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Yes, it’s that time of year again! Early morning selihot, deep introspection, and resolutions for the approaching Jewish New Year…
The month of Elul is here and it’s time to shape up!

Here We Go Again…

For many of us, the mere thought of Elul sends shivers down our spines. We associate Elul withteshuvah, teshuvah with the upcoming holidays, and the holidays with every terrible thing that’s occurred over the past year. Like a roller-coaster, our minds race to the tragedies we may have suffered, to the memories of those lost over the year, and to every problem we were forced to face over the past 12 months.

Although most won’t admit it, “No, not again” is very often the words that come to mind as we begin approaching the High Holiday Season. After all, with the onset of Rosh Hashanah, we’ve got 48 hours to be on our best behavior as our entire year is written – only to be signed and stamped just nine days later, with the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Who can blame us for dreading the experience?

Confident in a Miracle

But while it is true that Elul is a time for improvement, and that on Rosh Hashanah we all stand before Hashem hoping for the best possible verdict, it is vitally important to bear in mind Gd’s infinite kindness and mercy.

The basic code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 581:4), states explicity, “We bathe and take haircuts on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.” Many commentators were baffled by this halachic requirement. Standing just moments away from the most significant court case we could ever face, would it not be more suitable for us to refrain from haircuts and baths? Are we not frightened? Is this really a time for us to groom ourselves?

The answer to this question is supplied by the Midrash (cited by the Tur, Orah Haim 581), which draws a distinction between the way ordinary defendants conduct themselves, and the way we act before our annual Rosh Hashanah trial. Ordinarily, someone awaiting judgment dons black garments and awaits his sentence with fear and anxiety. “But for Yisrael,” the Midrash continues “this is not so… for they know that the Holy One will make for them a miracle.”

This is precisely why we welcome the holiday bathed and clean shaven. We trust that although we stand far from worthy, Hashem will nevertheless grant us a good year.

But how do we know we will be granted a good year? What is the basis for this confidence?

Remember the Semahot!

Upon reflecting on the previous year, we tend to dwell on all the unfortunate events that took place. But what about all of the wonderful things that happened this past year? Have we already forgotten them? What about all the weddings? The bar mitzvahs? The many new babies born to our families each day?

As we analyze our conduct and service to Hashem over the past year, let us also take some time to contemplate all the happy news we’ve heard, and reminisce about the many beautiful semahot we were privileged to attend and to celebrate. And, let us consider all the many comforts, luxuries and conveniences that we take for granted –
warm robes and hot coffee, trendy clothing and comfortable shoes. Just think for a moment of the trillions of miracles that are taking place in our bodies at this very moment!

After going through all this in our minds, can anyone truly feel that the past year was so terrible? Is there really any reason to dread the High Holiday season? The gifts we are given on a day-to-day basis serve as concrete proof to the words of the Midrash: “for they know that the Holy One will make for them a miracle.”

This is not to say that we have nothing at all to fear. In fact, it is strictly forbidden to feel “Shalom yihyeh li” (Devarim 29:18), to complacently assume that everything we do is acceptable and we have no reason to introspect or work toward change. Certainly, we need to examine our conduct and sense the fear of judgment. The point here, however, is that we must also recognize before whom we are standing trial, the love and mercy of Gd, who has given us this precious gift of Elul and the High Holidays. They are days which the famed Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv referred to not as “Days of Awe,” but rather as “Yamim Nehmadim – “Beloved Days,” as they offer us the potential of rising to the greatest heights in our service to Gd.

And so, when all is said and done, it’s been a great year, and let us hope and pray that this year will be an even better one!

Leon Sakkal is a fulltime member of the Deal Kollel