Hacham Yom Tov Yedid Last Chief Rabbi of Halab
By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
For observant Jews, the Hebrew month of Elul is an especially exciting time. This period is known as “yemeh harahamim vehaselihot – the days of compassion and forgiveness.” It is when we are given a special opportunity to earn forgiveness for our mistakes, and the timing could not be more perfect, as we prepare for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The only condition, however, is that we take advantage of this opportunity by taking a close look at ourselves and seeing where we need to improve.
The arrangement of the weekly Torah readings is intended, in part, to assist us in this most crucial endeavor. Every week’s Torah portion is closely associated with the time of year, and this is true during Elul, as well. Thus, for example, the Talmud teaches that Ezra arranged that Parashat Ki-Tavo, which contains the frightening description of the curses that Gd threatens to send upon us if we violate His word, would be read at the very end of the year, so that “tichleh shanah vekileloteha – the year shall end along with its curses.” Reading about these curses at the end of the year expresses our hope that the end of the year should mark the end of all our hardships, struggles and anguish.
There are many lessons presented by the Torah readings during this season that are especially relevant to the process of introspection and repentance. We will focus our attention here on one law which is read each year during Elul, and which, while at first seems to have no practical relevance to us at all, actually conveys one of the most critical messages that we need to internalize as part of the Elul experience.
In Parashat Ki-Tetze (24:1-4), the Torah presents the basic laws of divorce. It addresses in this context the unusual case of a woman who marries, gets divorced, marries somebody else, is divorced again, and then wishes to remarry her first husband. The Torah strictly forbids the woman from remarrying her first husband in this case. Although a divorced couple is permitted to remarry one another if they so choose, this is prohibited if the woman had been married to somebody else in the interim. The Torah surprisingly accords special severity to this violation, stating, “toevah hi lifneh Hashem – this is an abomination before Gd.”
The term “toevah” is not used too often in the Torah, and when it is used, it describes especially grievous sins such as idol-worship, intimate unions between two males, and commercial fraud. We might wonder why the aforementioned law, prohibiting the remarriage of a divorced couple if the woman had married a different man in the interim, qualifies as a toevah. Various reasons may be offered for this prohibition, but what makes such a marriage “abominable”? After all, the couple had married according to halachah, then divorced according to halachah, and the woman then married and divorced her second husband according to halachah. Even if we understand why the Torah does not want her to marry her first husband again, why would this be considered an “abomination”?
A remarkable answer to this question was suggested by Rav Haim Zaitchik, in his work Ma’ayan Haim. He notes that in the case described by the Torah, the woman’s marriages did not fail simply because the relationships did not, in modern-day parlance, “work out.” Rather, the Torah says that the first husband divorced her because he found in her an “ervat davar” – something improper. He realized that she did not possess the qualities needed to be a positive influence upon him and her children and to build a proper Torah home. The second husband, too, is described as “despising her,” likely referring to his noticing and disliking the same negative qualities that prompted the first husband to end the marriage. Clearly, then, the Torah here speaks primarily of a woman who is divorced twice because she conducts herself inappropriately. (Of course, this halachah applies even if the marriages failed for other reasons; however, the classic case discussed by the Torah is one of a woman who is disliked by her first and second husbands because of her flawed character or inappropriate behavior.)
If so, Rav Zaitchik explained, then we can perhaps understand why the first husband would be guilty of an “abomination” if he remarries her. Her unsuccessful second marriage confirmed that the first husband’s decision was correct, that she is, indeed, a problematic woman. The first husband had taken the difficult and courageous measure of terminating the marriage, with all the emotional turmoil and financial liabilities entailed, for the sake of avoiding her negative influence, and her failed second marriage should serve as a source of validation. If this man now decides to remarry her, this means he has regressed. He regrets the important step forward that he took, and now retreats, turning the clock back to the time when he lived with a woman he should not be living with.
And this, Rav Zaitchik writes, is why this remarriage is considered an “abomination.” From the Torah’s perspective, regression is “abominable.” Turning back after a period of growth and progress is an especially grave matter. If a person makes significant strides in his observance, and then gives it all up and reverts back to where he was before his period of growth, he has committed a very serious offense. As the Torah warns, “This is an abomination before Gd.”
The “Backwards Tax”
We find this concept expressed in other areas of Torah law, as well.
In the Book of Bamidbar (chapter 6), the Torah discusses the laws of a nazir – a person who takes upon himself the nazirite vow, whereby he commits to live at a higher standard for a certain period of time, abstaining from wine and avoiding impurity. One of the perplexing requirements that apply to the nazir is that when his term of nezirutconcludes, he must offer a series of sacrifices, including a hatat(sin-offering). Why, we must wonder, does this individual need to earn atonement through the offering of a hatat? He had just lived on an especially high spiritual standard, voluntarily committing to additional restrictions that do not apply to others. For what “sin” does he require atonement?
The Ramban explained that the nazir requires atonement not for observing this period of special sanctity, but rather for ending it. After living at a higher standard, and achieving greater spiritual heights that he had attained previously, he is now ending his period of nezirutand resuming his normal lifestyle. This transition marks a form of “regression” for which the nazirmust seek atonement.
Another example is the Torah’s discussion in the final chapter of the Book of Vayikra concerning hekdesh– the consecration of property to the Temple treasury. During the times of the Bet Hamikdash, a person was able to declare something he possesses sacred, and it then became the property of the Bet Hamikdash. The Temple treasurer would then sell the item, and the money then entered the Temple’s fund, which was used for maintaining the building. The Torah establishes that the treasurer had to sell a consecrated item at market value. If, however, the person who consecrated the item later wished to reclaim it, he was required to add a 20 percent penalty to the item’s market price.
This halachahseems, at first glance, very peculiar. Why should this individual be penalized for donating property to the Temple? After all, this entire situation was his initiative. He was the one who decided to make a donation. If he changes his mind and decides to give cash instead of property, why should he be fined?
The answer is that the Torah here imposes what we might call a “backwards tax,” penalizing somebody for walking backwards, for regressing. He had donated something he owned to the Bet Hamikdash, and now he wishes to retrieve that object and reclaim ownership. This is a kind of regression, and so he is fined. Regression can never be taken lightly. The Torah allows a person to change his mind and reclaim his property, but this comes at a hefty price, in order to teach him – and us – the importance of maintaining all that we have achieved and not losing our spiritual gains.
Don’t be a Monument
How is this to be done? How can we ensure to hang on to our spiritual “profits,” to our growth, without regressing?
The answer is alluded to in the names of two adjacent parashiyotthat are always read around the time of the High Holidays: “Nitzavim” and “Vayelech.”
The word nitzavmeans to stand firmly in place, while the word vayelechmeans “walked.” The way we achieve the first is through the second. We are able to stand firmly in place and avoid falling backwards by constantly striving to move forward and advance. We might draw a comparison to somebody in a rowboat rowing upstream, against the current. As soon as he stops rowing, he regresses, he moves in the wrong direction. He must constantly row to stand his ground, not to mention in order to advance.
Businessmen know this very well. If a business is not growing, then it is losing. If the business owners are not constantly keeping watch of latest market trends and making necessary adjustments to keep up, the business will decline. And this is true of spirituality, as well. If we’re not moving forward, then we’re falling backwards. If we’re not moving up, then we’re on the way down.
In another parashahwhich is normally read during or just before Elul, Parashat Shoftim (16:22), the Torah commands, “Lo takim lecha metzevah asher saneh Hashem Elokecha– Do not erect for yourself a monument, which Hashem your Gd despises.” On the simple level of interpretation, this means that we must not use the kind of altars used by the ancient pagans, which consisted of just a single stone. Even if one intends to use it for sacrifice to the Almighty, such an altar is forbidden. However, one of the great Hassidic masters, the Ma’or Vashemesh(Rav Kalonimus Kalman Epstein of Cracow, 1751-1823), explains this verse as warning against turning oneself into a “monument,” into a stationary, unmovable structure. It is forbidden for a Jew to become stagnant, to set himself in a certain place and decide that he is just fine the way he is, without any need to grow and advance. Each and every one of us, from habitual sinners to the greatest tzadikim, has room to improve. No human being is perfect, and so no human being is ever allowed to become a “monument.” The Torah demands perpetual motion, that we constantly work to achieve more. We never reach a point of religious observance that allows for complacency. Each day of life that we are given requires us to work to achieve more and to improve.
The Torah formulates this concept in the strictest of terms, warning that Gd “despises” when we become “monuments,” when we stop growing. Just as regression is an “abomination before Gd,” similarly, Gd “despises” complacency and stagnation. Staying still, remaining in place, feeling content with our spiritual achievements – this is antithetical to Torah Judaism. Torah life is about perpetual motion, constant growth, and the lifelong pursuit of excellence.
It is not coincidental that these messages are conveyed to us in the Torah portions read during Elul, as we prepare for the High Holidays. This is precisely what Elul is for – taking stock of our progress, or, Heaven forbid, the opposite. This is the time to ask ourselves, where are we in relation to last year? How have we grown? Have we followed through on the commitments we made last year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? How do we want to improve during the coming year? Which Torah books should we be studying, and which classes should we be attending? How is the environment in our homes? What measures do we parents need to take in order to infuse our homes and inspire our children with spirituality? Are we doing all we can to keep spiritually contaminating forces out of our homes? Are we as attuned as we should be to the needs of others? Which people do we know who need our help, and how can we help them more than we have? Where can we contribute more to the community?
Of course, these are just examples. Every person needs to do this work for himself or herself, identifying where improvement can be made and which realistic measures can be taken to ensure that we are all better in 5777 than we we’ve been in 5776.
Everyone is familiar with the famous teaching that the word “Elul” represents the verse in Shir Hashirim, “Ani ledodi vedodi li– I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me.” Certainly, Elul is a time of great love and closeness between us and Gd, as He assures us that regardless of what we’ve done in the past, He invites and implores us to work towards strengthening our bonds with Him.
But there is also a lesser-known teaching about this month’s name. The Torah in Beresheet (23:2) tells that after the death of our matriarch, Sarah, “Avraham came to eulogize Sarah.” It has been noted that the first letters of these words (“vayavo Avraham lispod leSarah”) are the same letters as the word “Elul.” Why would the name of this month be embedded in the Torah’s brief account of Avraham’s eulogy for his beloved wife? What connection is there between Elul and this eulogy?
Our rabbis teach that Sarah lived the quintessential meaningful life. The Torah writes that she lived “one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years.” Rather than simply state that she lived until the age of 127, the Torah laboriously notes the different groupings of years, to emphasize that all her years were well-spent. She lived each day with a purpose and mission, and made the most of every moment. And this might be the connection between Avraham’s eulogy and Elul. If we want to know what Elul is about, we should look at the life of our great matriarch. Elul is the time to ask ourselves whether we are spending our limited time in this world the way it is supposed to be spent. Are we making the most of the opportunities presented to us each and every day? Or, do we squander them by using our time for vanity? Do we live with a keen sense that every moment of life is a blessing, privilege and responsibility? Or, do we spend our time pursuing fleeting comforts and enjoyment?
We cannot realistically expect to meet the standards set by Sarah, but nevertheless, her example should inspire and challenge us during this month of introspection. This is the month to remind ourselves of the doctrine of perpetual motion – that Torah life is dynamic, not static, requiring us to constantly look ahead to see what our next goal should be, how we can advance just one step forward. If we live in this constant state of progress, we can be assured that each year will see us living on a higher plane than the year before, as we inch ever closer to lofty heights of spiritual greatness.