Recapturing Elul

Nov 24, 2014

R. Eliezer Kwass

“Elul” in the Eastern European Torah world was synonymous with spiritual intensity. This intensity was not limited to Gedolei Yisrael and Bnei Yeshiva, nor just to praying and learning, but to the whole Jewish community and all spheres of service of G-d. Rav Ben Zion Lapian relates that as a youth he was curious about what market day (Thursday) was like in his native Kelm. In the marketplace he overheard two gentiles negotiating a business deal with a Jewish merchant. After the Jew had gone the two gentiles conversed and one of them raised doubts about whether the Jew could be trusted. The other reassured him, “Today you can trust the Jew. The Jews call this month Elul and they are more righteous now than during the rest of the year.” On Shabbos Mevarchim Elul whole congregations would burst into tears when they first heard the word Elul mentioned in Birkas Hachodesh. Elul Zman in the Mussar Yeshivas meant uninterrupted extra learning after-hours, serious davening and a focus on self-improvement, guided by the Mashgiach Ruchani’s inspiring Shmuessen. Many of the Gedolei Torah would take on a Taanis Dibbur for the forty day period, speaking only in Divrei Torah and Tefilla and where absolutely necessary (of course, with special permission from their wives). Others would go into virtual seclusion until after Yom Kippur. The awe was visible on their faces and palpable in their homes. As the Gerrer Rebbe zt”l (the Pnei Menachem) said of Elul by his grandfather the Sfas Emes, “In Elul the walls trembled”.

The Elul intensity is rooted in a spiritual reality, not just artificial hype to get us in the mood for the high holidays. Starting on Rosh Chodesh Elul, teach the Gedolei Chassidus, there is a special revelation of G-dliness and the Divine Royalty to the collective soul of the People of Israel. The King is close at hand and presents us with opportunities to come close to Him. “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me;” the first letters of the words “Ani leDodi veDodi li” form the Hebrew acronym Elul. Elul is not only a month of fear and trembling but also one of love of G-d and joy over His closeness – both resulting from an actual spiritual state, a unique Divine revelation.

This spiritual reality traces back to the people of Israel’s first Elul. Tanna Dvei Eliahu Chapter 45 reconstructs Israel’s timeline from the giving of the Torah until the first Yom Kippur. Forty days from the Seventeenth of Tammuz until the end of Av were devoted to undoing the Golden Calf episode. On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moshe went up to Mount Sinai a second time. In the camp they blew the shofar and announced, “Moshe has ascended up on high,” to remind them to be especially careful not to lapse into anything associated with idolatry (and avoid what happened in the Golden Calf when Moshe seemed to have momentarily disappeared). This shofar (commemorated by our Shofar blowing during Elul) caused a special elevation of the Divine Presence, “G-d was elevated through the Shofar.” As for Moshe – he spent all of Elul learning Torah day and night in order to bring it back down to Am Yisrael on Yom Kippur.

Both Am Yisrael’s and Moshe’s Elul experience might serve as a model for our own, enabling us to recapture that spirit of Elul we spoke about above. We have had our lapses during the year – so we, like Israel in Elul after the Golden Calf, make serious efforts at keeping ourselves pointed in the right direction.

But we have also risen to Moshe-like heights and accomplished much during the same year – so we must in Elul, like Moshe, rise even higher, in order to have more to give to Am Yisrael. We take advantage of G-d allowing us to join Him on His mountain. Joining ourselves in this double Elul experience, repairing the problematic sides of our lives and intensifying the positive ones, will, G-d willing, help us recapture the spirit of Elul, not only that of Eastern Europe, but also that of Sinai.

(Sources: Kadosh Elul, published anonymously; Kedushat Levi, Rosh Hashana)

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