Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Month of Elul
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

Elul's Intimate Soul

A person must not allow himself to stay in one place. If a person does not ascend he descends. The question is not “Have I erred?” or “In what regard have I sinned?” The question should be “Have I ascended another spiritual rung today?”


Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael (Steinsaltz)

1. Bringing Elul to Life
2. Defining the Goal
3. "Ask, my son, and I will provide."
4. When will my deeds be like those of the Patriarchs?
5. The Righteous Stumble but Rise
6. "But I was prayer"
7. Making a Covenant and Heralding the Messiah

Bringing Elul to Life
Most people believe that the month of Elul should be filled with despondency, bitterness and tears. They spend no little time reckoning their sins, but, generally, when all is said and done, no true benefit comes from this. On the 18th of Elul both the Baal Shem Tov and the Baal HaTanya were born, and the foremost purpose of this day is to transform Elul into a month of life: instead of melancholy and strained gravity, we are supposed to feel a sense of "Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li" (Song of Songs 6:3; "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine"; the Hebrew acronym of this verse spells "Elul"). It should be a time for hope - a hope that gives way to life.

Many people believe that in order to become God-fearing one must act less pleasant, less "human," like an abused dog; to walk around sad and suffering. It follows that Elul, being as it is a time for repentance and strengthened fear of God, should take on such an atmosphere from beginning to end. The prophet Malachi rebukes Israel for serving God amidst such gloom and darkness: "And what profit is it that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of Hosts?" (Malachi 3:14). Worshiping God amidst such sadness is contemptible, and God does not desire it; He does not desire "the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ezekiel 33:11). The Almighty is a living God; He is the source of life and the "King who desires life." He desires that these days, which are marked by repentance, should be filled with life and joy. In order that Elul truly take on such a color, we must explain what repentance is, for it occupies such a central place in these days.

The accepted way of repenting is examining one's offenses and scrutinizing one's behavior against the backdrop of Jewish law. Such an approach, however, is not effective because it addresses the less-important details and ignores the essence. Ostensibly, there is nothing wrong with such an approach: a person learns Shulchan Arukh, clarifies that which is permissible and that which is forbidden, and plans his life accordingly. This, however, is not enough. Between the "permissible" and the "forbidden" there are many areas which when not properly addressed cause a person to lose his humanness. A person can uphold the entire Torah and all of its details and fine points, yet fall only too short of being "human." We might refer to such a person as a "scoundrel with the Torah's license," or "a Jewish fiend." What is wrong with a Jewish fiend? After all, he has a beard, "peot" (sidecurls), and "tzitzit" (tassles), and he observes every chapter and paragraph of the Shulchan Arukh. What is it, then, that strips him of his humanness and turns him into a "fiend"?

Defining the Goal
The purpose of Elul is to help us take human form; our goal in this period is to decide which direction to follow in life. Man does many things and delves into numerous details. Beyond all this, though, one must ask himself: "Where am I going? What is my purpose? What do I wish to derive from life after all? Such questions are elementary if one wishes to attain human form. It is possible for a person to fulfill numerous commandments and learn the entire Torah without having achieved a thing, for this is just an assembly of outward acts detached from any sort of path or direction. A horse remains a horse even if one puts tefillin (phylacteries) on him each day - and he will not even become more holy because of this. It is possible for a person to put on tefillin, perform commandments, study Torah from time to time, and due many more things during the course of his life, without being very different from a horse. The difference between man and beast lies in the goal, not in the particulars of one's life. Man needs a goal and a direction in life. This is what makes him unique. True, a horse is an impressive creature and all of his actions bring praise to the Almighty, but being human is much more difficult and complex. In order to achieve such a status one must make an effort and make a decision as to where he is going and what the point of his life is. In Elul one must decide what the point of life is. In Elul one must make a serious decision regarding direction, regarding what the goal is which one desires to reach. It is not a time for dealing with details; rather, it is a time for reassessing the larger, all-encompassing definition of life's goal.

It is enough that one makes a decision, that one has an ambition. Something happens. It is well known that the 18th of Elul is day of celebration for Chassidic Jews. How is it possible, though, to call somebody a "Chassid" at all? After all, according to the Talmud, the title "Chassid" ("pious") denotes the very highest level. This being so, how can ordinary people today refer to themselves as Chassidim? The answer is that from the moment that a person decides and aspires to be on the level of a Chassid, even though he has not yet reached such a level, the very decision does something to him.

A person wishes to be a Chassid. Will he succeed? It is in the hands of Heaven. But the very decision, and the fact that he sets forth to materialize such a goal, make their imprint upon reality. Such a person is therefore already called a Chassid. The Midrash teaches that "prayer does half," the intention being that by merely willing something a person advances. All positive desire and good intention become part of a person's being and constitute the starting point. The decision itself to achieve high standards and to climb to great heights by one's very fingernails already creates something within a person, and this something allows him to climb even higher. The limit depends upon the level of one's desire, and the goal a person sets is what determines the boundary of his ability. This is what allows a person to attain human form.

"Ask, my son, and I will provide."
In Elul, a person must set himself upon the road which ascends to the House of God. The problem, however, is that most people are satisfied with the goal of being a decent homeowner. In the end, however, as we known, such a person ends up being a less-than-decent homeowner. Man must desire to be an angel - and no less. This does not mean that he will indeed become an angel in the end, but at least he will be something resembling an angel. Man must desire to ascend ever higher and dream great dreams. True, he may never complete his journey, but he has at least set out on the right path.

And if he does not make it to the end, God will consider his intentions as if they were actual deeds. In contrast, if one's dream remains down here on earth, he too will remain here on earth and never climb any higher. The point is that one must sincerely desire to reach the sky. It all depends on desire, and it is desire which one must refine during the month of Elul. The greater one desires, the more success there will be. The Book of Psalms teaches, "Widen your mouth, and I will fill it," and "You are My son...Ask of Me and I will give." God says to each one of us, "My son, do not be satisfied with little - ask of me, request all." And if one is already requesting from He who is capable of supplying, it is worth requesting the greatest gifts that one can possibly imagine. The more one opens his mouth, the more it will become filled.

On the verse, "Why does the son of Yishai not come to the meal, neither yesterday nor today?" (I Samuel 20:27), the sages expound: The query "Why does the son of Yishai not come?" actually means: "Why does the Messiah not come?" The answer is, "neither yesterday nor today" - on the two days of Rosh Hashanah the penitent requests income and sustenance - and no more. This, then, is all that he receives. He could have asked for the son of Yishai, yet did not. Hence, the son of Yishai does not arrive. And why does the penitent not request the son of Yishai? Because he is small, unable to elevate himself and his wants any higher than the mundane day to day reality. When it comes to the divine commandments, the Torah, fear of Heaven, and praiseworthy acts, man cannot afford to be satisfied with little, saying, "Tell me what my obligation is and I will fulfill it" (Sota 22b). Being satisfied with little is not only a grave offense, it is contemptible behavior. When it comes to serving the Creator there is no such thing as "enough." A person who has "enough" will find no suitable place in the World to Come: He will not be subjected to Gehinom for in this world he was careful to fulfill even the smallest of his religious obligations. On the other hand, the Garden of Eden would be far from pleasant for him: One who in the realm of the sacred always contented himself with little and never strove to attach himself to the Divine Presence is bound to go mad of boredom in a place where "The righteous sit with crowns on their heads enjoying the brilliance of the Divine Presence." This will be his punishment; he will have no need for Gehinom.

In all matters connected to the service of God one must strive unremittingly to advance, and to desire much more. The Torah, Prophets, Writings, Mishna, and Gemara all assure us that whoever makes a serious an effort to ascend spiritually has all of the gates opened before him. Nobody forces him to pass through them but it is forbidden for a person to be satisfied with what he has, with what he has already managed to attain. The sages teach that a person must ask himself, "When will my deeds reach the level of the deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?" (Eliyahu Rabba 23). Why? The reason is that each of us must strive for at least this much, to desire this, to dream about this, and to embark upon this path.

When will my deeds be like those of the Patriarchs?
In order to begin striving to reach the level of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, one must fully understand the significance of these giants. Abraham is responsible for getting things started; he dared to break the mold. Opening up a new path is no easy job to say the least, especially when one does not enjoy the favor of the masses. "Abraham was a solitary individual and he inherited the land" (Ezekiel 33:24). Abraham is the one capable of following his own unique path, the path of truth, despite the fact that he was alone against the entire hostile and unfriendly world.

Isaac belonged to a different category, no less important than that of Abraham. Isaac is heir to Abraham's life work, and his position possesses difficulties of its own. Abraham's role as initiator had the sweetness of youth, the sweetness of something new. Isaac, on the other hand, was the torchbearer, and he represents continuity and yoke-bearing. Not just on the first day when there is still great excitement, but after this stage as well. This means pushing forward despite all of the failures and problems. It is this force which stands things on their feet. Abraham's leap into the fiery furnace, being as it was a one-time action, was easier than Isaac's long and tedious journey, a journey with no angels and no great treasures, a monotonous and trouble-ridden journey.

Jacob's job is to create a lasting foundation out of all of this; to take all of the accomplishments of Abraham and Isaac and turn them into something firm and permanent; to take the dreams of the past, the initiating spark and attribute of perseverance, and to create something stable and strong which will endure forever.

How, on a practical level can a person strive to attain the level and traits of the forefathers? What must one do in order to achieve this? No person is expected to be just like Abraham: nobody is called upon to sacrifice his son. Neither are people expected to leave their home and place of origin. Walking in the ways of the forefathers means viewing them as models and trying to infuse oneself with their traits. Following Abraham's example demands a readiness for personal spiritual advancement. In order to follow the path of truth one must be willing to abandon the path of his father and set out on a new path. The change can be very difficult; one's "Terach" might be a nice, God-fearing Jew, and it is not very polite to abandon the ways of one's father. It takes great effort to decide to follow the path of truth. Emulating Abraham does not imply the same thing for everybody. It is not always necessary to tear oneself from one's homeland and family. At any rate, however, an individual is expected to establish a particular goal: "the land that I will show you." This land may be far away, and the road leading to it may very well be difficult and dangerous.

Emulating Isaac implies simply continuing forward. After a person has gotten past the primary stages he must be sure to be persistent in pursuing the path. Beginnings are difficult, but "middles" are even more difficult. One who maintains a path does not have to be a ground-breaker; he need only continue a non-eventful path, and it is precisely this that makes continuing so difficult. Initiating something is generally done with enthusiasm, but a person must learn how to carry on without the great miracles and wonders. One cannot expect to encounter exciting newness at each corner, yet one must continue, for this is the weak link in the chain upon which all else is dependent: continuing along the difficult and sometimes dreary path. To continue without all of the romance and sweetness of youth.

The next level is that of Jacob. It is not enough to simply maintain the path and the idea. One must go a step further. One must continuously build new things and continuously give these things real expression. In the Book of Psalms we come across the terms "the House of Israel" and "the House of Aaron," yet nowhere do we find the term "the House of the God-fearing." One of the great Chassidic rebbes explained that the reason that Israel and Aaron possess homes and the God-fearing do not is that the God-fearing have "the House of Jacob." "The House of Jacob" is no ordinary house. It does not merely remain as it is. It is continuously growing and being renovated and renewed.

A person must not allow himself to stay in one place. If a person does not ascend he descends. It is not just a matter of making sure not to fall. The question is not "Have I erred?" or "In what regard have I sinned?" or "Which commandment have I fulfilled?"; the question is "Have I ascended another spiritual rung today?" "Is today better than yesterday?" If the answer is "No" than the person has descended. And when a person descends, he must take greater and more daring steps in order to ascend. This does not mean that a person should live in a state of instability; rather, one should strive for stability, all the while advancing and renewing oneself. A person must ask himself, "When will my deeds be on a par with those of the Patriarchs?" One must at least get a taste of this, to live according to the ways of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, without giving in, without being satisfied with little, desiring the best possible.

The Righteous Stumble but Rise
What's more, a person must be prepared to experience failure along the way. It is written, "A righteous person falls seven times, yet rises." A person's decision to follow the path of the just, to reach heaven, involves an understanding that things are bound to happen along the way. A righteous person is not immune to failure; even he can fall. What makes him unique is the fact that problems do not deter him - he rises. He continues to advance. Not groveling or stooping, but erect and befitting. He continues on his path despite all. The decision to follow the path of the forefathers is the task of Elul. Elul is the time for a person to determine which direction to take. It is the time to begin to ascend the spiritual ladder. A person may never reach his goal, but the important thing is to begin. One should say, "If the Almighty gives me the time and the strength, I will succeed." Such a change can happen to a thirteen-year-old, a seventeen-year-old, even a forty or seventy year old. A person can change the direction of his life at any age. He can say, "Almighty, if You allow me to live to be one hundred and twenty, I will manage to do something. If you allow me this, I will at least be able to say that I, for my part, tried to do this." No person, no matter what age, is permitted to allow himself to rest: not in the summer, not in the winter, and not even in a dream. A person must say to himself: "I must still strive to be human."

"But I was prayer"
The 18th of Elul is, according to tradition, the birthday of both Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady and the Baal Shem Tov. Yet, why should we celebrate their birthdays? Why celebrate birthdays at all? Why, when launching a ship, is a great celebration held? This seems to contradict logic. Who knows what awaits this vessel? Perhaps it will be lost at sea. Similarly, when a child is born, none of us knows what will become of him and what sort of shape his life will take. It would seem more fitting to celebrate at the end. If, after a long journey, a person arrives as his destiny bringing abundant merchandise, celebration could be expected. At the end of a person's life people should gather to celebrate all that he has accomplished (and indeed, there is a Jewish custom to celebrate the day of a righteous person's passing). The question, then, becomes even stronger: Why celebrate at the beginning of life when both failure or success exist as possibilities?

The answer is that there are things about a person that go beyond achievement and success. There are people whose lives may be summarized as follows: wrote a number of books; accomplished A, B, and C; and achieved X, Y, Z. On the other hand, there are unique individuals for whom any such description is just a bonus, an addition to the essence. Life's essence is unrelated to what they do or do not do. Their very being is what's important; their very life is sacred. Such people do not need to do a thing beyond merely being themselves. For such people we rejoice on the day of birth. It does not matter what will happen to them during the course of their lives - their very being is what is important. Such people are extremely rare, and regarding them the Book of Psalms states, "But I was prayer" (Psalms 109:4). Such a person is himself prayer, praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty. With this understanding we return to the idea of repentance and Elul. The purpose of Elul is to concentrate on man's inwardness, on his life direction and his dreams. The goal is to acquire a human form, and such an form is not dependent on the number of commandments one fulfills or transgressions one violates; rather, it depends upon an inner upheaval. It calls for transforming man's inner essence into sanctity and prayer, before and beyond various actions and achievements. It is not external matters and actions that matter here but an overall inner change of direction toward the holy. This is the human image, this is life and this is the purpose of repentance. Conversely, man is capable of leading a petty existence. One might spend the entire month if Elul focused on commandments and transgressions and fine details instead of reaching a firm decision which leads to inner change. Such people "pass away" in the middle of life, and sometimes younger, without even being aware of it. They continue to go about their business; they continue to study and teach; they continue to do what people do; yet they do not realize that they are "dead" and have been so for a long time. They rush about mechanically, without any goal. The plight of such people can be likened to the tail of a lizard that has been cut off from its body yet continues to twitch and shake. Repentance is needed to rejuvenate man and infuse him with genuine vitality.

Making a Covenant and Heralding the Messiah
There is another important point which the penitent ought to be aware of. The process of repentance must leave a permanent impression on a person. It must be lasting, like a covenant, like a "Brit Mila" (ritual circumcision) etched into one's own flesh. Elul is the time for this. It is a time for great things. The larger goal of Elul is to bring redemption to the world and to bring the Messiah. This is a lifetime goal, everything we do must be done with the intention of heralding the Messiah. We must refine ourselves in body and in soul so that we ourselves become a path - the path upon which the Messiah will come. And we must refuse to be satisfied with anything less than this.

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