Wednesday, August 23, 2006


With the arrival of Rosh Chodesh Elul, you know that summer will soon be over and a more serious time of the year has arrived. People can’t figure out what happened to the glorious vacation time that just a few days ago was beckoning from the horizon. It started with so much promise and vanished so quickly.

What about to all the plans to get away, take a break, or take a trip? We’ve barely caught a breather and the summer is over!

The days just seemed to roll by. Sun shining, green fields beckoning, country air penetrating our senses and intoxicating… Just as our taut nerves finally release the accumulated tension, it is Shabbos morning and we’re in shul as the words “Rosh Chodesh Elul yehieh beyom hachamishi u’veyom hashishi” ring out.

Elul. The shofar is blown - the Yom Hadin is only a month away. Elul. The boys are going back to yeshiva; elementary and high schools will soon get underway. Elul - it is time to get serious again.

With the hostilities suspended, my two sons who are learning in Eretz Yisroel traveled to northern Israel last week. There, they encountered soldiers their own age returning from Lebanese battles. The soldiers were thrilled to meet Jews again and they had much to say. As people, they were overjoyed to be back on the Israeli side of the border once again; happy to be alive and whole. But as soldiers, they were thoroughly demoralized.

One described being holed up in Bint Jbeil for a week, scared for his life. Another recounted how he lived on tuna fish for a week for lack of anything else. Another complained they didn’t even have water to drink. They all felt as if they had been beaten by Hezbollah.

The New York Times recounted that a group of soldiers returning from Lebanon had some questions for their commander. They wanted to know why they went into Lebanon during the day, and not at night. They wanted to know why there was a lack of food and water.

One soldier confronted the colonel and said, “I left my house, my job, my wife and three kids, and after spending two weeks in Lebanon, you say I have chutzpah because I asked for equipment and food? If that is the attitude and those are your answers, next time we won’t come!”

The response from the colonel? “Don’t come. Don’t bother.” The soldiers roundly booed him.

The colonel couldn’t answer them. He didn’t have answers to justify the way the army had treated its men. He couldn’t explain why the vaunted army couldn’t beat a couple thousand terrorists.

And why did Israel lose the war? The army simply was unprepared for the battles awaiting them in Lebanon. They didn’t do their homework; they didn’t thoroughly review their procedures. They didn’t examine the enemy’s intelligence and strategies, and thus were left unequipped.

They thought, “Kochi ve’otzem yodi osoh li es hachayil hazeh.” They thought they had beaten back Arab armies and terror campaigns for so many years all on their own. They never factored in the obvious hand of G-d which had helped them wage war all these years. They thought they were invincible. They convinced themselves that they were the mightiest around.

It is easy for us to sit back in the comfort of America and criticize our Israeli brethren for their lack of foresight and humility. It is easy for us to mock them and their arrogant over-confidence in their own abilities. But haven’t we stumbled into the same pitfalls?

We all have a day in court coming up very soon. Are we preparing for it? In one month, we will be judged for all of our thoughts and actions of the past year. In 30 days, we will face a trial which will determine the future of our very lives. Everything that we own is at stake. Our health, security and prosperity hang in the balance. The outcome of that trial will determine whether we will live in peace or in war, in luxury or as paupers.

How are we preparing ourselves for the coming day of judgment? Are we doing all we can to tip the scales of justice in our favor? Are we taking a serious inventory of our ammunition, credits and liabilities? Have we attempted to review the year’s events to know what we have going for us? Or are we relying on the fact that we have made it through in the past deluding ourselves into thinking that we have what it takes to get by again?

Elul is serious business; we can’t approach these days lackadaisically or we will end up like the poor soldiers who weren’t given food for days and were happy to escape with their lives and faculties intact.

An army that doesn’t properly strategize loses the war; similarly, a person who doesn’t adequately prepare for the Yom Hadin can, chas v’shalom, lose the most important case of his life - with all the dire consequences that suggests.

In order to win, we have to be realistic about what we have done and what we have to do; we must straighten things out and get our profiles and résumés in order.

If we start out early enough we can work on improving ourselves slowly, step by step and day by day. We can start with the easy things and work our way up to the areas of self improvement which are more difficult. Our middos need improvement, as does the way we daven. The amount of time we spend learning can be increased. We can disburse more tzedaka. Our dikduk b’mitzvos can be taken up a level.

We can begin by reading the Igeres HaRamban and inculcating his message to concentrate on speaking benachas - softly - and to refrain from ka’as, anger.

The Vilna Gaon, in his classic Igeres, advised his family before he left for Eretz Yisroel that he had among his seforim a Sefer Mishlei with a translation. “Lema’an Hashem, read it every day,” he wrote them, for “it is better than any mussar sefer.” He adds that Sefer Koheles is also important for them to read regularly. This is advice we can well follow as we seek self-improvement during these days of Elul.

Another facet we can begin with may be the inyan of seder as espoused by the Alter of Kelm and the school of mussar he founded.

I recently read a passage to my children written by the famed Mashgiach, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, where he writes that he “was mechunach - educated and trained - in Kelm, where they were very particular about the idea of seder. “The Alter of Kelm zt”l would be very angry if a chair was not returned to its exact proper place after use. He was as upset about this as if it were an act of chillul Shabbos,” Rav Yeruchom wrote.

A discussion ensued about why the Alter felt it was as serious as chillul Shabbos, but the point was conveyed to the children that upon leaving the table, they are expected to return their chairs to the proper place. Likewise, when arising in the morning, they should make their beds and leave their rooms clean and neat.

We also discussed not looking around during davening, based upon that which Rav Yeruchom writes about his arrival in Kelm. “I arrived in the Kelmer Bais Medrash at the time of Maariv - which lasted for one hour - and though I very much wanted to see the Alter zt”l, I did not dare lift my eyes [out of the siddur] to look at him and did not see him until the next day. In Kelm, looking aside and around for no special reason was something that was especially frowned upon.”

Another area in which we can begin to seek to improve our middos, is the way we talk to each other. In the latest chelek of the Sefer Machsheves Mussar based on the shmuessen of Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, the aveira of chomos that sealed the gezar din of the Mabul is discussed.

We regularly learn that the punishment was sealed because the people stole. But Rav Shach quotes the Medrash which states that they were also guilty of chomos devorim. He cites the Vilna Gaon who explains that just as it is sinful to steal less than a shava peruta, one who protests too loudly against a person who robbed him is also considered a chamson. And just as the gezar din was caused by those who were financial chamsonim, so was it caused by verbal chamsonim.

If you scream too loudly at someone, even someone who caused you a loss, and embarrass him more than he deserves to be shamed, it is called chomos. Can you imagine that?

Let us begin with the small things and then we will be able to progress to higher and better things. As Hakadosh Boruch Hu says, “Pishchu li pesach k’chudah shel machat v’ani eftach lochem pesach k’pischo shel ulam. Open a door even the size of the eye of a needle and I will open you an opening the size of a ballroom.”

We have to show that we care and want to improve and then Hakadosh Boruch Hu will help us go all the way. As the Gemara in Yuma (38b and 39a) says, “Odom mekadeish atzmo me’at mekadshin osoh harbei.” “Haboh letaheir mesayin oso.” One who makes the attempt to purify himself, earns Divine assistance to enable him to complete the process.

Yes, it is a fact, the war started on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz and ended in Chodesh Av, engineered by a prime minister who has shown himself to be more adept at politics then at waging war. The army chief of staff seems to be seriously lacking in his ability to strategize; the defense minister as well is out of his league and not too knowledgeable in the art of defending his country.

Yet, we believe with absolute clarity that the outcome of this war was not decided in Chodesh Av. It was decided in Chodesh Tishrei.

Before Sharon had his stroke and was suddenly removed from the scene, before Olmert was elected and Peretz selected, and before Hezbollah shot off one Katyusha, the outcome of the war was already decided. That took place on Rosh Hashanah, as we say in Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah, “V’al hamedinos bo ye’omeir - it is determined on this day which countries will be destined for the sword, and which for peace, which countries will suffer hunger and which will enjoy abundance…”

If we want a year of peace and prosperity, the time to earn it is now. The time to be mispallel for it, the time to work for it, is now. If we want a year of fulfillment, success and good health, let us hear the call of shofar and get to work. Now.


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