Rabbi Avraham Shapiro Shlit"a
Rosh Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav
Speech given at Beit HaRav on the 3rd of Elul 5755
Each year, in the month of Elul, I call to mind how the Hafetz Haim used to conduct himself at this time of the year. I used to attend prayer services in Zichron Moshe. Many great rabbanim who had come to Eretz Israel from Russia had made Zichron Moshe their home and place of prayer and study. Among them was the Rav of Radin (Poland), R. Zalman Sender, who was also a relation of HaRav Herzog. He would tell me about the Hafetz Haim who used to live in Radin. The Hafetz Haim was not the Rav of Radin. He served as Rav for a time and then resigned, and lived there as a simple member of the community. And from this too - from the manner in which the Hafetz Haim lived as a simple member of the community - there is much to be learned.
Years later when R. Sender was in Eretz Israel, he would tell me how, each year, on the Shabbath preceding Rosh Hodesh Elul, when the blessing for the new month was said, and the hazan announced: "Rosh Hodesh Elul will be on this and this day..." the Hafetz Haim would begin to tremble and shake! It was not yet Elul, but the mere mention of the month was enough to cause the Hafetz Haim to be filled with trembling.
When HaRav Kook eulogized the Hafetz Haim, he spoke of him as the true normative Jew, who fulfills all the taryag mitzvoth and keeps all that is written in the Shulkhan Arukh. And, indeed, this should be the reaction of the normative Jew - to be seized by dread when Elul is mentioned.
For Elul is a time of preparation for atonement. The Ramban writes,in Drashath HaRamban LeRoshHaShanah, that the atonement of Klal Israel takes place on Yom Kippur. What then occurs on Rosh HaShanah? That is the time of G-d's desire to pardon Israel's sins. That is to say, the preparation for the atonement of Yom Kippur takes place on Rosh HaShanah. The month of Elul, too is a preparation for Yom Kippur. The process of preparing oneself - of making oneself ready - has a force and power of its own. We are instructed concerning the study of Torah: Prepare thyself - preparation is itself study. It might appear that until the act of atonement is completed nothing has occurred. But, in fact, preparing to atone is an act of great importance in its own right.
The Sages write that when the prophet Elijah was on Mt. Carmel (I Kings 18) it was due to the merit of the People and not of the prophet that the miracle of the fire which came down from Heaven took place. But what merit was there in the People that the Sages considered great enough to warrant such a miracle? Elijah said, "...How long halt ye between two opinions? If the L-rd be G-d follow Him; but if Baal, follow him. And the people answered him not a word." (I Kings 18:21) That is, through their silence they acknowledged that they must choose whether or not to believe that "the L-rd be G-d". They have not yet repented. They are not yet ready to affirm their faith in G-d, but they are prepared to choose. Until this moment they had not been prepared to take the decision whether or not to reject idolatry - and now they are. The readiness to repent is a great virtue, and it was this virtue that the Sages ascribed to the People. For the preparation to repent is part of the process of repentance.
The Rosh (Massehet Rosh Hashanah) cites the Pirkei d'R. Eliezer thus: R. Yehoshua ben Karkah said: Forty days Moses stood on the mountain...he descended and broke the [First] Tables on the 17th of Tammuz...then on Rosh Hodesh Elul, G-d said to Moses "...come up unto Me unto the mount..." (Deut. 10:1) and the shofar was sounded throughout the camp, that the People of Israel should not fall again into the error of idolatry. And G-d was exalted by that same shofar, as is written:"G-d is gone up...,/The L-rd amidst the sound of the horn." (Ps. 47:6) Therefore the Sages promulgated a takhanah (regulation) that each year the shofar was to be sounded on Rosh Hodesh Elul in order to bring Israel back to repentance, for, "Shall the horn be blown in a city,/And the people not tremble?..." (Amos 3:6)
Thus we learn from the Rosh that the role of Elul in preparing Israel for atonement is of ancient origin - going back to Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. At that moment, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, when Moses once again ascended the mountain to receive the Second Tables, a great Herdath HaDin (Fear of Judgment) fell upon Israel - 'take heed not to fall into the same error which caused you to fail before through the sin of the Golden Calf'. Yet together with this Fear was a great sense of anticipation at the prospect of receiving the Torah. And they received the Torah finally on the fortieth day after Moses had ascended the mountain for the second time - and that day was Yom Kippur. But the preparations to receive the Torah, the Herdath HaDin and the anticipation, had begun on Rosh Hodesh Elul when G-d said to Moses, "...come up unto Me unto the mount..." (Deut. 10:1)
"Now I stayed in the mount, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights..." (Deut. 10:10) The Sages understand from the words "as at the first time" that this second ascent to receive the Torah, like the first one, was a propitious time for Israel, a time of G-d's favour and goodwill to His People. (Seder Olam, 6) Thus, was Rosh Hodesh Elul established as a time of anticipation and preparation, of Herdath HaDin, when G-d's favour is revealed. So too, today, are the days of Elul a propitious time for Israel.
"R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Israel committed the sin of the Golden Calf only in order that a source of hope might be provided for those who wish to repent. That is, as was said by R. Yohanan: The deed [falling into sin through his desire for Bathsheba] was not worthy of David: the deed [the making of the Golden Calf] was not worthy of Israel. These deeds occurred only so that if an individual sinned he could be told - go, take an example from [David];and if the community sinned they could be told - go, take an example from [Israel]." (Avodah Zarah 4) The Gemara explains that, in fact, both King David and the People of Israel deserved to receive Se'atah De'shemaiah (Divine Aid) in order to help them overcome temptation. But because G-d wished to teach man the lesson of Teshuvah (Repentance) and to provide a source of hope for those who wished to repent, Se'atah De'shemaiah was withheld from King David and from the People of Israel, and they sinned and repented.
Nonetheless, at first glance, there seems to be a difficulty here. For Teshuvah is a mitzvath aseh (positive command). Moreover, says the Gemara, Teshuvah was created even before the Creation of the Universe. If this is so, then what is the necessity for the particular lessons to be drawn from the Teshuvah of King David and of the People of Israel? And the answer is that we are not concerned here with the mitzvah of Teshuvah, but with the Process of Teshuvah. An entire system has been devised to teach us how to repent. We know that Teshuvah is advantageous to man. But, it is from King David and the People of Israel that we have learned how to repent.
And therefore, at this time of the year, we are occupied with Teshuvah. We immerse ourselves in that great Process of Teshuvah which will bring about a healing for the sicknesses of the soul.
In the Chapter preceding that in which the the Thirteen Divine Attributes are enumerated (Exodus 34), we find two small but fundamentally important passages in the Torah. The first tells us, "And Moses said unto the L-rd: 'See, Thou sayest unto me: Bring up this people; and Thou hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me...For wherein now shall it be know that I have found grace in Thy sight , I and Thy people? Is it not that Thou goest with us, so that we are distinguished, I and Thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth?'" (Exod. 33:12-16) Moses has a request to make of G-d on behalf of himself and Klal Israel - "I and thy people". G-d Chose Israel to be His People before the sin of the Golden Calf. But now there is to be a new Choosing, an additional Choosing "...so that we are distinguished, I and thy people". Previously the prerogatives of the Gentile nations were not abolished and therefore there were prophets among the Gentiles also. But now there is a Promise that from here on prophesy has been taken from the Gentile nations and the Shekhinah will rest only upon the People of Israel.
The second passage records how, a Promise is made, "...and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." (Exod. 33:19) This is G-d's preparation in advance for Israel's atonement. The mercy that is to come is already in readiness.
But the time for atonement and mercy is the time of the Receiving of the Torah. This propitious time for Israel ended on Yom Kippur. And on Yom Kippur "... the L-rd said unto Moses: 'Write thou these words, for after the tenor of these I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.'" (Exod. 34:27) From this we learn two things. "...for after the tenor of these..." - according to the Gemara this covenant refers to the Torah SheBe'Al Torah (Oral Law), as the Torah SheBe'Ktav (Written Law) was already extant. This is the covenant of the Oral Law - and of repentance and atonement. And we learn too, that Torah and Teshuvah are as one. Even though they may appear to be separate entities they are one and the same.And this is seen clearly in the benediction upon Teshuvah "who art pleased with repentance" which begins with the words "Restore us, our Father, to thy Torah. (Shmoneh Esreh)
"Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse." (Deut.11:26) The Sforno comments that one should never choose the mediocre, but, when one is given a choice, choose greatness, choose the blessing.
And this greatness is Torah "for everything is contained within it" (Heb. - hafakh-bah vehafakh-bah dekulah bah - Pirkei Avoth 5:25). Thus does the Yeshivah build up the stature of a person through the study of Torah. "Do not read banayikh (your children), but bonayikh (your builders - i.e., scholars who are the true builders of peace)." (Berakhoth 64a)Thus is one built up through Torah: thus does the Yeshivah build up its scholars through the study of Torah.
Filled with Herdath HaDin we ask, what is in store for us, and what can we do about it? And how are we to be judged? And the answer is, by the standards of greatness, by the moral stature we attain. And each year this situation repeats itself. And each year, at this time, we are filled with Herdath HaDin. And now, as then, the shofar is to be sounded in the month of Elul to remind us of the awesomeness of this time of judgment.
Yet, together with Herdath HaDin there must also be Bitahon (Faith). This, too, is part of the process of preparation. It is written, "When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies..... thou shalt not be afraid of them" (Deut. 20:1). R. Yonah commented that from this verse we learn that Despair is a sin. For when one sees a time of trouble nearing, one must expect to see the Deliverance of G-d approaching along with it. In these days of awe when we are filled with Herdath HaDin, we must also be pervaded with the anticipation of G-d's Deliverance.
For this reason, another takhanah of ancient origin is the inclusion of Psalm 27 in the prayer service. "The L-rd is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?/The L-rd is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" (Ps. 27:1) "My light" is interpreted as Rosh Hashanah; "my salvation" as Yom Kippur. For indeed G-d is the "stronghold of my life." If a time of trouble is nearing, if one is filled with Herdath HaDin, yet one must be sure and confident of the Deliverance of G-d. Then, "though war should rise up against me,/Even then will I be confident". (Ps. 27:3)
The Psalm ends with the words: "Hope in the L-rd;/Be strong and let thy heart take courage;/Yes, hope in the L-rd." (Ps. 27:14) The Sages interpreted this passage thus (Brakhot 32): If matters do not appear to be working out, yet still, once more, let your hope lie in G-d. R. Hamah bar Hanninah said: If one prays, and prayer appears to be unanswered, yet one is obliged to return and pray and beseech G-d yet again. "Hope in the L-rd..." Do not abandon hope. Do not forsake your Faith in G-d's Deliverance.
R. Yitzhak said (Midrash): All things rest in hope. All that makes up life, all that is holiness and Torah, all that is granted, all that is desired - all comes through absolute hope in G-d's Deliverance.
And at this time of preparation, before Yom Kippur, this time of Herdath HaDin and Bitahon, let Israel's hopes in G-d's Deliverance be answered.
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