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A Tension Deficit

If He has given us Elul, it means it’s not too big for us — in fact, it’s a precious gift



Elul. I’m hard pressed to think of another word that, by itself, is as emotionally evocative as that one. It’s just one short word of four letters, not even a full phrase, just the name of a month. And yet for so many of us, often all the way back to our youthful years, it’s freighted with so much emotive weight, such felt tension.

Is that tension the healthy kind? I am certain that there is a healthy kind, because once upon a time, our forebears in earlier generations experienced not just tension but a palpable fear at Elul’s advent. Like what happened to a little nine-year-old boy named Hirsch Pesach one Rosh Chodesh Elul, when, as he sat on the steps of the bimah in shul, Rav Yisrael Salanter ascended to speak. It was the same Rav Yisrael of whom Rav Yosef Yozel Hurvitz, the Alter of Novardok, had once said, “I have known only one man who was truly happy — this was Rav Yisrael Salanter.”

But as he began with the words, “Morai v’rabbosai, Elul!” he fainted straight away, falling onto the little boy sitting on the step of the bimah. The words of Megillas Esther, “Ki nafal pachad haYehudim aleihem,” had come to life — literally. And even when that child grew to be Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, venerated rav of Yerushalayim, he never forgot it.

Rav Yisrael’s fear was real, born from a clear, unadulterated view of himself vis-à-vis the Borei Olam. And so was that of the “simple folk” of Volozhin in 1812, who had assembled in the town’s shul on the first night of Selichos for the drashah of their rav. No sooner had Rav Chaim Volozhiner begun by intoning the words of Tehillim (119:120), “Somar mipachdecha besari u’mimishpatecha yareisi — My flesh shudders in dread of You, and I fear Your judgments,” than the shul was swept up in a storm of uncontrollable sobbing.

Rav Chaim was unable to resume his drashah until, after twenty minutes, the crying subsided. He then began the first part of the drashah, and again, powerful weeping gripped the tzibbur. Rav Chaim’s drashah had four sections (it appears under the title “Drashas Maharach” in many editions of Nefesh HaChaim), and the same thing happened between each of them.

Speaking for myself, when Elul arrives, I begin to feel an unease, a low-grade tension that remains silently present in the background of everything I do and everywhere I go. Tension does come in varied forms, often positive ones. There’s the tension that makes creativity possible, and tension is part of what makes structures like bridges bear the weight that enables them to serve their purpose. What about the tension of Elul?

This month’s mission statement is set forth in L’Dovid Hashem Ori, the mizmor of Tehillim we recite twice daily commencing on Rosh Chodesh. And since its most prominent theme is that of bitachon in Hashem, perhaps therein lies the understanding of the fear and tension that pervades this time.

Bitachon is what makes fear of Hashem possible, by making it real. So long as He is but an abstraction in my life and I don’t genuinely feel He’s in charge, I’m not going to truly fear Him. Although we translate bitachon as trust or reliance, it is in essence the acknowledgment of Hashem as Master of all and Controller of our destinies. Ein od milvado — Hashem is the only true reality, and I’m an extension of His Will. At the moment I come to terms with that, I cannot but fear Him.

The seforim cite the pasuk, “Aryeh sha’ag, mi lo yira — A lion has roared, who doesn’t fear?” as an allusion to this time of year, with the word “Aryeh” serving as an acronym for the month of Elul and the three days of judgment of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hoshana Rabbah. But while the pasuk intended the question as a rhetorical query, for many of us, sadly, it isn’t. We don’t fear our Creator as we should.

The late Rav Shlomo Teitelbaum of Kew Gardens, New York, once had a revelation as to why on a trip to the zoo, when he came upon the cage of a lion — not an acronym but the real thing — he wasn’t frightened in the least by the ferocious beast. That’s because there was a set of iron bars keeping it safely at bay.

This led Rav Teitelbaum to reflect: Don’t we too often do the same to the Ribbono shel Olam, erecting all sorts of barriers to “protect” us from the reality of His omnipotence, which ought to cause us to truly fear Him? Trusting in Hashem as the Kol Yachol necessarily implies that the barriers we erect between Him and us are imaginary, and that He can not only do whatever He wants for us but also to us — all for our ultimate benefit, even as we only see a tiny piece of the puzzle.

But the bitachon of which L’Dovid speaks plays another role during Elul, too. The Gemara (Shabbos 88a) records an exchange between the Amora Rava and a Tzeduki, in which the latter mocked the Jewish People’s declaration of naaseh v’nishma at Sinai as rash and unthinking. Who, after all, accepts something as vast and weighty as the Torah without knowing what it entails?

Rava responds that our declaration emerged not from impetuousness, but from our trust in Hashem’s love for us: “About us, who proceed with wholeness, the pasuk (Mishlei 11:3) says, ‘The temimus of the straight will guide them.’ ” Rashi explains, “We went along with Hashem with a wholeness of heart, like those who serve out of love, and we relied on Him that He would not overload us with something we couldn’t bear.”

This, some commentaries explain, is the meaning of the words we say each morning in the section Ahavah Rabbah, where we beseech Hashem to grant us wisdom and teach us Torah “in the merit of our forefathers who trusted You and You taught them the laws of life.” Trust in Hashem and the ability to learn His Torah are inextricable, because in order to embark on the daunting journey to try and explore the Torah in all its breadth and depth, one has to believe and trust that, in Rashi’s words, “He would not overload us with something we couldn’t bear.”

And the very same sort of trust is needed to make our way through Elul, despite the awesome challenge that lies ahead of returning to Hashem and trying to fix the broken parts of our lives, hoping and praying to merit a favorable outcome in the awesome judgment that awaits us.

There’s a duality, then, to the bitachon of Elul. It gives us good reason to fear the Borei Olam — and only Him — and then, having elevated our fear and tension regarding the coming days of repentance and judgment, our bitachon calms us with the knowledge that we can prevail, because Hashem has already told us we can and we trust Him on that.

If He has given us Elul, it means it’s not too big for us — in fact, it’s a precious gift.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 825. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com


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