The Fear of Elul
by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Fear is a uniquely Jewish attribute.
The posuk praises people who constantly fear: “Ashrei odom mefacheid tomid” (Mishlei 28:24). The yorei Shomayim, the choreid ledvar Hashem, is never entirely relaxed. He is always fearful, ensuring that he lives the proper life.
The legendary Brisker gaon, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, was an awe-inspiring figure. It was well-known in Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah that when he davened on leil Shabbos and reached the words “lefonov na’avod beyirah vofachad,” a vein in his forehead would begin throbbing. His face would turn the color of fire and he would tremble. The people of the Holy City would avert their eyes, unable to look at the holy countenance aflame.
Yet, this same very angelic figure would be overcome by awe when he approached the Kosel, barely able to articulate his tefillos because of his reverence for the sacred site. In fact, a window of his humble home faced the Kosel and the Har Habayis. He was so sensitive to the kedushah and churban evidenced by the view that he always kept that window covered, lest he catch a glimpse of the holy site and be overcome.
It is said that Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, author of the Ohr Somayach and Meshech Chochmah, once encountered Reb Yehoshua Leib. He was so overcome with fright that he was unable to utter the words “Shalom Aleichem.”
As fearful as the great Rav Meir Simcha was of Rav Yehoshua Leib, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz of Kamenitz once met Rav Meir Simcha and couldn’t bring himself to greet the gaon of Dvinsk. He explained his reluctance: “My rebbi, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, referred to the Ohr Somayach as a ‘sar haTorah’ and I should greet him as a friend?”
A holy chain of fear.
The reverence was transmitted through the generations, from gadol to gadol and from talmid to talmid. In our generation, when yirah has become a forgotten word and respect is all but lost, it is hard to conceive that not many years ago there existed such a tangible fear born out of respect.
Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, offers a puzzling explanation for the juxtaposition of parshiyos (Devorim 29: 9). He quotes the Medrash which states that after Klal Yisroel heard the 98 klalos as described in Parshas Ki Savo, they were so distressed and frightened that their faces turned green. They were despondent, as they felt ill-equipped to handle all the Torah’s commandments and were mortified at the ramifications of non-observance.
Moshe reassured them, saying, “Atem nitzovim hayom. Although you’ve angered Hashem numerous times over the years - with the meraglim, the Eigel, and other sins - you are still standing here and haven’t been destroyed.”
At first glance, the answer seems self-defeating. Imagine a parent warning his children that if they misbehave, they will suffer serious consequences. When the children react with fright, the parent reassures them that the threat isn’t really that serious after all and brings a proof to that effect.
The Lucerne rosh yeshiva, Rav Yitzchok Dov Kopelman, explained that Divine punishment is not meant as a consequence or retribution for a sinful act. It is merely a tool used by a loving Father to guide His wayward children onto the correct path. What is important is that they behave properly, not the imposition of the penalty.
Once Moshe saw that “peneihem morikos,” their faces had changed colors, he understood that the klalos had achieved their desired effect and the people would behave properly.
This is Jewish fear - not a fear that leads to despair or brokenness, but a fear that leads to Vegilu biradah, rejoicing in trembling. Tzaddikim such as Rav Yehoshua Leib, Rav Meir Simcha and Rav Boruch Ber were inspired, optimistic people. Their fear did not hold them back. It motivated them.
When people talk about the mood and attitude in the great Torah centers of pre-war Lithuania during the days of Elul, what they are describing is yiras Shomayim, not depression. When we hear about the women who fainted when the chazzan recited Rosh Chodesh bentching for Elul or the imagery of fish in the sea trembling, we should understand that it was not due to panic or dread, but rather reverence and awe generated by being in the Presence of Hashem.
The holy fusion of fear and joy found amongst tzaddikim is an expression of their deep vision, their ability to perceive that the fear itself, the peneihem morikos, is the reaction hoped for by Heaven. Shomayim doesn’t punish. It reminds. Ehrliche Yidden are attuned to these reminders.
Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and his wife, Rebbetzin Baila Hinda, were joyous people, yet they lived with this awareness, an ever-present sense that the Creator was with them. One day, as the rebbetzin prepared a glass of tea for her husband, the cup suddenly shattered in her hand. Within moments, she sat down with her husband to consider why it had happened and what the message was.
“Did you perhaps display a ‘closed hand,’ not giving tzedakah when requested?” the rosh yeshiva wondered.
The rebbetzin recalled that when she was doing her shopping earlier that day in the Machane Yehudah shuk, a collector approached her for money. The rebbetzin, who only had a large bill with her, asked the poor man to wait a moment while she got change from one of the kiosks. She changed the bill into smaller denominations, but when she returned back to the beggar, he was gone.
“Yes,” concluded the rosh yeshiva, “that must be why you endured this accident.”
For tzaddikim, reminders suffice. Dai lechakima beremiza, say Chazal. The wise man needs only a hint.
The best way to appreciate this season is to approach it as chachomim, with our eyes open and hearts awake to the messages being sent our way. It is easy to ignore them, to be apathetic or stubbornly refusing to consider that those messages are directed at us. But then the messages become more insistent. Peneihem morikos, Rashi teaches us. The fright itself should be enough to evoke Divine rachamim.
Think about it. If used correctly, fear can be the healthiest of emotions, a tool to craft a blessed new year for us and our families.
At one of his Thursday night shiurim, when all sorts of questions were welcomed from the audience, Rav Avigdor Miller explained the nature of bitachon.
“Bitachon means Hashem will take care of you if you trust in Him, but that trust requires you to do what He wants you to do, and He wants you to be ‘mefashfeish bema’asov,’ to search into your ways. Self-scrutiny is a mitzvah like tefillin is a mitzvah.
“If a man has a toothache,” continued Rav Miller, “and he goes to the dentist, and the dentist says, ‘Open wide,’ he should think, ‘Why do I have to open my mouth wide? Because I shouldn’t have opened my mouth so wide at other times. I opened my mouth against my wife; that’s why I have to open it for the dentist now. I opened my mouth against my fellow Jew, so now I have to deal with this.’”
Living with this awareness, Rav Miller was teaching, is itself an expression of faith. Seeing Hashem’s message in all occurrences is empowering, because it underscores how relevant our every action is and how important it is to Him to prod us on to the right path.
Perhaps this answers the paradox regarding the nature of Rosh Hashanah. The day contains the obligation of experiencing the joy of a yom tov, yet, at the same time, the fear of judgment is just as essential. We can understand it by comparing it to the fear experienced by someone who has sat in conversation with a gadol. Sure, you are overcome by awe, it is difficult to speak, and you choose your words carefully, but despite that, at the same time, you have never felt more alive and relevant than when you are in his presence.
I remember way back when I sat with Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l for the first time after this newspaper was founded. I was very young and clean-shaven. Rav Shach overwhelmed me with Torah, love and guidance, and it was difficult for me to speak. The nicer he was to me, the more self-conscious I was about the fact that I didn’t have a beard.
I was charged and enthused about my mission, but I resolved then and there that it would be the last time I appeared before him without a beard. As I was leaving, one of the gate-keepers commented on how nice the rosh yeshiva was to me. I responded by telling him about how unworthy I felt, a young Amerikaner without a beard. He assured me that Rav Shach didn’t judge a person by his chitzoniyus and that I shouldn’t have felt insecure.
When one is in the presence of greatness, especially when the great person reacts in a kind and loving fashion, one is at the same time joyful and fearful, as the posuk states, “vegilu biradah.”
Rav Chaim Brim would recall the fear that overcame him when he was in the presence of the Brisker Rov. He retold his experience when the Rov spoke at the celebration of a sheva brachos for his son, Rav Meir Soloveitchik.
He recounted that the Rov said that the words we recite affirming our belief in the imminent arrival of Moshiach, “achakeh lo bechol yom sheyavo,” do not mean that a person waits for Moshiach each day once a day. Rather, it means “kol hayom,” throughout the entire day. We await the arrival of Moshiach all day.
“When the Rov said this vort,” testified Rav Chaim, “we all lowered our heads in shame in the face of his obvious, tangible emunah and our own low levels. It was humiliating.”
Yet Rav Chaim and his contemporaries seized every moment to spend time in the presence of the Rov, welcoming the humiliation and shame, embracing the simcha of true bushah.
During these days, it is our certainty of Hashem’s proximity and our assurance that He is listening closely that is the cause of both our simcha at the opportunity it affords and the fear of the magnitude of His power and might.
“Dirshu Hashem behimatzo - Seek out Hashem when He is accessible,” says the posuk. This is the most empowering time of the year, the exalted moments when we are being ushered into His Presence. Yes, He will scrutinize our actions and seek to help us improve, but by being vigilant and attuned to His will, we ask that He give us the opportunity to improve without being rebuked or disciplined.
“Hashem ori,” we say twice each day between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Shemini Atzeres. He illuminates the path before us, helping us identify mistakes we have made and a path to repair them. This way, we can experience teshuvah without the reprimand and closeness without the push, and thus “veyishi,” Hashem is my salvation, so “mimi ira,” from who shall I fear?
If we truly fear Him, then we need not fear others. If we fear Him, then we perceive that, indeed, there is nothing to fear at all.
The Gemara in Maseches Chagigah (5b) relates that Rav Papa said, “Ein atzivus lifnei Hakadosh Boruch Hu - There is no grief in Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s presence.” Now that we are in the period when we are closest to Hashem, there should be no grief, even as we approach the Day of Judgment, when all of mankind will undergo Heavenly scrutiny.
There is a new Israeli song that has gone viral. The words, which are from Likkutei Maharan, provide succor for us during these days of Elul, the Yomim Noraim, and throughout the year:
Hashem says, “Anochi hastir astir Ponai bayom hahu,” but the rebbe says, “V’afilu behastorah shebesoch hastorah bevadai gam shom nimtza Hashem Yisborach. Gam mei’achorei hadevorim hakoshim ha’omdim alecha ani omeid.
Hashem says, “If you disobey My commandments, I will hide Myself from the Jewish people,” but the rebbe says that even when Hashem is hiding, know that He is there and ever-present, and He stands behind the difficult things that happen to you.
We are all faced by so many difficult tribulations and wonder how we can withstand them. Know that you are not alone. Hashem is there right alongside you, guiding and assisting you as you seek to find your way in the darkness. He is there all year, yet He is even closer during these days of Elul and the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
Don’t grow despondent. Don’t think the job is too difficult for you. Don’t think that you can’t overcome the nisyonos that you are faced with. Don’t worry that you won’t succeed in doing a proper teshuvah for your aveiros. Don’t think that you won’t be able to bring yourself to the level that will ensure that you emerge zakai in din.
Those who fear Hashem feel Him. Those who fear Hashem merit His closeness. Those who fear Hashem know that He is there with them, helping them approach Him.
May we all merit to be anoshim chareidim, people who fear Hashem, and thus emerge meritorious on the Yom Hadin.