An Elevating Elul Experience
by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Sometimes, as you stand in the elevator and wait out the ride, your gaze rests on the sign stating the weight limit for the car. If the load exceeds a certain amount, the elevator is unable to rise and reach its destination. No amount of cajoling, kicking, screaming or pressing buttons will cause the elevator to ascend. The only hope of rising is to remove some of the excess weight and lighten the load.
Elul is here. The month of change and preparation for the holiest days of the year is upon us.
Elul is the elevator that enables us to rise to great heights. In order to take advantage of the month of Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, when Hashem prepares His embrace for us, we have to drop the extra baggage we carry with us.
During the shivah period for the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, talmidim reminisced. From their conversations it emerged that despite the enormity of the student body and the rosh yeshiva’s own physical limitations, most talmidim had merited some sort of meaningful encounter with him. For some, it had been words offered in passing. For others, it was a line in a shmuess, a brief brochah or a suggestion. He had the ability to change a life with a single phrase or comment.
Rav Yosef Elefant, a maggid shiur at Yeshivas Mir, explained the phenomenon using the example of a construction site. There are huge blocks of stone or granite that need to be moved. A group of muscled workers don’t have the strength to move them more than a few inches. Yet, there they are, lifted high, to the thirtieth floor, by a single man operating a machine. The machine is a crane, and it can accomplish in moments what man could never do. It can lift immense loads with speed and efficiency.
Rav Nosson Tzvi, said Rav Elefant, was like a crane. Other rabbeim had to work for years to effect change and to lift a bochur so high. The rosh yeshiva, whose mesirus nefesh for Torah had given him supernatural abilities and gifts, was granted the ability from Heaven to be able to lift a bochur in a single moment.
Elul is a crane, giving us a rush of hope, a desire to grow, and a push to climb higher and live more elevated lives.
Shoftim, the parsha that ushers in the chodesh of Elul is filled with messages that direct us to move forward, to rid ourselves of the excess weight that holds us down and enable us to grab hold of the crane. The chatoim accumulated over the course of the year form an albatross, preventing us from reaching our potential.
When the nations of the world were offering their children as sacrifices to pagan gods, the Torah commanded us to institute a system of justice and jurisprudence. Tzedek tzedek tirdof, pursue justice, lema’an tichyeh veyorashta es haaretz. Life, according to the Torah, depends on the precision and exactitude of our laws.
The parsha enjoins us to appoint judges, establish a functional police force, and anoint a king, who, in turn, is told how to conduct himself. All these halachos demand a perfect communal structure, where law and order is followed and people respect authority. These ideas, the ancient laws of a Torah society, govern the human being as well, each one an instruction on how to fight the yeitzer hora too.
Man carries a city within himself, with competing kings and armies fighting for dominion. We have to police ourselves, developing discipline and restraint so that our behavior mirrors the harmony of the Torah. Our interpersonal conduct must be perfect and pure.
The posuk tells us, “Bo sidbok - Connect yourself to Hashem.” How do we accomplish that?
We are commanded by the Torah, “Veholachta bidrochov.” How do we walk in the path of Hashem?
Chazal explain that we accomplish our mandate by emulating Hashem’s ways. By being compassionate, like Him. By being merciful, like Him. By visiting the sick and caring about others. By feeding the hungry and clothing the poor. By acting responsibly in times of need and at all times. By being honest and forthright, decent and upstanding.
Tomim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha. The guiding principles of our lives must be temimus, simplicity and humility. The excess weight that prevents us from flying high is rooted in cheshbonos, an inflated sense of worth and petty calculations.
Following Hashem’s rules without rancor will allow us to grow and flourish. Realizing that the Torah speaks to every one of us, on our level, and that each of us has a yeitzer hora and our own uphill battle to fight, is a segulah to succeed. We all have the ability to succeed and grow and flourish. We must not allow other people to hold us down. It doesn’t help to blame others for our failings. We have to work on a serious diet, changing our bad habits and getting rid of our dangerous addictions. We can be energetic and fulfilled, accomplishing all we desire, if we would only lighten up on the actions that cause us to be apathetic. Elul is the time to get to work on those things.
The Sefas Emes quotes his grandfather who said that the word Elul is comprised of two words, lo spelled with a vov and lo spelled with an alef. He explained that this comes to tell us that to the degree that lo (with an alef) anachnu, that we negate ourselves and our nefesh habahamis, lo (with a vov) anachnu, we can be His, closer to Hashem.
The Ponovezher Rov was sitting with the Brisker Rov when the conversation turned to the greatness of the Ponovezher Rov’s rebbi, the Chofetz Chaim. The question was posed as to why the Chofetz Chaim, whose brilliance and proficiency in learning is evident in every paragraph of his Mishnah Berurah and his other classic seforim, was celebrated as a tzaddik and not as a gaon.
The Brisker Rov explained that the Chofetz Chaim davened for his gaonus to be concealed and remain unnoticed. His request was granted and he became renowned worldwide only for his piety.
The Ponovezher Rov wanted to follow up with another question: If that is so, why didn’t the Chofetz Chaim daven that his tzidkus remain hidden as well? His awe of the Brisker Rov prevented him from posing the query.
Sometime later, the Ponovezher Rov met the Bais Yisroel of Ger. The rebbe was learning from a Mishnah Berurah and the Rov decided to ask him the question. He told the rebbe what the Brisker Rov had said and asked why the Chofetz Chaim hadn’t davened for his piety to be kept hidden.
The Bais Yisroel answered that the Chofetz Chaim knew that he was a talmid chochom. He realized that many people were unfamiliar with the sources he had at his disposal, which is why he wrote the Mishnah Berurah in the first place. Thus, he davened that his excessive learning and knowledge remain hidden. But, continued the rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim did not know that he was a tzaddik. He reasoned that he merely followed each and every halachah in the Torah, as every ehrliche Yid is obligated to do. He had no idea that he was on a different level than everyone else.
His temimus personified perfection and wholesomeness in avodah.
Rav Mordechai Druk, a noted maggid in Yerushalayim, would portray the Chofetz Chaim’s humility and temimus with a story. A simple Radin coachman had come to the Chofetz Chaim to bemoan his loss. Someone had stolen one of his horses. The tzaddik explained to this Jew that as a traveling coachman, his horses inevitably trample on the property of others and eat grass out of fields that line the road. “You accumulated the benefits of gezel, so Hashem took that from you through an act of gezel.”
“If so,” asked the simple villager, not realizing the impudence of his question, “how come the rebbe’s coat was stolen last week? Is he also being paid back for stealing?”
The Chofetz Chaim didn’t hesitate. “Of course,” he responded. “I sell my seforim and sometimes pages are stuck together or there are printing errors. Hakadosh Boruch Hu keeps a running cheshbon and my stolen coat reflects that.”
Great men realize that events aren’t mere news or conversation pieces. They are personal missives. Temimus allows a person to walk humbly and honestly, and thus be “with” Hashem Himself at all times.
The posuk in next week’s parsha (20:1) says, “Ki seitzei lamilchomah,” laying out the laws of doing battle with evil forces. Many meforshim explain that while the Torah discusses battle against enemies, “lo dibrah Torah elah keneged yeitzer hora,” there are hints as to how we must battle the yeitzer hora. “Lo sira meihem,” do not fear him, “ki Hashem Elokecha imoch hama’alcha mei’eretz Mitzrayim,” for Hashem who raised you from Mitzrayim will be with you and assist you in your battle.
He will help us as we seek to rise. If we demonstrate the inclination to improve ourselves, Hashem promises that He will assist us.
In our day and age as well, we are promised that we can succeed if we engage in proper shmirah and do teshuvah for the way we have conducted ourselves and treated other people.
The parsha ends with the mitzvah of eglah arufah, the procedure followed when a body of an unknown person is found on the outskirts of a town. The gedolim of the city must wash their hands over the eglah arufah and state that they neither killed the person nor witnessed the act: “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh ve’eineinu lo ra’u.”
To understand how a community can be gripped by worry and pain, we don’t have to think back more than two months to when our entire world was consumed with concern for the fate of three bochurim. We still feel the anguish and won’t forget it anytime soon.
The story of the corpse found in middle of a field no doubt made waves. People united in grief. The elders were forced to confess. Why? Surely no one would suspect the elders of murdering a person.
The lesson of the eglah arufah is that the leaders must declare that they set everything in place to prevent the travesty of murder. They proclaim that they established a proper system of justice and compassionate treatment of strangers. They state for all to hear that the murder victim did not die due to negligence on their part. With the kohanim at their sides, the zikeinim profess that they did all in their ability to ensure that no person suffers abuse of any kind, especially of the kind or degree that would lead to such a tragic demise.
The elders announce that they did their part to create a fair, just, harmonious society. They gave a voice to the abused and oppressed, and to the poor and those who cannot fight for themselves. They gave a voice to the mute and strength to the weak, food to the hungry and succor to the vanquished.
We must all be able to proclaim that we have done what we can to set up institutions of jurisprudence, kindness and charity. We have to be able to act courageously and without fear to ensure that we can all say with complete honesty, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh,” our hands did not spill the blood - both literally and figuratively - of the unfortunate victims in our community. Victims are not only the lonely and the weak. We see in our day too many cases of well-known people with fine reputations who are set upon. We must all do what we can to help them restore their lives and beat back unjust charges, no matter the odds or public perception.
We recently witnessed the fruits of very lonely efforts, initially led by one heroic man who has made it his mission to defeat the allegations that metzitzah b’peh is an inherently dangerous custom perpetrated by barbaric people. He demonstrated that when we are dedicated to a good cause and work valiantly lesheim Shomayim, we earn Divine assistance and are able to proudly say, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh.”
We can, and must, remove the impediments to justice, be it kavod, middos raos, pursuit of wealth and power, or simple fear, and allow truth to emerge, in our communities and in ourselves.
There is no better time than the present. There is no season more opportune for shedding the baggage of agendas and petty calculations. We can travel light, by entering this time of year focused only on what is important and unloading the rest.
In order to be serious about rising, we have to improve our middos so that we can seriously inspect ourselves and our actions over the past year. We can then engage in the teshuvah process and rid ourselves of that which loads us down and prevents us from reaching our physical and spiritual potentials.
We can step into the elevator, grab onto the crane, and rise high. In order to do so, we must be able to announce, surely and securely, “Yodeinu lo shofchu es hadom hazeh,” that we have done all we can to protect others and ourselves, from the yeitzer hora and his evil designs.
We will be able to say that we have strengthened our middos, mitzvah observance and Torah study to the level that would enable the great men of our town to testify that we are worthy of being granted another year of life.
And so may it be, for us and all of Klal Yisroel, that these days of Elul are fully utilized to elevate us into the book of life and brochah.