R’ Yehuda answered them that they should both go, and he will come babysit. It is important to go to shul to say Selichot, but it is more important to perform the attributes of mercy that we recite. If our children need us, then there is no greater kindness and mercy that we can do than being there for them. This is the greatest connection we have to G-d. Of course, R’ Yehuda did not babysit, as the couple came to a truer understanding of what exactly the Selichot are about.
The word Elul is not a Jewish word. It is Babylonian. It means to search a path. (See Onkelos on the words in Bamidbarויתרו את ארץ ) This time of the year is a time of searching, where we set the path for a whole year. The word Elul also stands for the first letters of ומל ה’ אלקיך לבבך ואת לבב זרעך And G-d will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your children… And a third acronym for the word Elul – איש לרעהו ומתנות לאביונים , the very words of the Megillah that talk about the mitzvah of giving Mishloach Manot.
These are parallel to the three ways that we can uproot the evil decree- תשובה תפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה repentance (circumcised hearts), prayer (hinted to in the acronym of I am to my beloved..) and charity (as hinted to in the Mishloah Manot), will overrule the evil decree.
The word Teshuva does not mean only repent. It also means to return. To return to G-d’s ways, ultimately returning to our true self.
SHOWING YOU CARE
Written by Shlomie Fogel
As we have now approached the month of Elul, it is appropriate for us to refer to our Sages’ teachings concerning this last month of the year. Chazal tell us that the name Elul, itself, teaches us how to prepare for the High Holidays. One of the things Chazal teach us, is that the world אלול is an acronym for the words איש לרעהו ומתנת לאביונים: words which represent the idea of caring for your fellow man.
The question is obvious. As we approach the High Holidays, we want to get close to G-d: what difference does our relationship with others make? We all know that תשובה תפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה and that the Evil Decree is removed through repentance, prayer and charity. Again we see that in order for us to receive a favorable judgment, we must work on two fronts, our relationship with G-d and our relationship with other people. There again, when I’m trying to get close to G-d, why do I also have to work on my relationship with others?
The ושורש העבודה יסוד explains that when a person is unhappy, if he is ignored, his pain will be magnified. If, however, people show him that they genuinely care for him, his sadness will be, to a great extent, dissipated. The same is true with happiness. If happiness is shared with others, it intensifies. When, however, no one joins in your joy, or you’ve got no one to share it with, it diminishes quickly. When a Jew is in distress, G-d feels the pain. When you feel that man’s pain, you, in turn, are easing G-d’s pain, too. ואהבת לרעך כמוך is not only the way you relate to other people, but also a way to connect to G-d.
The Baal Shem Tov brings out another important point, שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד I place Hashem opposite me always. The word לנגדי,opposite me, explains the Baal Shem to mean, that G-d is always לנגדי, opposite you, on the side of your opponent, the one you’re against. Speak to him, smile to him, because G-d is standing right over his shoulder, waiting for you to make up. He is there, and when you communicate positively with your opponent, you are connecting with G-d. Get along with everyone, and He’s on your side.
This point of the יסוד ושורש העבודה is brought to life in the famous story about R’ Aryeh Levin. This story really highlights how one should relate to others. At one point, the Rav’s wife was unwell, and they went to the doctor together. As they walked in, Reb Aryeh turned to the doctor and said, “Her leg hurts us.” He genuinely cared for others and made their pain his own.
So, it would be a grave mistake to say that in order to attain a favorable judgment one needs only to focus on his relationship with G-d. The way we relate and connect to other people really affects the way G-d looks at us, and how we connect to Him.
The Kli Yakar points out that the keruvim taught us this valuable lesson. Their wings were aimed towards the heavens, but their faces were turned toward each other. The wings symbolized the connection between man and G-d, whereas facing each other stressed the importance of having a good relationship with other people. These two aspects of עבודת ה’ complement each other.
SELF-IMPROVEMENT THROUGH SELF-JUDGMENT
שופטים ושוטרים תתן לך בכל שעריך Appoint judges and enforcement officers for yourself in all your gates…(Devarim 16:18)
R’ Chaim Vital writes that these words refer not only to society as a whole, but also to the individual on a personal level. This is based on the surprising grammatical form of the term לך, for yourself – singular rather than plural – as well as the fact that the term itself is seemingly superfluous. It emerges that the Torah is commanding a person to judge himself and his actions. In order to do this, he must have self-awareness. Indeed, the Chafetz Chaim commented: “The greatest חשבון (reckoning) that we will ultimately have to make on the Day of Judgment is why we lived our life without a proper חשבון .”
Now, how are we to relate to the fact that many therapists discourage self-judgment? They fear that questions like “How could I have been so foolish?” could lead to depression.
The answer is this: Self-judgment does not necessarily mean judging our self-worth, potential, or intellect. Self-judgment that leads us to think that we are not worth anything is definitely counterproductive. There is, however, great value in assessing whether or not we are behaving according to our real worth, potential, or intellect. In contrast to judgment of self-worth, judgment of behavior is not limited to the past; it includes the present and future as well. Focusing on ourselves as people with tremendous power and potential despite our failures can give us greater clarity of judgment and better results. Even after accepting ourselves as worthy, there is still plenty of room for judgment – not only after our actions, but during and before them as well. Allow me to elaborate.
The Shlah Hakadosh writes that a person has seven openings – or gates – in the body: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth. Through these gates, we relate to the world around us. And that is why it is so important to post שופטים and שוטרים (judges and “police”) there. The brain receive information, and respond to the information received through these gates both emotionally and intellectually. We must keep in mind, though, that our emotions and intellect respond to the impulses generated by the information in fixed – almost “programmed” – ways. The place where this programming goes on is in the mind and heart. These two organs, the mind and heart, must be the שופטים and שוטרים over the “gates of the body”. The responsibility of the intellect and the emotions is to constantly improve and clarify perception, which ultimately improves our behavior and actions.
Let us take, for example, the Torah prohibition of lashon hara (speaking ill of others), a subject to which the Chafetz Chaim devoted an entire book, Sefer Chafetz Chaim. In addition, he also authored a fantastic work ,unfortunately less known, called Shaar Hatvunah on the same subject. In that sefer, he addresses how to deal with the problem of lashon hara from a Mussar (introspective) point of view. The Chafetz Chaim writes that by working on behavioral patterns, perception, and self-control, one can stop lashon hara cold turkey.
Let us picture, for a moment, someone who speaks lashon hara, but later does some introspection (“self-judgment”) and regrets his words. One utilizing positive self-judgment does not conclude that he is wicked because he did not care about the prohibition of the Torah. Rather, he realizes that the reason he spoke negatively of others was because he did not change his behavioral patterns or perceptions. The person realizes that his behavior does not befit his values and beliefs. The words spoken might have flowed from impulse or lack of awareness, and not from a desire to harm another’s self-image. In contrast, negative self-judgment would be to judge oneself as evil for speaking lashon hara.
In short, proper self-judgment can be the best way to make us happier people over the long term, and the best way to use these days of Elul properly as well. If it is misused, however, it can be our greatest enemy at a time of year when we cannot afford the depression it causes.