Beit Midrash

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

Elul – Personal Improvement or Communal Contribution

The improvement of the individual and that of the community are interdependent. The sages therefore teach us that an individual should never pray in the first person; rather, one should view himself as a member of the community and pray in the plural.


Various Rabbis

Elul 5768
Yehoshua took a sip from his cup of hot coffee and placed it on the table. The moving sounds of last night’s Selichot prayers still rung in his ears. The company manager looked at him with questioning eyes – "What’s up Yehoshua? Why are you so serious today?" "Elul… Selichot…. I’d like to take off a few days in order to improve myself." "Yehoshua, I really need you here at work. But I have an offer for you: "Why don’t you find a way to get us non-religious Jews into the spirit of Elul and the High Holidays?"

Personal Improvement – The Community’s Best Interest
Rabbi Michael Hershkowitz
Regarding the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur it is written, "In order to atone for himself, his family, and the entire community of Israel" (Leviticus 16). The Talmud (Yoma 44) explains that the High Priest’s atonement precedes that of his family members, and his family members’ atonement precedes that of his fellow priests, and his fellow priests’ atonement precedes that of the entire community of Israel.

Therefore, the High Priest would begin by confessing his own sins and the sins of his family members and requesting atonement for them; then he would request atonement for the sins of all the priests; and, finally, he would request atonement for the sins of the entire Nation of Israel.

The improvement of the individual and the improvement of the community are interdependent. The sages therefore teach us that an individual should never pray in the first person singular; rather, one should view himself as a member of the community and pray in the plural. By doing this one’s prayers are heard (Berachot 30).

The Talmud states, "If two people enter to pray and one begins praying without waiting for his fellow, they tear up his prayer in his face." Rabbi Kook, in his work Ein Ayah, explains: "This illuminates the fact that a supplicant’s prayer is undesirable so long as his sole intention his self satisfaction and benefit through prayer. The fact that he does not wait for his friend is an indication that he is not concerned with the welfare of his fellow whatsoever, and therefore "they tear up his prayer in his face."

However, we must keep in mind that the improvement and refinement of the community necessitates the improvement of the individuals it contains. If a person refrains from improving himself for fear that such behavior involves an estrangement of the community, he will in the long run impair his ability to benefit the community and prevent the community from achieving perfection.

The sages teach: "‘The people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening.’ Is it conceivable that Moses sat in judgment all day long? When would he have had time to study Torah? Rather, this verse comes to teach us that if a judge executes fair judgment, even for a single hour, Scripture accounts it to him as if he were partner to God in the creation of the world."

Rabbi Kook explains that, indeed, the loftier ideal is to act on behalf of the community, but warns against rejecting personal improvement and estranging ourselves from it because of our efforts on behalf of the masses. A person fulfills his or her lofty purpose not only when he or she pursues community matters; rather, when a person improves himself he is at the same time engaged in the perfection of the community.

This is what is meant by the above verse. Even though Moses also spent time during the course of the day improving himself, this activity too was for the good of the community. Therefore, the verse says, "The people stood before Moses from the morning until the evening." Work carried out on behalf of the community is not measured in quantity but in quality, and a single hour of effort pursued with peace of mind and a healthy constitution is better than unremitting labor that weakens the body and wastes spiritual energy.

Auditing Good Deeds
Rabbi Shemuel Eliyahu
There is a tale of a certain merchant who came up with a good business idea and began to make a living from it. After a number of successful years he said to himself: Why don’t I employ workers and thus increase my profits? So he branched out his business and managed to double, and then triple, his profits.

Later in life this person left the arena of business and entered the arena of Torah and repentance. Here too, he employed the same techniques that had worked so well for him in business. Why be satisfied with twenty or thirty good deeds a day when it is possible to employ a number of agents and multiply production? He began to set into motion a network that brought estranged Jews back to the Torah. Every Jew he helped return to the Torah performed a number of commandments each day, and our merchant was in turn credited with all of these good deeds.

Perhaps this is what the Talmudic sage Rabi meant when he said, "Figure the loss involved in a good deed against its gain." And while it is true that our sages also teach, "Be not as servants who wait upon the master in order to receive a reward," it is nonetheless permissible for a person to act in the manner of our merchant if it helps him serve God with greater alacrity.

In light of the above, we can conclude that it is best to invest one’s energies in causing others to embrace a life of Torah. In this manner God’s honor will be magnified through many people. There are, however, a number of limitations involved:

1. When it comes to past misconduct personal repentance takes priority. If not, one is likely to be accused of sermonizing to others before mending his own flawed ways.

2. Regarding positive commandments such as tefillin and tzitzit, one’s personal obligation takes priority. However, when it comes to commandments that one can choose to perform or not to perform, "there is nothing so important as repentance" (i.e., bringing others back to the Torah).

3. One’s own Torah study takes priority. Yet one should dedicate a tenth of his time to others. The rationale behind this is that the more serious and devout one’s study becomes, the greater one’s capacity to influence others and cause them to improve their ways. After all, we have a rule that "A person who is truly devout – his words make an impression, as it is written, ‘In the end all is heard, fear God and fulfill His commandments, for this is all of man’ (Ecclesiastes 12)."

4. When rectifying past sins, one’s own wrongs come first, as the verse says regarding the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, "In order to atone for himself, his family, and the entire community of Israel" (Leviticus 16). However, regarding commandments that may be fulfilled in the future, other people take priority, for a person brings greater pleasure to the Creator by causing others to improve their ways.
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