Utilizing the month of Elul
By Nachum Mohl
Elul is the month before Rosh HaShannah and is traditionally a month of reflection. Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, is a time for assessing one's deeds and actions that were done in the concluding year. Although Rosh HaShanah is the beginning of the period of judgment, it is well known from the Talmud that in cases such as a person who has stolen and been apprehended, he will not only have to give back the stolen item, but also pay a fine. However, if prior to being caught, he comes forth and admits his crime, then he is not obligated to pay the additional fine just to return the stolen object. Clearly we see that a person who admits his crime is exempt from paying a fine (not from returning or replacing the stolen item).
So too, it is with us on Rosh HaShanah. Who is there among us that can say he or she did not sin? If we have not sinned in a big way, then we have sinned in small matters (which are also considered a sin). We have all transgressed some law or laws of the Torah, we in some manner have gone against the will and desire of G-d.
G-d is all knowing; He gave us the month of Elul to come before him to beg forgiveness before the Day of Judgment. If we are wise and do so, then we spare ourselves from unnecessary punishments (the fine). If we are foolish enough to believe that just by going to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to read the prayers in the prayer book is enough, then we may expect that the heavenly decree for our next year will be harsh.
G-d is benevolent; like a loving father, He loves His children. Like a father whose children misbehaved, he does not desire to punish them. Punishment is only that they may learn to be good; but if they come to him and admit their misdeeds, then the reason for punishment is lessened and often suspended. The father sees that they know that they did wrong; on this point they do not need further education (punishment). So too, when we utilize the month of Elul to reflect on our sins and omissions, to realize that we have sinned, that we regret our misdeeds, we will be spared from much punishment - the harsh decrees - that come to chastise those who walk in the way of sin.
Many people have the wrong concept of Rosh HaShanah. They believe that it is enough just to endure the long services, to say the prayers in the prayer book and to abstain from working. But that is not the total purpose of Rosh HaShanah. This free time is really given that man may reflect on his personal deeds, realize his errors and repent. A person who admits to G-d his personal shortcomings and expresses his true regret is considered in front of G-d as a good person. To sin is human; to deny one's sins is tantamount to denying that one is human. G-d knows this; he created us with the ability to sin and it was He who installed within us the desire to sin.
It is unfortunate that few know what the repercussions of sinning are. When we realize that G-d is our true source of life and goodness then we would chose to be close to Him. We can make a comparison to a body. Every body needs blood. The heart is the source of the life force of the body; it pumps the blood to all parts of the body. The veins bring the blood from the heart to the body; they are the conduits of this life giving force. The veins are all over the body, some are large and some are small. G-d who at all times grants and gives life to all living is like the heart. We who are in need of the life force are like the body. The veins are the mode in which the life force is transferred; the real conduits are the mitzvot. When someone sins, it is as if he cuts down a vein and stops the life flow to one particular part of the body. With increased sinning the body no longer gets enough nourishment from the blood, in order to live he must seek supplements. This is not a healthy state to be in.
We were created to have a close relationship with G-d; we should have an appreciation of the spiritual. When we sin our spiritual sensitivity becomes numbed. The more we ignore His will (mitzvot) the more we lose our ability to apprehend His presence in the world. If our sins are great enough, we can even reach a state that we can deny that He exists. This is a very sorry state.
However, recognition of our sins together with sincere regret will bring back the bond. Like the father who desires only that his children be good, so too, G-d only desires that we return to Him with a whole heart. This process begins in Elul.
How can we do this? This is accomplished by reflecting on our past actions and evaluating them. Were they good or lacking? We must increase our personal study of the Torah, for without this we can not know what is a sin and we must take upon ourselves to be diligent in His mitzvot, for it was for this purpose that we were created.
If we do this in Elul, Rosh HaShanah will be the joyous holiday that it should be. If we ignore the potential of Elul, then Rosh Hashanna will be a dangerous time of judgment.
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For more articles on Rosh HaShanah, see our Rosh HaShanah Archives
from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine