An Island in Time

Nov 24, 2014
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Rabbi Ron-Ami Meir

Noted kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria – the Arizal – offers a seemingly cryptic drasha relating to the month of Elul. In Parshat Misphatim, the Torah discusses the establishment of Cities of Refuge: “If a person does not plan to kill, but G-d caused it to happen, then I will set aside a place where the killer can flee.”(Shmot 21:13) The Ari notes that the first letters of the words concluding the verse -” . Ina L’yado – Visamti Licha . ” are Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed – spelling Elul! This is to teach us, he explains, that the month of Elul is set aside to atone for any accidental transgressions one has committed in the course of the year. G-d is close to those who call out to Him at this time, in keeping with the other famous drasha on this verse, “Ani Lidodi V’dodi Li” – I am for my Loved One – and He is for me.

What precise linkage is the Arizal proposing? Cities of Refuge were designed so one who commits manslaughter can escape the wrath of the vengeful relative of the victim. Although the Talmud notes that these cities certainly help atone for the accidental killing – the specific connection between these cities and the month of Elul remains unclear.

Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neriah suggests one approach. He explains that the concept of a “refuge” can be expanded to other realms as well. Following each transgression, I must seek to create a “city of refuge” for myself, a framework that will permit me to contemplate the full implications of my error, for me to come to terms with my need to change. Engaging in such reflection is both refreshing and rejuvenating: “The killer should flee to one of these cites and live.” (Devarim 4:42) Far from serving simply as a prison or as physical respite from the angry relative – the city of refuge provides an opportunity for critical self-examination, with an eye to a renewed life of spiritual growth. Rambam, codifying the Gemara in Makot, writes: “A student who has been exiled to a city of refuge – we exile his ‘rebbe’ with him.” An accidental killing is no mere coincidence from the Torah’s viewpoint; now, more than ever, the student is in need of the guidance and spiritual life-force provided by Torah study.

But the Torah did not institute cities of refuge for all transgressions. Instead, Hashem – in His infinite wisdom and kindness – allotted us a time period – a month of refuge – prior to the Yemei HaDin, the days of judgement, of Chodesh Tishrei.

The question we must each ask ourselves is: “What am I going to do with this gift?”

For students in yeshivot and seminaries the answer is clear. But what of a Jew in the work world – where daily life continues apace, seemingly oblivious to the Jewish calendar? The Ari’s message, says Rav Neriah, is not only for the full-time student, whose yeshiva environment is even a physical refuge within the temporal refuge provided by Elul. The Ari’s message is for every Jew; the Zohar says: “Machshavah – Da Adam” – “Contemplation – this defines man.”

Local yeshivot, synagogues and outreach programs, aware of the dilemma, often intensify their course offerings during Elul. In our age of modern technology, on-line Torah sites also abound. Perhaps the best solution: Why not pick a Torah topic close to your heart and offer a friend or family member a four-week Chevruta, building towards Rosh Hashanah?

“For they [Divrei Torah] are our life and the length of our days, and it is on them that we shall meditate day and night..”

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