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Beit Midrash Shabbat and Holidays The Month of Elul

A New Path

R' Chaim makes it clear that struggling with transgression and sin is his lot in life as well and not only that of his followers. Each of us faces his own forest in life, each must deal with his own entanglement and find his way out of the woods.
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In the month of Elul, as people prepared themselves for the Day of Judgment, R' Chaim of Sanz made a practice of telling stories to a tune that would awaken to repentance everyone who listened. Once he related this story: A man lost his way in the deep of the forest. Some time later, another man also lost his way and met the first. Without knowing the plight of the first, he asked him the way out of the forest. "I do not know" answered the man, "but I can point out to you the paths leading further into the forest, and then we can walk together to look for the path leading out." My brothers, concluded the rebbe, let us search out the new path together.

R' Chaim of Sanz's story deals with a person who has gotten "lost in the forest." It is about somebody who has gone astray, about sins and transgressions which stand in man's path and become a virtual forest of trees which block his way. At certain times, man feels the need to find his way out of the tangle which he has caused himself to become lost in. He feels as if he's in need of help. At exactly that moment another person passes who has himself lost his way. It subsequently turns out that even the man he turns to for help does not know his way out of the thick. He only knows how to say in which direction not to go.

This part of the story teaches us the need to harness the power of joint effort when striving for repentance. Indeed, this is the message with which the rebbe of Sanz finishes off his story: "My brothers, let us search out the new path together." The hassidim, the students, believe that the Rebbe has a clear picture of the way out of the forest. However, the rebbe makes it clear that struggling with sin and transgression is his own lot in life as well, and not only that of the hassid. Each of us faces his own forest in life, each individual must deal with his own entanglement, each of us must find his way out of the forest after having gotten lost.

The response of the man in the woods may appear somewhat disappointing: the individual who has just now gone astray is sure that he can be aided by this man to find his way out of his fix. Yet it turns out that he is only familiar with those paths which are not to be entered because they only lead further into the forest. It turns out that every pit bottom is liable to give way to an even deeper pit, and each fall is liable to be followed by an even greater fall. Even one who has already become ensnared by his sins must be aware of the still greater danger of becoming further ensnared.

Despite the fact that the man in the forest does not know the way out, he offers to show his partner which paths to avoid, and then, together, they will be able to look for the correct path. The approach offered by R' Chaim to his adherents transforms failure into a springboard for success: sin and its attendant complications can aid in teaching man; one may infer from the negative which is the true path that should be chosen.

The Sages teach that one cannot grasp the words of the Torah until he has first stumbled in them. Man's true achievement is wrought out of his struggle with failure. Precisely by learning those forest paths which must be avoided one is able to uncover the proper way. The search which follows the lessons of failure can be regarded as a cooperative lesson stemming from collective experience: "Let us go together to search out the way." The way will be found after the group, as a group, puts its mind to finding it through intense reflection upon both individual and communal shortcomings.

R' Chaim of Sanz's story is generally told in the month of Elul, when people are preparing themselves for the Day of Judgment. All are aware that the path to the Day of Judgment involves soul-searching and self-scrutiny. This manner of service is not easy. A person naturally feels ashamed at his own failures, his personal, self-inflicted ensnarement. The rebbe, like the man in the forest, stands at the crossroads of Elul, turns to those who have lost their way, and urges them to transform their falls and failures into a springboard of rectification and an opportunity for focusing in on points which need mending. He tells them to embark on a new path, a path born of the lessons learned from all of the failures.

The cry of the rebbe here, like the cry "Let us search and try our ways, and turn back to the Lord," (Lamentations 3:40) is made in the plural. One of the great keys to Rosh HaShanah lies in the power of communal search for the true path. The Kabbalistic work the Zohar points out that the power of the individual on Rosh HaShanah depends on the power of the community, in the sense of, "I rest amongst my people" (2 Kings 4:13). The various failures, errors, and reconsiderations join together and constitute a supreme force which propels the entire community to concentrate on searching out the new path.

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