Every month, according to Jewish tradition, has a special theme. The month of Elul, as we know, is the month when we prepare for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah which follows, and so this month is commonly associated with teshuvah (repentance).
Of course, this is correct, but there is also a more specific theme to the month of Elul.
The Arizal (Rav Yitzhak Luria, 1534-1572) taught that each of the 12 months is linked to a certain configuration of Gd’s Name. The Name of “Havayah” consists of four letters – “yod,” “heh,” “vav,” and “heh” – and these four letters can be arranged in 12 different configurations. The standard configuration, of course, is the sequence we just mentioned – “yod,” “heh,” “vav,” and “heh” – and it is associated with the month of Nissan.
The Arizal also taught that the configuration associated with each month is embedded in a certain verse in the Torah. By identifying this verse, he explained, we can identify the specific theme of that month.
The configuration linked to the month of Elul, according to this system, is “heh,” “heh,” “vav,” and “yod.” And it is embedded within a verse in the Book of Devarim (6:25), “Utzdakah tiheyeh lanu ki” (“It will be meritorious for us when…”), the final letters of which are heh,” “heh,” “vav,” and “yod.” Significantly, this phrase includes the word tzedakah – indicating that charity constitutes the core essence of this month.
Why is specifically tzedakah the primary theme of Elul? We of course understand that giving charity is a vitally important and precious mitzvah. But why does it play such a prominent role in the month devoted to preparing for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah?
Giving in Order to Receive
The answer is actually quite simple.
The main things we wish for as we look ahead to the new year are life and sustenance. This is especially true this year, when both lives and livelihoods are threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tzedakah is the most effective means we have to achieve both life and sustenance.
Already King Shlomo taught in the Book of Mishleh (11:4), “Utzdakah tatzil mimavet – And charity saves from death.” The merit of generous charitable donations brings us life.
It also brings us sustenance. Intuitively, we assume that we need to keep our money with us in order to become wealthy. But Torah tradition teaches us that to the contrary – in order to receive money, we need to give away money to charitable causes.
One of the Hebrew words for money is “damim,” which also means “blood.” In ancient times, it was believed that once a month, a person should have blood let out of his body, so that the body can then produce new, fresh blood. The same is true of money. In order to receive more, we need to give what we already have.
Rav Haim Vital (1543-1620), the famous disciple of the Arizal, writes in his Sha’ar Hamitzvot (Parashat Re’eh) that one should never be afraid that he compromises his financial status by giving charity. To the contrary, he writes, when a person gives, he ends up increasing his assets.
This is the Torah approach to personal finances: we create wealth by giving, rather than by keeping what we have.
Elul, then, is the month of tzedakah. The best way to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah, when we beseech Gd for a year of life and prosperity, is to give charity, the secret to life and prosperity.
Making the Seeds Grow
Once we properly understand the Torah’s outlook on finances, we will never be tempted to make money through unethical means. When we realize that Gd grants us blessing based on merit, we realize just how absurd it is to try to violate His rules in the pursuit of wealth.
The story is told of a certain wealthy man who built a multimillion-dollar enterprise over the course of many years, and the time came to retire. Having no children of his own, he decided he would bequeath the business to one of his 50 great-nephews. But how would he choose which one to give it to?
He gathered all his great-nephews and explained to them that he wished to retire, and would be granting this successful enterprise to one of them. He wanted to ensure, however, that the business would be in the best hands, in the hands of the one who would be most dedicated and would work the hardest to maintain and continue building it. In order to determine the best candidate, he said, he was giving all the great-nephews a bag of seeds. Each great-nephew was to take the seeds, plant them, and nurture the tree that grows. A year later, he would go around and measure each tree. The one who grew the tallest tree would have proven himself to be the one most likely to successfully grow the business.
All 50 nephews excitedly got to work planting and then watering and taking good care of their trees. The results were quite impressive. Within just a few months, all their trees grew to remarkable heights.
Except for one of them.
He couldn’t produce a tree at all. He planted the seeds in the ground and did everything right. The location was perfect, he watered them adequately, and he even consulted with the experts for advice. But no matter what he did, nothing grew. All his cousins had dazzling trees, and he had nothing.
His wife mocked him. “Did you see what all your cousins are producing?” she shouted. “You’re losing out. You don’t stand a chance. How could you miss such a precious opportunity?!”
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’ve tried everything, but the seeds won’t grow.”
When the year passed, the great-uncle went around the trees with all his nephews, marveling at the incredible results.
“Wow,” he said, “this is going to be a more difficult decision than I thought. You all did such terrific work!”
But then they realized that one of the 50 cousins was missing.
They went to the place where this 50th cousin had planted his seeds, and they saw there was nothing there. The cousins all started laughing at his lack of effort.
“Please, gather round,” the uncle announced. “I’ve made my decision.” They all immediately assembled, overcome by suspense.
“There’s something I need to tell you. All the seeds I gave you – I first boiled them in water so they could not produce anything. I made sure that none of them could ever grow into a tree. But 49 of you took other seeds and planted them in order to produce impressive trees. Only one was honest. He was not willing to compromise his integrity, not even for the sake of receiving my multimillion-dollar business. He didn’t produce a tree – because he did not abandon his values and principles.
“He is the one I am entrusting my business to. I worked very hard to build not just an enterprise, but a reputation. And that reputation is far more precious than anything else. I cannot risk sacrificing this business’ reputation by handing it over to people who are willing to cheat to make money.”
Gd, too, entrusts us with money only if He sees that we are honest and ethical, that we can be trusted to use our blessings the right way, to make our “trees” grow without deception.
This is part of the tzedakah theme that characterizes the special month of Elul. Tzedakah means not only dispensing money to help those in need, but also foregoing on potential profits for the sake of our values. The root of the word “tzedakah” – “tz.d.k.” – means “just.” We must be not only generous, but also honest and upright. As part of our preparation for Rosh Hashanah, we must carefully evaluate our financial practices to ensure that we strictly adhere to the Torah’s rigorous ethical standards – so that we can be trusted with the blessing and good fortune which we want for the new year.
Better Than Red Strings
A woman once showed me the red string around her wrist, which she had purchased for good luck. She asked me what I thought of it.
“I don’t know that much about these things,” I said, “but I know that it brings parnasah [livelihood] – “
“Great!” the woman exclaimed. “This is precisely why I bought it!”
“Wait,” I said. “You didn’t let me finish the sentence. I was going to say that it brings parnasah to the person who sold it to you. I don’t think it will do much for you.”
People today love “segulot” (“charms”), and the more unusual a segulah is, the more popular it seems to become. This is really a shame, because we have verified “segulot” for prosperity in our primary sources, as we have seen. There is no need to resort to red strings. We have already been taught how to be worthy of joy, success, and prosperity – through tzedakah, by being generous, and by being scrupulously honest.
Elul this year is like no other we’ve experienced in our lifetime. We all feel vulnerable and anxious. Professionals and government leaders have no answers, no solutions to this crisis, which is destroying lives and destroying livelihoods. As believing Jews, we instinctively direct our eyes to Gd and plead for His help. During this month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, let us make ourselves worthy of His blessings by recommitting ourselves to our timeless values of tzedakah, to strict ethical standards and generous giving. And then we will, please Gd, be deserving of a year filled with joy, health, blessing, and success, together with the rest of Am Yisrael, amen.