Beit Midrash

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  • The Month of Elul
To dedicate this lesson

Elul

There was a time, not so far distant in the past, that it was said in Eastern Europe, that even the fish in the rivers trembled when they heard the announcement that the month of Elul had arrived. That certainly is not the case today.

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Rabbi Berel Wein

Elul 8 5781
The Hebrew month of Elul has traditionally been the month of intensive reflection and spiritual preparation. It is the month that precedes the holy days of judgment, and time of repentance and forgiveness. It personifies for us the preparations necessary for an individual who was about to go on trial regarding a serious matter, even one of life and death. No rational person would enter such a trial in a human court without preparation, proper representation, and a careful analysis of the evidence, both pro and con, that will undoubtedly be introduced during the duration of the trial. How much more so must our attitude and thoughts be sharpened for the heavenly trial that awaits us all on the day of judgment, Rosha Hashanah.

This intensification of attitude has become the hallmark of the preparatory month of Elul. We live in a frivolous time, where society generally is much more occupied with issues of meager substance, rather than with the serious business of life and society. Because of this, it is very difficult for us to achieve any sort of intensive mood regarding the month of Elul.

There was a time, not so far distant in the past, that it was said in Eastern Europe, that even the fish in the rivers trembled when they heard the announcement that the month of Elul had arrived. That certainly is not the case today. People are still on vacation, in the midst of trips and visits, that by their very nature are meant to be a diversion from the serious business of life itself. Tradition trembles when human beings are no longer serious.

The German iron Chancellor Bismarck reputedly once characterized the situation in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of his time, as being hopeless but not serious. There were many times in history when it was clear that governments and leaders embarked upon actions and provocations that ultimately led to war and disaster, simply out of a mood of almost frivolity and lack of seriousness.

In a permissive society such as ours is today, when people are not held accountable for their behavior, when felonies are now only misdemeanors and misdemeanors are no longer punishable under any circumstances, it is difficult to really take a serious view of life.

Judaism holds every individual personally responsible for his or her actions, attitudes, speech, and behavior. Judaism is aware of mitigating circumstances, but never accepts excuses or blame of others for one's own faults and misdeeds. Judaism believes that human beings are responsible creatures, and that their behavior engenders consequences that cannot be ignored. We are judged on our behavior, and not on the quality of our excuses.

The month of Elul always imparted to the Jewish people this fundamental lesson of heavenly judgment and correct human performance. When understanding the full import of this message, it is no wonder that even the fish in the rivers trembled at the advent of the month of Elul.

The month of Elul also brings with it a note of optimism and goodness. The spirituality of the holidays that follow this month remain a source of strength for all of us during the forthcoming new year that will soon be upon us. We are confident that our sins and shortcomings will be forgiven and ameliorated, and that the Lord of goodness and kindness will embrace us and our actions and turn them into positive and fruitful ones.

Judaism is built upon optimism, good cheer and a balanced view of life and its vicissitudes. We may not be able to change the past, but we are certainly capable of improving our future. This is also one of the basic lessons of the month of Elul. We may tremble in anticipation, but even in our moments of trembling, there is an innate belief that eventually things will come right, and all will be well. Elul prepares us for the majesty of the holidays that will follow.

By realizing the impending moments of majesty and eternal memory, Elul transforms us into vessels that can receive holiness and eternal reward. Achieving this level of human character is itself a joyful experience that one can achieve in life. It is this mixture of trepidation and joyful expectation that the month of Elul produces within us that allows us to appreciate and treasure this final month of the Jewish calendar year of 5781.
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