Elul | Wake-Up Call
Updated: Apr 23
We now celebrate Rosh Chodesh, marking the beginning of the month of Elul, the month we have for preparation before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ten days after. The Gemara teaches us that thirty days before a given festival one should prepare for that festival by studying the laws pertaining to it and the ideas behind it. Everything needs preparation; the more we prepare, the more powerful the experience.
It is well known that back “in the heim,” on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh when they would bless the new month and announce when it would begin, when the Chazzan would say “it’s Elul” the people would shake with trepidation: Elul is here, we’re heading towards the Day of Judgment. We need be cognisant of this date and not just let Rosh Chodesh Elul pass us by; it marks our stepping into Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur mode.
Every Rosh Chodesh we have what is called a Yom Kippur Katan, “the miniature Yom Kippur,” on the day before Rosh Chodesh. the Yom Kippur Katan for Elul is this Monday as Rosh Chodesh starts Monday night. Some people have a custom to fast half a day or even a full day, and there are special slichot, special prayers of supplication and repentance, which are said every Yom Kippur Katan; what Yom Kippur does to atone for the year, the Yom Kippur Katan does to atone for the month. There are people who observe Yom Kippur Katan every month, though even those who do not observe it during the year observe it in the month of Elul. In Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg, the late Rabbi Goldfein of Blessed Memory instituted that we have the special services for Yom Kippur Katan on erev Rosh Chodesh Elul. It is important that we familiarise ourselves with these special slichot as these special services are our wake-up call, reminding us that it’s Elul and we must prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Serving G-d with love and with fear
One of the challenges that we face in Elul is that on the one hand, there is a sense of trepidation as we head towards the Day of Judgment; on the other, our Sages teach us that Elul is a time of love between Hashem and us. The Hebrew letters of Elul, aleph, lamed, vav, lamed, are actually an acronym for the verse from Song of Songs Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li, “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.” There is an atmosphere of trepidation and fear yet also one of love.
We have two ways of serving Hashem: one is with ahava, love, and the other is with yir’ah, a sense of awe and trepidation, even fear. Ahava and yir’ah are very different emotions and do not usually go together. How do we reconcile the two during Elul?
Our Father, our King
In his writings, Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv known as the Alter of Kelm talks about Elul being a time of love, even with all the fear and trepidation preceding Rosh Hashanah. The very famous prayer that we say during the High Holidays, Avinu Malkeinu, expresses the love and fear we have toward Hashem. Avinu means “our Father,” Malkeinu means “our King.” “Our Father” refers to our relationship of love, like the love between a parent and a child. “Our King” refers to our relationship of awe, like the awe a servant feels toward a king; there is discipline, accountability and judgment – it is different than the love between a parent and child. Our relationship with G-d encompasses both: we relate to Him as a loving parent and yet we stand before Him as servants before a king. We are held accountable for our actions.
The Alter of Kelm points out, however, that if you look in the prayer of Avinu Malkeinu, you’ll notice that Avinu, our Father, comes before Malkeinu, our King, indicating that we first have to establish a loving bond between us and Hashem and then we can move to the accountability and judgment. The month of Elul is about Avinu, our Father; it is about the loving connection we are establishing with Hashem – “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.” Only then do we go on to the Malkeinu, to the accountability and the judgment, relating to Hashem as our King.
We need to remember that Hashem loves us like a parent and a parent wants what is best for the child. G-d is “rooting” for us; He wants us to do well. He wants us to improve the same way that a parent wants a child to succeed, to grow up to do the right thing, to be a mentsch and to follow the Torah. We need to approach repentance and introspection during this time from the point of view of feeling G-d’s love and how much He wants us to succeed. Once we can feel His love and realise that all of what we are going through is because He loves us and wants the best for us, then we are ready to face Rosh Hashanah. We can’t just walk into the trepidation of Rosh Hashanah, we first need to feel G-d’s love and only then can we go into Rosh Hashanah with the proper mindset.
The month of Elul is a time of introspection and repentance, a time to think about how we can improve as we head towards the High Holidays. Elul enables us to step out of our lives and contemplate where we are headed and how to improve. But we have to feel G-d’s love before we can begin the process of introspection. And when we feel G-d’s love, the process of introspection is so much more powerful. We achieve the balance between the love and the trepidation – Avinu Malkeinu.
There are some people who relate to G-d only as Malkeinu, the stern G-d who holds people accountable; others only relate to G-d as Avinu, a loving father, and are not so meticulous in their actions. Our relationship with Him is actually a combination of both. He is a loving father who wants us to do the right thing and He also holds us accountable – as we know, belief in reward and punishment is one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith.
Learning Torah is the most important
Although Elul is a time to examine all our deeds and all aspects of our lives, I would like to highlight one area to work on. Further on in the aforementioned essay by the Alter of Kelm, he says that our starting point for introspection is Torah learning, because the more we learn the more we can see things with the necessary clarity. Until we have the right perspective on life we have no hope of getting to where we need to go. Learning is the starting point, and therefore of the utmost importance.
In the beginning of the Book of Joshua we have a passage which demonstrates how important Torah study is. Our great leader Joshua, Moses’ successor, had the enormous challenge of leading the Jewish People into the Land of Israel and conquering the land under G-d’s instruction. He had to serve as military commander, rabbinic leader and political leader, shouldering the people and leading them through this time of transition. In the desert they had all their needs taken care of – the manna fell from heaven, the Clouds of Glory protected them from the elements and they had the well of water which went with them everywhere. Now that they had entered the Land of Israel the manna stopped falling, there were no Clouds of Glory and there was no well of water. They had to do everything for themselves. In addition, they had many wars to fight.
There is a passage in the Book of Joshua which describes how just before the Jews are about to wage war on Jericho, an angel comes to Joshua and confronts him. From the text it is not clear what the angel’s complaint against him was, but the Talmud elucidates what exactly this accusation was. The Gemara in Tractate Eiruvin page 63b says that the angel came to Joshua with two complaints from G-d: one was emesh bitaltem tamid shel bein ha’arbayim, yesterday you didn’t bring the evening offering in the Tabernacle. There is an obligation to bring a daily sacrifice in the morning and in the late afternoon, at dusk. The angel said you missed the evening sacrifice, the priests neglected to bring it. The second criticism was that you haven’t been learning Torah. Joshua says to the angle, when did you arrive? The commentators explain that what he was asking was for which sin have you come? I.e. of the two, which is more severe? The angel responds, Ata bati, “now I came,” meaning I didn’t come yesterday, when you didn’t bring the evening sacrifice; G-d let that pass. But now that I see you are not learning, I came immediately to instruct you to get back to learning. The Talmud says that Joshua went that night to learn Torah in depth.
This is truly remarkable. Think about the circumstances: here is Joshua carrying the entire Jewish People on his shoulders, about to wage war to conquer the city of Jericho. He had every excuse not to be learning Torah at such a time. Why was Torah learning so important? Furthermore, if we compare the two sins, missing the evening sacrifice seems much more severe. It was a requisite service in the Tabernacle which served as the miniature Temple of those days, and it atoned for the entire nation. The whole nation missed out on bringing the evening sacrifice and yet that was not the main complaint but rather that he didn’t learn Torah.
We see a very powerful message from this, that even someone like Joshua who was carrying the whole world on his shoulders has to learn Torah; it is a national imperative because as their leader Joshua needs to be able to understand the world properly. When we are immersed in Torah we look at the world through G-d’s eyes, so to speak, and connect to the way He “thinks.” Although Hashem is beyond all comprehension, we use human terms when talking about Him, because it gives us some understanding. When we learn Torah we have the right perspective to understand life and the world. Torah is the energy, the force guiding us in our service of Hashem and in being good people.
As we approach Rosh Chodesh Elul, we need to think about how we will prepare during this month. The first thing to do is to add to our learning. For different people it will be for different amounts of time and in different ways; for some it will be attending an extra shiur; for some it will be learning on their own; for some it will be buying a book, a tape or a CD; for other it will be learning online. Whatever the method, we need to learn more and ensure that our extra learning during the month of Elul serves as a platform for growth. The Alter of Kelm says learning Torah is like the rain coming down. After the rain comes down, we still have to till the soil. But of course, unless the rain comes down nothing will grow. Likewise, nothing can grow without the life-giving waters of Torah learning. But we need to ensure that we take our Torah learning further, that it serves as a platform for growth and that we implement it in our lives.