Hopes, prayers, and words of wisdom at the doorway to Elul: A collection of letters between rebbeim and talmidim, parents and children, rabbis and their congregants
Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab
Coordinated by Shmuel Botnick
It’s the last month of the year, a time for summing up and making personal reckonings. But it’s also a signal of new beginnings and a most auspicious time for spiritual connection. Throughout the yeshivah world and beyond, Elul represents a month of unparalleled opportunity, a time to start fresh, to leave previous patterns behind and enter the beis medrash with a clean slate and strengthened resolve. But as with all opportunities, it can be missed as Elul passes by, these awesome moments melting away along with all their transformative potential. While bochurim are busy packing for the new zeman, they aren’t the only ones with prayers on their lips. So are their roshei yeshivah, their mashgichim, and their parents.
Know the End Goal
Rabbi Dov Keilson
To my dear talmidim,
The summer is coming to a close, and everyone is returning from their vacations to begin a new year. What a glorious opportunity Hashem has given us every single year — a fresh, new start. And as your rebbi, I feel that it is important to share my thoughts with you at this auspicious time:
Talmidim yekarim, know that what a person can accomplish in one day of Elul is exponential next to another day of year. Hashem deemed these forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Hakippurim as days of ratzon. Days when the opportunity of coming close is much greater; and days when that which we wish to achieve has so much more potency. We need to know that in advance, so we can utilize these days properly, and not chas v’shalom miss out.
What I have always told talmidim in the past, and I share with you now as well, precious talmidim, is that according to the great rosh yeshivah, Rav Yitzchok Isaac Sher ztz”l of Slabodka, the avodah of Elul is “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” and it is about every day seeing where one is holding in his connection with HaKadosh Boruch Hu. And in that vein, the practical way of doing so, that I have always suggested, is to learn and relearn the first chapter in Mesilas Yesharim, where the holy Ramchal lays down for us the essence of what everything is all about: “V’ani kirvas Elokim li tov — And as for me, closeness to Hashem is my good.”
Teshuvah is surely about fixing the misdeeds of the past; but in order to do so, one has to appreciate clearly what the end goal and destination is: to come close to Hashem.
May Hashem Yisbarach help us to deeply appreciate the great zechus He is giving us, and may we and all of Yisrael merit a gut gebentsht yahr!
Rabbi Dov Keilson is the mashgiach ruchani at Mesivta Chaim Shlomo, a division of Yeshiva Darchei Torah
Day and Night
Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin
Iwas only 17 when I left America to learn in Ponevezh. As I was relatively young, it was understood that I would be under the watchful eye of my Saba, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (chairman of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah).
At some point, Saba inquired of the mashgiach, Rav Zingerevitch, how I was doing. He gave a positive report, but (there always is a but)… my attendance at Shacharis was sorely lacking. Saba asked me about this, and I proceeded to explain: Choshuve bochurim, the top learners of the yeshivah, learned until the wee hours of the morning, consequently they didn’t make it to Shacharis. So in reality, not making it to Shacharis was a badge of honor. My self-righteous explanation was met with stony silence.
Shortly afterward came the month of Elul, and with it a letter from Saba. In it he expounded on how Elul was uniquely suitable for strengthening our commitment to tefillah b’tzibbur, because Hashem takes the first step to get closer to us — “Dirshuhu b’heyoso karov.” Then he made two points that were game changers for me.
1.Our gedolim turned their nights into days in their pursuit of Torah scholarship. However, their days remained days, in keeping to a proper tefillah schedule.
- From the day I came of age, not once did I daven “V’ha’er eineinu b’Torasecha— Enlighten our eyes with Your Torah” without shedding a tear. I’m absolutely certain that everything I ever merited in Torah was as a result of those tears.
Almost 60 years have passed, yet every Elul, Saba’s words come to life again and again, adding another dimension to Elul’s chizuk and inspiration.
Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin is rosh yeshivah of Me’or Eliyohu, Kiryat Telz Stone, and author of Meged Yosef al HaTorah
You’re Not Leaving Us
Letter to my rebbi, Rav Shmuel Yehuda Levin ztz”l
The void we feel over the last four weeks is unimaginable. Countless times as I walk up the path to Yeshivah’s door, I hope to see you inside. I have called your phone waiting for you to pick up because that’s what you always did. I wait outside Yeshivah hoping I can walk with you on that precious walk to your home and feel that unique closeness that you had with every talmid.
Every ounce of Rebbi was Yeshivah and every ounce of Yeshivah was Rebbi. It is impossible to fathom how Yeshivah and your talmidim will continue on without Rebbi. I’m sure that if I were to ask Rebbi how we’re supposed to move on without your hadrachah, you would answer me with your signature smile, “Chezky, b’ezras Hashem everything will be okay.”
We never yet had a proper day of Yeshivah without Rebbi. As we approach the new zeman of Elul, we will feel that void on a whole new level. Who will count the days of Elul 5782 for us with a pachad, telling us on just the fourth day of Elul, “A tenth of Elul has passed and is irretrievable!” Who is going to clap during Ahavah Rabbah to be mechazek our tefillos? Who is going to give us the shmuess about the last two Shabbosos of the year? Who is going to be the demus of pachad during the Yemei Hadin? Who is going to be the demus of malchus on Rosh Hashanah? Who is going to show us the hiddur and simchah in mitzvas Shofar? Who is going to cry during the avodah on Yom Kippur the way Rebbi did? And as we culminate the Yemei Hadin on Motzaei Yom Kippur, who is going to sing and dance “Uv’chein Tzaddikim” with us, with such tangible simchah for twenty minutes?
The Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Avraham Chaim Levin ztz”l, used to give an iconic “Dark Room” shmuess as Rosh Hashanah transitioned into Tzom Gedaliah. He would say that once a year, serious and frightening shmuessen have to be given and he would vividly discuss chibut hakever and yom hamisah. When we asked Rebbi to continue the custom and give this shmuess, Rebbi would say, “I’m too young, give me a few more years.” Oy! Rebbi, you did give us the shmuess this year, more vividly than we could ever have imagined.
With every new year comes changes. Every time I called Rebbi with any decision or discussion about these changes, Rebbi gave an answer with such well-rounded clarity. Rebbi, you were always reachable, easy to talk to, happy to help, clear in your hadrachah, so strong in what you were mechayev of us, and most importantly, an example of how much a person can push himself. Who will be madrich and mechayev from us onward?
As we start this Elul zeman, as hard as it will be, all of the talmidim in Yeshivah, and around the globe, are ready to start anew. Rebbi, you are not leaving us, you are here through the Torah you taught us, just like you would tell us about the gedolim of previous generations. Through their Torah, they remain alive. We know things will be different now, but we are ready with our full kochos to strive for the lofty goals you have set for us.
Rebbi, please be a meilitz yosher for your mishpachah and all of your talmidim who are like your mishpachah, that we should have the siyata d’Shmaya to continue.
Your talmid, Chezky
Chezky Levitin is an avreich in the kollel of Telshe Yeshiva of Chicago
It’s a Process
Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib
IN just two weeks you’ll be starting a special new chapter in your life as you walk through the doors of the Mesivta of Cincinnati for the first time as a talmid. It was just a year ago when the Mesivta opened its doors and we went together for the very first Shacharis. We looked around at the faces of the inaugural bochurim of the Mesivta and saw their excitement as well as their apprehension. Baruch Hashem, with Rabbi Shepard at its helm, the first year of the Mesivta was a home run on every front.
And now it’s your turn. I picture you in two weeks with that same look of excitement and apprehension. Excitement because it’s a new beginning, and apprehension because it’s a new beginning. Both of those emotions are going to help you make this year an amazing success.
There’s so much I would like to share with you from my own experiences in Mesivta. But most of it I won’t — at least not now — for two reasons. Firstly, you’re not me. Much of what I experienced was uniquely relevant to me, and you are your own special and unique individual. But perhaps more importantly, much of what I learned, I needed to learn for myself. I am a fiercely independent person, as you are, and the notion of someone teaching me the ropes was never going to happen. I learned and grew through trial and error, making a lot of mistakes along the way and hopefully learning from some of them.
But there are two things I do want to share. The first is the value of developing a real connection and relationship with your rebbi. In elementary school, the notion of having a real connection to a rebbi is referred to as being a “teacher’s pet,” not usually said in the kindest of ways. In Mesivta it’s referred to as a “mevakesh” — someone who is yearning to become the best version of himself. And the one who could be the most helpful in that process is your rebbi. We know how excited you are to have Rabbi Fishman for a rebbi, and we are confident that the relationship you will develop with him will last a lifetime.
The second is the importance of believing in yourself. You have heard from us so many times about the incredible kochos you have: your kishron, your drive, your leadership skills, and your incredible chein. We have seen you exhibit these qualities at home, along with a real maturity and sensitivity to your siblings. When you worked as a JC this past summer, we heard about your success and what stood out was your caring and making sure that every boy was taken care of.
Now, your job is to see yourself as we do. Past the veneer of the child and young adult and all that comes with it, to see the truly special person that is the core of who you are. And to see yourself not only for who you are today but for the great person you will continue to become — and most importantly, to realize it’s a process. One that doesn’t take a day or a year, but moves forward day after day and year after year. And the journey itself, along with all its challenges, will produce an incredible adult version of the special young man you are today.
Love, Abba and Mommy
Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib is the rav of Congregation Zichron Eliezer in Cincinnati, Ohio
Fear and Love
Rabbi Pinchos Gross
Dear esteemed members of Kehillas Derech Chaim,
When I heard the chazzan say those timeless words of “Rosh Chodesh Elul yihyeh b’yom…” I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for the Elul zeman back in yeshivah. Elul was a time that was different. The davening was different, the learning was different, and the bein adam l’chaveiro was different. There was a sense of seriousness, a sense of urgency, and a sense of pachad, in preparation for the Yom Hadin.
The atmosphere of Elul that was felt was an echo of the Elul in Slabodka and Mir, carefully transported by Rav Dovid Kronglass and Rav Ruderman, and replanted here in Baltimore. Its reverberations were still felt in the yeshivah so many years after their petirah. One Elul, when a bochur complained to Rav Dovid about the quality of the food in the dining room, he responded in shock, “Who is able to think about what food tastes like during Elul?”
Despite the seriousness and pachad of this Elul, the feeling was not of sadness, but of tangible joy. It was the joy of returning to a loving Father who was giving us another chance to reconnect. The tears were those of growth and connection to Avinu Shebashamayim.
The seforim point out that the word “bechiyah,” which means a “cry,” is roshei teivos for the words found in Tehillim (89:17) “B’Shimcha yagilun kol hayom — in Your Name we will rejoice all day.” For a true ben aliyah, there is no contradiction between a deep level of yiras Shamayim and a feeling of utmost simchah at the same time. On the contrary, being connected to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and taking stock of our lives brings us to the greatest joy.
During the month of Adar, we are accustomed to seeing “Mishenichnas Adar Marbin B’Simchah” signs. I once saw a Mishenichnas sign during Elul, but it was a slightly different one. We were crowded into the small apartment of Rav Avrohom Erlanger, author of the sefer Birchas Avrohom, for the Elul shmuess he delivered each week of the month, and I noticed a sign on the wall that read, “Mishenichnas Elul yehei chareid v’yarei mei’eimas hadin — When Elul arrives we should be fearful and trembling from the awe of the din.” Perhaps not as cheerful as the typical Mishenichnas Adar sign, but it was clear to me that he rejoiced in his Elul no less than we rejoice in our Adar.
In a famous letter from Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, he referred to these days not as the Yamin Noraim, but as the Yamim Hanechmadim, the most desirable days. We are all familiar with the plethora of hints and acronyms for Chodesh Elul, from “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li” to “Ish Lerei’eihu Umatanos L’evyonim,” and scores more in between. Why are there so many remazim? Rav Moshe Shapira explained so beautifully that Hashem doesn’t want us to miss out on Elul, so wherever we turn, we find a remez for Elul to help us utilize it properly. It shows Hashem’s love for us and His desire for our teshuvah.
However, at the same time, we must keep in mind the following words that I heard quoted from the rebbetzin of the late Rav Refoel Pelcovitz. She once commented on Rosh Chodesh Elul: “Today, many rabbanim will get up and say that Elul is a month of happiness and love, but how many will have the courage to say the truth, that Elul is a time of yiras hadin?” We can rejoice in Hashem’s love during Elul only after we truly recognize the seriousness of the upcoming Yom Hadin.
Although we may be outside the koslei hayeshivah and far from the Elul of Slabodka and Mir, the experience of Elul is not a thing of the past. Elul is a living and breathing gift from HaKadosh Baruch Hu. We have to create our own Elul wherever we find ourselves — whether in shul, the beis medrash, our offices, or our homes. We need to create that feeling of seriousness and yirah, coupled with love and simchah to grow in our Torah, avodah, and bein adam l’chaveiro. Most importantly, we have to get to know ourselves better: who we really are, and what we can truly accomplish. We should all be zocheh to have an Elul of simchah v’yirah that will elevate our lives together with those of our families.
Rabbi Pinchos Gross is the rav of Kehillas Derech Chaim in Baltimore, Maryland
Now Is the Foundation
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Dearest Rosh Yeshivah and hanhalah of the Yeshiva of South Florida,
Rosh Chodesh Elul we won’t just be beginning a new zeman; we have the enormous zechus and awesome responsibility of beginning a new yeshivah, a beis medrash and kollel. So much thought, effort, and time has gone into the preparations, from recruiting and interviewing bochurim and yungeleit, to ordering and organizing the seforim and furniture and setting up the dormitory.
But with the official opening of our precious yeshivah, the real work begins. Certainly, we are seeking to contribute a serious kol Torah to our community; we are aiming to create a vibrant beis medrash filled with the magnificent sounds of high-level learning. But dearest hanhalah, please always remember, we aren’t just speaking to minds, we must penetrate hearts and souls. We are tasked with molding and shaping a generation of bnei Torah, not only when they are in our yeshivah and under our influence, but preparing and empowering them to be bnei Torah for life.
Like Moshe told his brother Aharon, l’kach nivcharta, you have been chosen for these sacred roles, you have worked tirelessly to shteig yourselves, to be fountains of Torah knowledge and living examples of a Torah way of life. And now, kerav el hamizbeiach, approach this holy yeshivah and its talmidim. It’s time to begin our avodah.
Know, chashuve hanhalah, that our talmidim will be listening attentively to everything you say, but they will be watching and learning as much, or even more so, from what they see you do, how you daven, the patience you display, the love that you share, the respect that you bestow. They will observe the way we interact with our families, the way we eat, how we manage our time, the energy and enthusiasm we project for the mitzvos we do. Our talmidim, like their peers, don’t only want to listen, they also want and need to be heard, to feel respected, to not only be spoken to, but to be in conversation and dialogue.
Be prepared for what Chazal (Mechilta 19:5) caution, that “Kol has’chalos kashos — all beginnings are difficult.” We must push through and persevere because our opening zeman is the foundation upon which our yeshivah will be built. Something is only as strong as its foundation, and so how we begin and the energy and passion we maintain is critical.
You and your families will need to be moser nefesh, to give of your time and your focus, to give of your personal growth. May Hashem reward you enormously for your commitment to His children.
With the founding of our yeshivah, may we be zocheh to be marbeh kevod Shamayim, may we give Hashem tremendous nachas, may He give us siyata d’Shmaya, koach, and the capacity to inspire.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida, and founder of the newly established Yeshiva of South Florida
Celebrate the New You
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger
SO Elul is approaching.
Yikes. I guess that’s one reaction. It certainly was prominent back in the day when men were men (and bochurim were bochurim), and the mussar movement was prominent. A friend of mine in beis medrash who learned by Rav Wolbe admitted to me in confidence that he would break out in acne every Elul. Today, he is a famous rav, author, and mashpia… but to be perfectly honest, he was not that close a friend even then, since I personally maintained great skin in Elul.
But if the scary Elul message does not resonate with you, the exciting Elul should. Let me explain.
I am currently in a hotel “chapping arein” the last vacation week. This very morning, I picked up the Wall Street Journal (because it was complementary) and noted an article entitled “The Anxiety of Transitions.” Triggering the article was the approaching start of the new school year and the fact that many Americans finally find their lives returning to normal after Covid. (You do remember something called Covid?) The piece was remarkably disappointing. It spoke about accepting and validating anxiety as normal, maintaining old relationships to help you through the tough period, being open about the anxiety… and much other hackneyed psychobabble, sprinkled with the commiserate healthy dosage of self-centeredness (“remember self-care”) that features so unapologetically in such articles.
It did, however, mention in passing, but failed to emphasize, the celebration of transitions, the possibility of new beginnings, of creating a new you.
See, for you, dear talmid, Elul is really something to embrace. As you get older, who you are, your identity and self-image, becomes much more fixed and concrete. And the energy needed to change that inertial stability, therefore, increases accordingly. Compounding the problem is that as you get older, the energy needed to change is dispersed among your various personal responsibilities to your family and parnassah. But as a bochur, when Elul comes, you really can dive in and embrace the new beginning. Sure, change is hard, but as a bochur you can more easily invent a new you… and you have the energy to do it.
Remember, Elul zeman is short, a mere forty-day sprint, but the Rebbe Reb Meilich writes in his Tzetl Kattan (“Short List”) that forty days is just the length needed to effect change — and also that 18 is the perfect age to embrace change (I would surmise, for the reasons given above). In his words:
Man was created in the world only to overcome his nature. He should therefore be conscientious to repair and improve his traits of character, specifically in his eighteenth year of life, as I will explain: For example, if someone was born with a stubborn nature, he should break his nature forty days in a row to do specifically the opposite of whatever comes into his mind. If someone is lazy by nature, let him train himself for forty days in a row to do everything briskly, with dispatch: whether going to bed at night or getting up in the morning, putting on his clothes, washing his hands, or cleaning his body… If he is bashful to the extent that it interferes with his religious life, he should accustom himself for forty days to pray specifically in a raised voice, with every part of his body moving forcefully, to fulfill the words, “All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like You?” (Psalms 35:10)…. If by nature he is not a masmid in his Torah learning, let him form the habit, again for forty days, to study more than he usually does; and every time before he begins his study, let him look through this tzetl katan of mine. From then on he will be helped.
One parting thought. My daughter, who says the brachah Asher Yatzar as if she really means it, approached me several years ago with a fascinating insight. The roshei teivos of the phrase “Efshar L’hiskayeim V’laamod Lifanecha” (“I can persevere and stand before You”) spells out Elul.
In forty days from Rosh Chodesh, you can change into that person who can proudly stand before Hashem on Yom Kippur and declare “Avinu Malkeinu.” I embraced the change, Tatty. Here I am. I am proud to call myself Your son.
Go get ’em!
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger is the rav of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah of New Hempstead and the author of Positive Vision and the recently published Sefer Chofetz Chaim (elucidated), a Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation project (ArtScroll/Mesorah). For many years, he served as a shoel u’meishiv and taught first-year beis medrash in several yeshivah gedolahs
Travel Your Road
Rabbi Moshe Dov Heber
What a summer it has been! For many of you, camp worked out so well and you were able to shine in talents that you never knew you had. Your phone calls to me from camp were so appreciated. You have had experiences that you will remember for a lifetime.
You enjoyed sports, woodworking, color war, and so much more. You had a chance to have a change of scenery, and to recharge your batteries. Although learning never ends, your learning schedule in the summer was modified so that you will have the proper kochos for the school year ahead. Still, it’s hard to believe that yeshivah is starting once again.
Camp has taught you life lessons. You played hard in leagues and other competitions. You worked hours for your team in the color war. You put in effort to make your bunk shine in your division. Some of you won, and some of you lost. Some of you celebrated the victory, and some of you may have even cried upon the loss. Looking back now after a whole summer, it’s the energy put in that creates the memories — the proper sportsmanship, the working together as a team. In life you will have victories and losses, but it’s the working together and effort that matters, because with a TEAM, Together Everyone Accomplishes More.
Dear talmidim, you have so much energy stored up for this new year to learn Hashem’s Torah on levels you never imagined — it’s going to be the greatest year yet! Just as you will prepare your fresh clothes, new notebooks and sharpened pencils for the first day of school, prepare yourself to be fresh for learning as well. You have a golden opportunity for a new start. A new rebbi, and a new classroom setting await you. If, in the past, you had stumbled, that no longer is relevant. You are on to the future now and you’re going to soar with it!
As the year goes on, you may encounter challenges and bumps in the road. That is okay, everyone has challenges. We stand in front of Hashem, our Father in Heaven, and ask Him to help us overcome our challenges. Your job is to remember who you really want to be and continue traveling on your specific road to success.
As we enter the days of yemei ratzon, know that I, as your rebbi, will be davening for you and for your hatzlachah in the upcoming year. Please have me in mind in your tefillos as well.
Rabbi Moshe Dov Heber is a middle school rebbi in Yeshiva K’tana of Waterbury and a division head in Camp Romimu.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 925)
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