A time for acquiring and deepening yiras Hashem of every kind
Are Elul and the subsequent Yamim Noraim period a time to feel the fear, or to banish the fear? The signals seem mixed.
On the one hand, the seforim cite the pasuk, “Aryeh sha’ag mi lo yirah — A lion has roared, who doesn’t fear?” as an allusion to this period. The word “aryeh” serves as an acronym for the month of Elul and the three days of judgement of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hoshana Rabbah, when our sense of fear ought to be as instinctual as it is upon hearing the bellowing of the “king of the jungle” resounding across the African bush.
Yet, twice daily throughout this same period, we recite the kapitel Tehillim of L’Dovid Hashem Ori, whose opening verse asks: With Hashem as my light and salvation, mimi ira, mimi efchad, from whom shall I fear? The pesukim that follow further calm our fears, to the point that we state confidently that even if an entire enemy camp moves against me, standing alone, I still insist: “Lo yira libi — my heart shall not fear.”
So, which of these two rhetorical questions — both posed in pesukim and both applied to the very time of year at which we now stand — has it right? Is our attitude to be that of “Mi lo yirah?” Who would be so foolhardy as to not be afraid? Or, instead, ought it to be “Mimi ira?” Who is there to fear, anyway?
The answer is, of course, that both are in place; indeed, one follows from the other.
Elul, properly experienced, is shot through with profound trepidation. Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulzinger ztz”l (Derashos Mishmar Halevi, p. 26) related Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank’s recollection from his childhood in Kovno: It was Rosh Chodesh Elul, and the gadol hador, Rav Yisrael Salanter, ascended to the bimah to speak, as nine-year-old Hirsch Pesach sat on its steps. Rav Yisrael began, “Morai v’rabbosai, Elul!” and fainted straight away, falling directly onto little Hirsch Pesach. As one can imagine, that scene stood before his eyes for the rest of his life.
Going back a bit further in time, Rav Moshe Mordechai shares what the Brisker Rav related about what took place on the first night of Selichos at the end of 5572 (1812) in Volozhin, when Rav Chaim Volozhiner delivered what has become famous as the Derashas Maharach (printed with many editions of the Nefesh Hachaim). He commenced with the words of Tehillim (119:120) “Samar m’pachdecha besari u’mimishpatecha yareisi — My flesh shudders in dread of You, and I fear Your judgements,” and no sooner had he intoned those words than awesome sobbing swept through the shul, making it impossible for Rav Chaim to continue for the next 20 minutes.
When the crying finally subsided, Rav Chaim continued on to say the first section of the derashah — and again, the tzibbur broke down in uncontrollable weeping. The derashah has four sections, and the same thing happened between each of them. So it was among the “simple” balabatim of Volozhin, 207 years ago.
But at the very same time, Elul is when we also say, “Fear? What fear?”
That’s because the one, single fear to cultivate during this time is that of the Borei Olam, and the greater and truer that fear is within us, the more it chases out of our hearts the fear of everything else in the universe. It is precisely because, “When G-d roars, who doesn’t fear,” that we can honestly say, “He is the source of my life’s strength, from whom shall I be afraid?”
So many fears, of things pressing and petty alike, fill the heart and mind of modern man. Every page we turn in the newspaper brings new cause for fright, from the news section to the financial section to the ads hawking products and policies and preventatives for every risk and danger known to exist — and more than a few that actually don’t. The monsters threatening doom lurk everywhere one turns, in the form of financial ruin and potential illness and crime, and for those so disposed, ecological calamity and nuclear annihilation and on and on.
It’s laughable to think that modernity has in any way reduced contemporary man’s fears from those of his counterparts earlier in history. The denizens of Prozac Nation load up on anxiety medications and unload their psychic burdens in ongoing therapy. We spend our days and nights fretting over the known and the unknown and the never-to-be-known, worrying about the repercussions of events past and fearing the effects of those that still lie way in the future, if ever.
Elul and the Yamim Noraim that follow are a time for acquiring and deepening yiras Hashem of every kind: Yirah of the impending judgement we will face, and yirah resulting from the awesome experience of standing before Him during these days when He draws closer to His Creation than at any other time of year. And the litmus test of how thoroughly we’ve integrated yiras Hashem within us is the extent to which all those other fears, of men and maladies and make-believe monsters, fade away, banished by our knowledge of the truth that only Hashem is in control and none of them matter at all.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 779. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org