Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Elul – The Lion Roars

“The lion roars! Who is not afraid?” – Amos 3:8

The commentaries (של"ה הקדוש, מס' ר"ה, נר מצוה בשם הקדמונים) tell us that the word אריה - lion – is an acronym for אלול - Elul, ראש השנה - Rosh HaShana, יום כיפור - Yom Kippur, and הושענה רבה - Hoshana Raba. This period of time, beginning with the month of Elul until Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of the festival of Succos, is a time for introspection and repentance. During this time, Jewish tradition teaches, the gates of teshuva – return – are opened.

The Chayei Adam (Rabbi Avraham Danzig, d.1820) writes (138:1):
Out of the love of the Holy One, blessed be He, towards His people Israel, He has done abundant good for us, and He has commanded us to return to Him anytime we have sinned. And, while teshuva is beneficial at all times, nevertheless, the month of Elul is particularly chosen and prepared beyond the other days of the year for the acceptance of teshuva.
For these days have been days of favor from the moment that we were chosen to be a nation. For after Israel sinned with the golden calf and the Tablets were broken on the seventeenth of Tamuz, Moses went up on the mountain and prayed, and the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him (Exodus 34:1), “Carve for yourself [two stone tablets like the first ones]”, and He found favor to give him a second set of tablets.
Moses then went [back] up on the first of Elul and remained there [for forty days] until Yom Kippur, which is the completion of the atonement. And it states in [the midrash] Tana D’Vei Eliyahu:
“For all these days the people of Israel engaged in fasting, and on the final day – the tenth of Tishrei – they decreed a fast day and they fasted overnight. Therefore, this day – which is Yom Kippur – was established for eternity for atonement.”
And because these [forty] days [from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur] were days of favor at that time, therefore every year mercy is again aroused above [during this time] and they are days of favor.
Elul is a time of great opportunity. However, like every true opportunity, it is also a great responsibility. For if God has granted us the opportunity to change and improve and we do not make use of that opportunity, then we effectively compound our guilt.

In previous generations the significance of Elul was better appreciated. The story is told of the marketplace of Kelm, Lithuania – the little town that was home to the famous Talmud Torah of Kelm – where a Gentile was attempting to bargain with a Jewish merchant, and he wasn’t getting anywhere. Finally, another Gentile approached him and asked him why he was trying to bargain. "What?" responded the bargainer, "Of course, I’m trying to bargain! Everyone knows that the initial asking price is always just a bluff!" To which the second Gentile responded, "Don’t you know? It's Elul! The Jews don't bluff during Elul!”

As we enter into this period, and approach the days of judgment on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, it behooves us to think over the past year and the events that have taken place and to remind ourselves that happened in the past year was decreed in the previous Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

I heard many times from my rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Knobel שליט"א, that it is very easy for us to get discouraged about truly changing our behavior at this time of year. After all, every year we go through the motions and afterwards we quickly revert to our prior behavior. He used to advise us to choose one concrete act, even if it was fairly minor, to improve and to make a solid commitment in that one area. God doesn't expect us to change overnight, He only wants us to make progress, and if we can show concrete progress we have a far better chance of a positive decision on these days of judgment.

So, let us look over our lives. Let us pick something – one thing – that we can truly commit to change, even if only for a specified period of time. Let it be a decision to recite a daily prayer, to attend a Torah class or to study Torah with a partner, to help another person, to speak gently to our spouse, or any similar positive act.

And may God grant us a sweet new year!

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