Elul – A Time for Returning

Elul is a time for returning.  Some return to their offices after summer vacation to resume their regular work schedule.  Some return to yeshiva after “bein hazemanim” to begin the Elul semester, much as they would begin any other semester of yeshiva study.  Still others view Rosh Chodesh Elul in an entirely different light, recognizing its true potential as a unique window in time through which we can escape from the ruts and routines of our lives and strive for something greater – to draw close to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and improve ourselves, each person according to his own spiritual level, and discover the potential for greater heights that might otherwise remain unfulfilled.

The Rosh cites the Ashkenazic custom to blow shofar every day, beginning from Rosh Chodesh Elul, in order to awaken the congregation, as the verse states, “Shall the shofar be blown in the city, and the nation not tremble?”[1]  It is said of Rav Yisrael Salanter zt”l, that he would fall into a feint when Rosh Chodesh Elul was announced on the Shabbos Mevarchim that preceded it.  So great was his awe of the upcoming high holidays.

The commentaries explain that the word אלול is an acronym for  אני לדודי ודודי לי – “I am to my love, and my love is to me.”[2]  To the extent that we utilize this month to return to Hashem in teshuvah, He returns to us, so to speak, by revealing His benevolent presence in our lives.

Elul is a time of preparation for Rosh Hashana, the essence of which is the proclamation of Hashem’s Kingship.  The Gemara states:

אמרו לפני בראש השנה מלכיות זכרונות ושופרות מלכיות כדי שתמליכוני עליכם זכרונות כדי שיעלה זכרוניכם לפני לטובה ובמה בשופר.

[Hashem says to Bnei Yisrael:] “Recite before Me [verses of] Kingship, Remembrance and Shofar.  Kingship, in order that you may accept Me as your King.  Remembrance, in order that the remembrance of your needs shall ascend before Me for your benefit.  How so?  Through the shofar.[3]

The element of Kingship on Rosh Hashana and the element of Remembrance are not two disassociated themes.  Rather, they are truly and integrally intertwined, together forming the essence of Rosh Hashana.  To the degree that we accept Hashem as our King, and commit ourselves to His service, our remembrance ascends before Him, that He may grant all our needs.

In the introduction to his list of the 613 mitzvos, the Rambam cites a parable from the Midrash, regarding a king whose nation begged him to set up a system of rules by which they may be governed for the common good.  “First accept my kingship upon yourselves.  Then I shall make for you rules.”  (Accordingly, the Rambam explains that the first of the Ten Commandments, “I am Hashem your G‑d,” is actually not one of the 613 mitzvos, but a prelude to the mitzvos, without which they are meaningless.  First we must recognize Hashem as our King and G‑d.  Only then can we devote ourselves to fulfilling His commandments.)

When we approach Rosh Hashana from a perspective of “Malchiyos” – the proclamation of Hashem’s Kingship, we realize that teshuvah is more than a mere “shield against punishment,” or even an attempt to improve ourselves for our own personal benefit, be it material or even spiritual.  Teshuvah is far more significant than this.  Teshuvah ascends before the Throne of Glory to proclaim Hashem’s Kingship.[4]

There can be no such concept as a “king” without a nation to serve him.  So, too, is Hashem’s Kingship contingent upon the one nation that accepts His Kingship and binds itself to Him with a strict oath of fidelity.  When we improve our mitzva observance and strengthen our commitment to Hashem, we proclaim His Kingship over ourselves and over the entire world.  This is a much higher, nobler, and more selfless form of teshuvah, since it is purely for the sake of Heaven.  Therefore, it causes Hashem to remember us with love and good favor.


Hashem’s Testimony

Knowing the recesses of his own heart, a person can assess his character far better than any outside observer, who might easily be fooled by appearances.  “Man sees with his eyes, but G‑d peers into the heart,”[5] as Hashem told Shmuel.  As such, each person must make his own cheshbon hanefesh, a reckoning of his soul, to utilize this precious opportunity for teshuvah as the fleeting days of Elul race by us.

There are many areas in which each one of us can improve.  However, the most basic foundation of teshuvah, the “return to Hashem,” is the recognition that we are His servants and we cannot simply act as we please without making an accounting for our days.  Each person was sent into this world for a specific task which He must carry out wholeheartedly in the service of the Creator.

On Elul, we present ourselves before HaKadosh Baruch Hu, saying: “We have returned to You at last.  Please accept us.  Draw us close to You.  Help us renew our relationship with You, our Father and our King.”

The perfection of teshuvah is indeed a lofty and difficult accomplishment, as the Rambam writes:

מה היא התשובה, הוא שיעזוב החוטא חטאו ויסירו ממחשבתו ויגמור בלבו שלא יעשהו עוד … ויעיד עליו יודע תעלומות שלא ישוב לזה החטא לעולם.

What is teshuvah?  It is when a sinner abandons his sins, drives them from his thoughts, and resolves in his heart never to repeat them … such that the Omniscient G‑d can testify that he will never again return to his sins.[6]

Who among us can be so sure of his teshuvah that he could dare stand before the Throne of Glory and call G‑d Himself as his witness that he will never return to his sins?  Man can fool his neighbors and sometimes even himself, but he can never hope to fool Hashem, who gazes into the innermost depths of our hearts and sees if the bitter roots of sin still maintain their hold.

Stories are told of Rebbe Zusha of Annipole zt”l, who was known to be a “Mara D’Chusbana – Master of Soul-Reckoning.”  Each night, before going to sleep, he would rebuke himself by conversing with his soul as if he were a neutral third party.  “Zusha, you promise to be good tomorrow,” he would say to himself, “but you said the same thing yesterday and failed to uphold your promise.”

“True, yesterday I promised,” he answered himself, “but today I promise even more sincerely.”

These conversations with himself could last as long as an hour, until he felt satisfied that his commitment to Hashem had become stronger than it was the day before. Day by day, through ceaseless introspection and renewal of his commitments, he ascended to towering heights of spiritual greatness.  Yet could even he dare call G‑d as his witness that he would never sin again?

However, we need not lose hope in ourselves or in the merciful G‑d who awaits our return with outstretched arms.  If a person eats less than the required olive-sized piece of matza on Seder night, he does not fulfill any mitzva at all.  Teshuvah is different.  Even if one’s teshuvah is incomplete, it is still very precious in Hashem’s eyes.  We strive towards the perfection of teshuvah, such that Hashem may testify to our righteousness and transform all our sins into merits.  Yet even as we walk down the long path towards this goal, we rejoice in every step that draws us closer to our loving Father in Heaven.

Each person must make a tireless search to find his own path of return by correcting what he knows to be his own failings.  Many “segulos” have been suggested to help us emerge victorious on Judgment Day.  Yet all these segulos are contingent on teshuvah, the one thing that proves our sincerity, remorse, and good intentions.  Rabbeinu Yonah writes that although the verse, “And you shall return to Hashem, your G‑d,”[7] applies throughout the year, it is especially relevant in the days leading up to Rosh Hashana to utilize this special time in which Hashem purifies those who return to Him.


The Tree of Life


We spoke above of the segulos that awaken Hashem’s mercy, enabling us to emerge victorious from our judgment.  Although teshuvah is surely our first and foremost preparation, we must not overlook the sound counsel of our Sages, who drew plans for our defense.  Hashem spoke through His Prophets and Sages.  As such, their advice is no less than communication from the Judge Himself, advising us how to find favor before Him and win our case.

How, then, do our Sages advise us to find protection and deliverance?  By grasping the Tree of Life, as the Gemara states, for the Torah protects and delivers those who study it.[8]  It purifies our hearts, while its supernal light guides us on the path towards Hashem.  It awakens Hashem’s attributes of mercy and patience.  It forms a shield against punishment, and grants life itself, as we learn in Pirkei Avos: “An increase of Torah brings an increase of life.”

The Torah is like a refuge city where we can find sanctuary from the Angel of Death.  As a person studies Torah, even the Angel of Death cannot harm him (as was the case with King David, who knew that he was destined to die on Shabbos, and so spent each Shabbos immersed in Torah study from beginning to end).[9]

As long as we have not yet merited to reach the perfection of teshuvah, we must find a merit by which to deflect the accusations raised against us in the Heavenly Court.  This merit is Torah, the elixir of life.[10]  In the four petitions that the Gaonim added to Shemoneh Esrei for the Ten Days of Teshuvah, we find one request repeated again and again – life!  “Remember us for life … Who is like You, Merciful Father, Who remembers His creations mercifully for life … Inscribe all the Children of Your Covenant for a good life … In the Book of Life … may we be inscribed and remembered before You.”  Life means an opportunity to grow and perfect ourselves and correct the mistakes of our past.

The Chafetz Chaim told a parable of a man who lived in a small village and was burdened by his many debts, which he was unable to repay.  There was no one in his entire village to whom he did not owe money.  He could not even leave his home without being assaulted by his many creditors.  One day, his friend consoled him by saying that although his financial situation was grim, he was assured of his good health, since the entire village undoubtedly prayed that he may live long enough to repay his debts.

So, too, the Chafetz Chaim explained, with our prayers for long life during Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of Teshuvah, and Yom Kippur.  “Master of the Universe,” we pray, “we realize that we have heavy debts to repay You.  Grant us long life, that we may be able to do so.”

Since our very life hangs in the balance in the scales of judgment, we must search for the segulos known to grant long life, by increasing our dedication to the study of Torah, which is a  “Tree of Life for all who grasp hold of it.”[11]

Not only does Torah increase the length of our lives, it increases the quality of our lives as well.  The Rambam writes:

תלמיד שגלה לערי מקלט מגלין רבו עמו, שנאמר וחי, עשה לו כדי שיחיה, וחיי בעלי חכמה ומבקשיה בלא תלמוד כמיתה חשובין.

If a Torah student is exiled to a refuge city, his teacher must accompany him, as the verse states, “[He shall flee to one of the refuge cities] and live”[12] – meaning, that he must be given the means by which to live.  Without Torah study, the life of the wise and those who pursue wisdom is akin to death.[13]

Even a murderer who is exiled for his crime must be given the chance to live, and without Torah, there can be no life.  Therefore, in these days of Elul, in which we prepare to stand in judgment for our lives, we must apply ourselves to the Torah, which increases the quality and quantity of our lives, so that its supernal light may guide us on the path of teshuvah and help us return to Hashem with all our hearts and souls.


[1] Amos 3:6
[2] Shir HaShirim 6:3.  See Mishnah Berurah, introduction to 581.
[3] Rosh Hashana 16a
[4] Yoma 86b
[5] Shmuel I 16:7
[6] Hilchos Teshuvah 2:2
[7] Devarim 4:30
[8] Sotah 21a
[9] Shabbos 30b
[10] Yoma 72b
[11] Mishlei 3:18
[12] Devarim 19:5
[13] Hilchos Rotzei’ach 7:1
Published July 23, 2013 - 3:21