Elul: A Truly Golden Opportunity
By Rabbi Shimon Raichik
An entire two weeks of the month of Elul has almost passed. Everyone is busy with the avodah according to themes of the month as explained in Chassidus. We are aware of ‘Melech b’sadeh’, that the King is in the field and that it’s a time for a cheshban hanefesh; it’s a time for a personal accounting in preparation for the new year.
There are three common obstacles that we often confront at this time of the year.
First, when we learn the Maamorim of Elul, we do not necessarily feel how the Maamor relates directly to us and the impact that it will have in our particular lives and circumstances.
Secondly, we often ask ourselves whether or not we really have the necessary strength to overcome the challenges of our ingrained natures and habits. Can we really dislodge the inherent coarseness of our yetzer hara?
Thirdly, after a week into the month of Elul, there are times that we feel that we have made a substantial effort to change and nonetheless have come face to face, once again, as we do in most years, with our own intransience. We feel that we just won’t change. We have become set in our ways.
These are three common obstacles that we face in the month of Elul.
With regard to the first obstacle; why the Maamorim do not seem to speak to us and address our particular situation, we need to ask ourselves the following question; are we really paying attention? Do we accept that the Maamorim really do speak to us but we need to shake off all of our preoccupations long enough to absorb the message that Chassidus is sending?
Consider the following example. Before the revolution in Russia there was a highly defined class system. In transportation for example there were different well defined classes. First class was for the wealthy, the aristocrats and those in power, while the lower class was for the peasants. After the revolution everyone became equals and the peasant had a right to travel in first class. On one occasion a peasant entered a first class cabin and sat next to a wealthy aristocrat, a very civilized man. Once they embarked on their journey the peasant began to make good use of his time ‘organizing’ his personal belongings. While rummaging through his suitcase he began to air out his personal unclean laundry items, which created an intolerable aroma much to the horror of the wealthy aristocrat. Faced with this most pleasant turn of events, the man turned to the peasant with a soft kind voice and said; “Comrade, perhaps this is not the best place for these items”. The peasant did not even respond! The man tried again and again, always addressing him respectfully as “Sir,” and “My Friend”, still to no avail. The peasant did not even give the courtesy to acknowledge his very presence. With no other option the man called the train’s conductor for help. The conductor directly approached the peasant and with no hesitation began screaming at the peasant without any titles or courtesy at all. He said; “Animal!” The peasant immediately turned around and said; “Do you mean me?” The conductor responded; “Of course I meant you! Look at this disgusting mess you have created! Put your dirty laundry away immediately! Do you know that you are you are in first class, you cannot behave this way here. I’ll throw you out!” The peasant responded; “I did not know!” The conductor said; “What do you mean you didn’t know, can’t you see this man is trying to talk to you? Can’t you hear?” The peasant responded that he didn’t realize the civilized man was even talking to him. He really did not notice. He had never been spoken to in such a manner, it was not just like a foreign language to him, it wasn’t even language at all. So too it is with our neshama. The neshama journeys down into this world for a purpose. It is a yerida letzorich aliya- for the purpose of a greater ascent. The neshama goes into first class. At this point, the animal soul joins the neshama and sits together in the same cabin- the body. The animal soul doesn’t see, feel or sense Elokus- G-dliness. When the neshama sees the uncivilized nature of his animal soul, he begins to talk about Elokus to the animal soul, and explain how special Hashem is. The neshama doesn’t get through to the animal soul. So the neshama goes to the Rebbe, the conductor. The Alter Rebbe explains in Perek Chof Tes of Tanya that there are times that we need to scream at our animal soul, to wake him up. Then the animal soul realizes that the neshama is talking to him. We need to speak strong to the animal soul and then he will listen.
A Chassid once asked the Rebbe Rashab for permission to translate certain parts of the Siddur into Yiddish during davening. This was in order for the Chassid to realize that the words mean him.
Regarding the second challenge, how will we have the strength to overcome the yetzer hara, David Hamelech said; “Achas Sha’alti m’es Hashem”. In this time of Elul, the time of the revelation of the Yud Gimmel Middos Harachamim, the neshama calls out from the depths of his heart to Hashem. The neshama says; “I want to be with You Hashem in truth, with You, and only You”. From this calling out, all our taivos fall away. It is similar to the time that we call out the Shma and Hashem Hu Elokim at Neila. When we call to Hashem from this place, the Yetzer Hara cannot do anything. The Yetzer Hara has nothing to hold onto because our prayers are directed just to Hashem, not for any reward. Only then when have accomplished this do we follow through with all the details. “Shivti b’vais Hashem- to merit to dwell in Hashem’s house all of our life and to gaze on the pleasantness of Hashem” etc. This is how we overcome all obstacles, when Hashem is our only goal.
In the third challenge, the yetzer hara tries to push us down and tell us that we will never be a success. As we learn in the beginning of this week’s parsha “Ki Tzesei”, that when go out to confront the enemy, we have the power; we are ‘al oyvecha’, we stand above our enemy. Everything that happens in the world is b’hashgacha pratis, and is a lesson in avodas Hashem. It is now at the end of the baseball season. There is a universal sportsmanlike attitude held by all professional athletes. When you're at the bottom of the ninth inning, it doesn’t matter if you are ahead by five runs or behind by seven you never give up. You maintain your focus on the game and take all possibilities seriously until the very last moment. Even in the last few minutes of the game the teams remains united and create a strategy to win. There isn’t player or team in baseball that says; “Last year we lost so this year will be the same.” Every year they are always striving for the pennant and to win the world series. Just like this is in gashmius in baseball, so too, this is in ruchnius, in our service of Hashem. In Elul Hashem is giving us an injection, which gives us the possibility that we can overcome our obstacles and be successful, regardless of the past. Although last year I may not have been successful, it doesn’t matter because this is a new year and there is a new possibility. The game is not over until it’s over. In Elul we have the ability to change and turn everything around. We just need to strategize and make a plan. The next move is ours. Hashem is giving us the opportunity.