By Avi Lazerson
Elul is the Jewish month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Most Jewish scholars consider Elul as a preliminary month to prepare our hearts and minds to properly enter Rosh Hashanah.
I happened to be a visitor in a city with a large Jewish congregation. One Shabbat, I went to two different synagogues and heard two different Rabbis speak about Elul. Each rabbi spoke about Elul but had a completely opposite view point from the other. I would like to share this with you.
The first rabbi spoke very emotionally about Elul being the month to prepare for the Days of Judgment: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He stressed the tremendous importance of the Day of Judgment and preparing for it by looking into our past deeds, soul searching, finding imperfections in our thoughts, actions and character. He called for us to increase our level of mitzvah observance, to become stricter in our kashrus observance, spend more time studying Torah and of course, to become more aware of our speech, to be careful not to offend anyone.
Only in this manner, he exhorted, could we possible be saved from a bad decree. We must show G-d how we are trying to improve ourselves if we are to avoid an evil judgment. He pointed out that G-d sees all of our actions and even our most private thoughts. G-d, the rabbi explained, was most exacting in meting justice.
Later in the day I went to another synagogue and heard a different rabbi speak. He was explaining to his congregation that G-d, who in his love and compassion for the Jewish people, has established Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a time to cleanse them of their sins. He compared G-d to a loving father whose children have acted poorly. He desires to have good and close relationships with them, but before that can happen, they must come to him and ask him for forgiveness. The purpose is that they should realize their faults that they may become better people. The father is not desirous of punishing them, what he really wants is that his children should come to realize their potential and to have a loving relationship with him. Unless they are honest with themselves and him, this can not happen.
The same, the rabbi said, is true of G-d. The purpose of the high Holydays is not to extract revenge on the Jews for their iniquities, but allow them to get rid of them. G-d's love and mercy is with out end, but it requires us to make an exertion to utilize this time to again renew our closeness.
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During the week, I began to mull over the two rabbis' speeches. It seemed to me at first that they were talking about two different religions. One spoke of a G-d that was looking to extract justice from His errant servants by giving them punishments that would totally devastate them. The second rabbi spoke of a loving G-d who only wanted his erring children to return to him.
After pondering over the differences in the two speeches I began to realize that they were really speaking about the same thing, but from different angles. Like a two photographs of the same mountain, one from the north and the other from the south, each picture looks totally different, yet it is the same mountain. Since the mountain is so enormous, a single picture can not completely relate its total image. So too is G-d, we can not totally comprehend His greatness. Our understandings are like a two dimensional photograph.
Both rabbis were talking about the same thing, the days of judgment. But each took a different aspect into account. One emphasized the need for us, G-d's children, to improve while the other rabbi concentrated his speech on G-d's own desire for a closer relationship.
In a similar manner the two academies of Hillel and Shamai are explained. Normally the academy of Shamai took the stringent position in halacha, Jewish law, whereas the academy of Hillel was lenient. Shamai leaned toward strictness, gevurah; Hillel leaned towards compassion, chesed. We generally follow the opinions of the academy of Hillel not because the academy of Shamai was wrong, but our way of life finds the teachings of Hillel more acceptable. It seemed to me that was the case of these two rabbis; one looked from the side of strictness, the other from the side of compassion.
At the end of the Talmud Ta'anit, it states that in the future the righteous will dance in a circle and sing, "this is my god" as they point with their finger towards G-d who is in the middle of their circle. The explanation is that each righteous person has a different method for serving G-d which is different from his friends. This is just like people who dance in a circle and view someone in the center. Each one sees a slightly different view of G-d. Based on his view or way of viewing G-d, so too he serves Him.
So too these rabbis. Each one gave his concept of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to us. We must realize that both are correct.
In a similar manner must be our desire to serve G-d. Each one of us is different. We must look into ourselves for our "natural resources" that we may utilize them in serving Him with all of our hearts. In this manner we are certain to be inscribed for a great new year.
from the September 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine