By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour

The period of Elul is intended as a time to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But is one month really enough? How significantly can we change during these weeks? The answer lies in a keener understanding of what Elul is really about.

A Jewish man who did not observe Shabbat decided one Saturday afternoon to go shopping in Manhattan. He shopped in several stores, and, soon after he left the final store with his bags, the sky opened and a heavy rain began to fall. As it so happened, he was right outside a synagogue, and the door was unlocked. The man figured that he would seek refuge in the synagogue until the storm passes, and so he walked inside the building, went into the women’s section, put his bags on a chair and sat down. Before long, he fell asleep.

Several hours later, the synagogue’s rabbi and several congregants arrived in the synagogue for the weekly Shabbat afternoon class. As the rabbi delivered the class, the sleeping shopper awoke. He was intrigued by what the rabbi taught, and, although he had never before shown any interest in learning about Torah observance, he listened attentively. The rabbi’s words inspired the man and led him to explore religion further. Soon enough, he became fully observant.

While this event appears to portray a classic case of teshuva,it is actually a reversal of the typical formula – a fact that many people unfortunately fail to recognize.

The word “kukt – Elul,” which refers to the year’s final month when we are to intensify our teshuva in preparation for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, has been attributed many subtle meanings by the sages. Undoubtedly, the most famous interpretation of this word is that is an acronym of the verse in Shir Hashirim (6:3), “hkhsusuhsuskhbt– Ani ledodi vedodi li – I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me,” which expresses the mutual relationship of love between Israel and Gd. The period of Elul is intended to repair that relationship, and the month’s name therefore brings to mind this beautiful expression of the bonds of affection that connect us with the Almighty.

What is less known is that earlier in Shir Hashirim(2:16), we find a similar phrase, but one which is arranged in the reverse sequence: “Dodi li va’ani lo– My Beloved is for me, and I am for Him.” In this verse, Gd’s devotion to us – “My Beloved is for me” – is mentioned before our devotion to Gd – “and I am for Him.” This is in contrast to the more familiar verse of “Ani ledodi vedodi li,” which speaks first of our love for Gd, and then of Gd’s affection for us.

What is the significance of this shift in sequence, and why in Elul are we reminded specifically of “Ani ledodi vedodi li,” and not of “Dodi li va’ani lo”?

Two Models of Teshuva

The case of the Shabbat shopper described earlier does not represent the standard method through which people draw closer to religious observance. On that Shabbat, Gd, for reasons that we cannot know, decided to come to the man, take him by the hand and bring him to Torah. Of course, after Gd did His part by making it rain just when the man was passing by the synagogue and ensuring that the rabbi would deliver an inspiring class just at that time – the man had to exert his own effort to become observant. But the first move was made by Gd. The rabbis refer to this kind of teshuvawith the term “itareruta dele’ela– an awakening from above.” This is a situation of “Dodi li va’ani lo,” when Gd makes the first move in repairing His relationship with the Jew, and the Jew then responds by committing himself to Gd.

Ordinarily, however, and certainly during Elul, the teshuvaprocess follows the opposite format, which is known as “itareruta deletata– an awakening from below.” We usually must take the first step forward toward Gd, and He will then help us along the rest of the way. Undoubtedly, we cannot undergo the process of repentance alone, without divine assistance. For that matter, no person is able to observe the Torah and refrain from wrongdoing without Gd’s help. The yeser hara(evil inclination) is far too powerful a force for a person to resist independently. But we are expected to throw the first punch, to initiate the campaign against our negative tendencies, and then Gd will step in and help us. We cannot wait until it happens to start raining when we are outside with our shopping bags in front of an unlocked synagogue on Shabbat afternoon. This kind of heavenly initiative certainly occurs, but it is not the norm. The standard procedure is “Ani ledodi” – we make the first step toward Gd – and then “va’dodi li” – He comes to help us.

In Elul, as the great trial of Rosh Hashanah approaches, we are taught that we must feel a sense of urgency and desperation. More so than any other time of year, during this month we cannot sit and wait for Gd to come and get us. Our sages urge us to make the first move towards Him and put the process of repentance into motion. Then, He will come and help us to make the next stages of the process increasingly easier.

But why should Hashem make it easier at all? Shouldn’t we be expected to bear the responsibility of complete teshuvaourselves?

Gd’s Teshuva

The Zera Kodesh, one of the famous Hassidic masters, attributed this system to the broader concept that Gd follows our example, so-to-speak, and pays us in kind according to the way we act. For example, if we react forgivingly to those who have wronged us, then He, in turn, will treat us forgivingly and pardon our sins. According to the Zera Kodesh, the same applies to teshuva. If we repent, then Gd follows our example and performs what might be referred to as “teshuva,” as well.

At first glance, this sounds blasphemous. How can Gd perform teshuva? Teshuva,as we know it, is only required if a person acted wrongly. Gd, by definition, cannot act wrongly. How, then, can we speak of Gd performing teshuva?

The Zera Kodeshexplains that Gd’s “teshuva” comes in the sense of weakening the power of the yesser hara. Gd created us with sinful tendencies, and thus, although we are obviously expected to overcome them and refrain from sin, any wrongdoing on our part is at least partially attributable to these Gd-given tendencies – and thus to Gd Himself. When one works toward rectifying his role in his sin, then Gd responds by “rectifying” His role. He diminishes the “power supply” of the yesser hara, reducing its potency and capacity to lead the person to wrongdoing. Thus, once we begin to make teshuvafor our wrongdoing, Gd similarly extends his “teshuva” and makes it easier for us to observe the Torah as we should.

This is how the process of “Ani ledodi vedodi li” works. We do our part by experiencing regret, confessing, praying and working toward improving ourselves. Gd then does His part by weakening the yesser haraand enabling us to reach greater spiritual heights.

The Zera Kodeshnotes that the Torah alludes to this process in Parashat Ki-Tesse, which – perhaps not coincidentally – is always read during the month of Elul. This parasha begins, “When you go out to war against your foes, and Hashem your Gd places him in your hand and you take him captive…” According to the plain reading of the text, the Torah speaks of an actual war waged against an enemy nation. On a deeper level, however, this verse refers to the battle we all wage against our internal enemy, the yesser hara. The Torah promises that if we take the initiative to “go out to war” and fight against our evil instincts, meaning, we perform teshuva – then Gd will respond by delivering our enemy – the yesser hara – into our hand.

Magnetic Missvot

This concept underlies the famous rabbinic dictum, “Missva goreret missva – One missva drags along another missva.” Once we get the ball rolling, Gd helps us keep it going.

Rashi enlists this principle to explain a sequence of verses later in Parashat Ki-Tesse. The Torah there presents the missva of shilu’ah haken, which requires a person to send away a mother bird before taking the eggs. After discussing this obligation, the Torah proceeds to several other, seemingly unrelated topics: constructing a fence around the rooftop of a new home, the prohibition against planting grains and vines together, the restriction against plowing with different animals together, the law of sha’atnez (the prohibition against wearing garments containing both wool and linen woven together), and the missva of sissit (putting special fringes on a four cornered garment). Rashi comments, “If you fulfilled the missva of shilu’ah haken, you will ultimately build a new home and fulfill the missva of [building] a fence, for one missva drags along another missva. And you will then come upon a vineyard, a field and fine clothing. This is why these sections are juxtaposed.”

Rashi here describes the “magnetic” effect of missvot. Once a person performs the act of shilu’ah haken, sending away a mother bird, he sets off a chain reaction of missva observance. This act leads to the construction of a new home and the missva of building a fence, which in turn brings along a new field with the relevant missvot governing agricultural work, which is then followed by the purchase of new garments and the laws of sha’atnez and sissit. This whole process began with the simple act of waving one’s hand to send a bird away from its nest. That’s all one needed to do to get himself in an endless cycle of missva observance.

The “Potato Chip Syndrome”

Many of us have personally experienced this chain reaction, or know people who have. A person who has not been especially committed to Torah is one day persuaded by a peer to attend a class in the synagogue. He finds the material interesting and the atmosphere warm and enjoyable, and several days later he decides to come for Shaharit in the morning. Along the way, he sees somebody walking in the rain and offers him a ride. They chat, and the passenger tells him of an ill relative in need of prayers. The man is moved, and so after Shaharit he stays to recite Tehillim. On the way out, he speaks with other congregants and learns of other classes and hesed programs going on in the community. One thing leads to another, and, before he realizes it, he is attending daily prayer services and Torah classes and involving himself in a range of meaningful hesed projects.

All this began so innocuously, by attending one Torah class.

Missvot may be compared to potato chips: it’s hard to have just one. Few people can open a bag of potato chips and eat only one chip; once a person starts and eats one, he is lured to continue eating more. And this is similarly how it is with missvot: you start with one, and invariably many others will follow. Performing missvot is not a “retail” business, where the customer comes and purchases just one item. Missvot are “sold” “wholesale,” in bunches. You start with one, but countless others will then be sure to follow.

The Gemara in Masechet Kiddushin (31) tells a story of how missva observance raised the sage Avimi to a higher level of scholarly achievement. Avimi’s father, Rabbi Abahu once asked his son to bring him a cup of water. But when Avimi hurriedly returned from the well with the water, he found that his father had fallen asleep. Avimi, who always ensured to honor his parents on the highest standard, certainly did not wish to wake his father; but he also felt that simply putting the cup down next to his father would be less respectful than handing it to him directly. He therefore decided to stand and wait there with the cup in hand, until his father awoke.

While he stood there waiting, his mind naturally wandered onto thoughts of Torah. Specifically, he began pondering a certain verse in Tehillim that he had been unable to explain. As he stood next to his sleeping father, Avimi arrived at a proper understanding of the verse.

This was his reward for his exemplary treatment of his father – a new Torah insight. Once a person makes the effort to perform a missva, the next one is sure to follow. It works every time.

Lifting Weights

The mechanics of “missva goreret missva” are not much different than those of athletic training. A person who decides to take up weightlifting begins with the lighter weights. He starts lifting 50 lb weights, and then once he masters those, he moves on to 60 lbs, and so on. A rookie jogger might want to start by running only a half-mile. Once he can complete the half-mile run without too much exertion, he is ready to run a mile. And then two miles. Once he masters one level, he is ready for the next. He is like the schoolchild who passes his exams at the end of first grade so he could move on to second grade. One grade at a time, the child masters his current scholastic level and then proceeds to the next.

Torah observance is no different. Gd does not expect us to become righteous Talmudic sages tomorrow. What He does expect of us, however, especially during the month of Elul, is to ensure to complete our current grade level, to perform the missvot that we are currently capable of mastering, until we are ready to move forward. We don’t need to – and in fact we shouldn’t – try lifting weights that are too heavy for us. Our job is to perform missvot on our level with the commitment to proceed to the next level as soon as we are ready.

Those who were not raised in observant homes and embraced observance later in life know this very well. This process unfolds over time, one small step after another. The person begins with one missva, be it tefillin, prayer, Shabbat, or regular attendance in Torah classes, and sooner or later that missva brings him to yet another missva. Eventually, he becomes a full-fledged practicing Torah Jew.

But in truth, this applies to all of us. The forty-day period between Rosh Hodesh Elul and Yom Kippur is not long enough for us to correct all our spiritual deficiencies. But this is not what Elul is about. Rather, Elul means “Ani ledodi” – getting the process going by raising our standards to whatever extent we can, by taking on something we haven’t been doing until now. The second half of the verse, “vedodi li,” is Gd’s guarantee that once we make that first move forward, He will then take our hand and bring us to the next stage.

A famous verse in Tehillim (34:15) exhorts, “Sur mera va’ase tov – Turn away from evil and do goodness.” Some have explained this verse to mean that the way to “turn away from evil” is by “doing goodness.” We reverse our negative tendencies by getting the ball rolling, by taking on one missva, which will soon be followed by the other. We must push ourselves upward to the first rung of the ladder, and Gd will then gently push us forward to the next rung.

TheTorah describes the ladder in Yaakov’s famous dream as “stationed in the ground with its top extending to the heavens” (Beresheet 28:12). There is a very long way between the ground and the heavens. This image teaches us that even if one is on the “ground,” on the lowest level of religious observance, he can reach the heavens by ascending the “ladder,” by raising himself one “rung” at a time. Our job during Elul is a simple one: to step up onto the ladder, at whichever level we are on, and trust that, with a bit of work and lots of help from above, we will rise, one level at a time, until we reach the “heavens,” the very highest levels of spiritual achievement.

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