Three Goals of Elul
The Shlah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1565 – 1630) teaches us that the parsha of the week always ties into the Jewish calendar. Parshas Nitzavim is a classic example of this phenomenon as it falls out before Rosh Hashanah and contains many verses about repentance and turning to Hashem.
The month of Elul precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a time for introspection and personal development. There are numerous hints to the month of Elul found throughout the Torah. These hints shed light on the most relevant questions of: What are we to work on during this time of the year?
One: Between Man and God
The most famous acronym for Elul is found in Shir Hashirim (6:3), “א’ני ל’דודי ו’דודי ל’י, I am to my beloved and He is to me.” The first letters of these four words spell ‘Elul’. Additionally, each of those four words end with the letter yud, thus making four yuds, equal to 40 numerically. This shows that there is a special closeness that one can achieve with Hashem for the 30 days of Elul plus the aseres yimei teshuva, 10 days of repentance spanning from Rosh Hashanah thru and including Yom Kippur. Additionally, 40 represents the days that it takes for the initial formation of a child hinting to the fact that teshuva, repentance, leads a person to a rebirth and renewal. Thus, Elul is shown to be a time to connect with God.
Two: Between Man and His Fellow
Another famous hint to Elul is found in Esther (9:22). “א’יש ל’רעהו ו’מתנות ל’אביונים, Purim is a day of sending gifts to one’s friend and donations to the poor.” The Chayei Adam (Rabbi Avraham Danzig, 1748 – 1820) explains that this verse shows us the importance of working on and amending our relationship with others. If there is someone that we hurt we must apologize in order to receive forgiveness. Elul is not just a time for connection with God, it is a time for us to also contemplate our dealings with others.
Three: Between Man and Himself and His Family
In our parsha (Devarim 30:6), it states, “ומל ה’ אלקיך א’ת ל’בבך ו’את ל’בב זרעך לאהבה את ה’ אלקיך…, Hashem will pierce your hearts and those of your children to love Him…” Notice the letters of Elul formed here as well. When one sincerely repents his heart will be opened to love and appreciate Hashem. Most importantly, he will act in a way in which hl becomes a living example for true service of Hashem to the point that his family will follow after him (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l). This takes great effort and true sincerity.
Elul is a time of personal growth on all fronts. Elul is an opportunity to mend relationships and expand upon the love and peace which one has between Hashem, others, family and self. May we merit to fulfill all of our spiritual goals and be granted a happy and healthy new year.
Rosh Hashanah: At Your Service
“It was… on Pharaoh’s birthday that he made a party… he restored the butler, who then delivered a goblet to Pharaoh, and he executed the baker, as Yosef had predicted.” (Bereishis 40:20-22).
The story of Yosef HaTzaddik’s interpretation of the dreams of the butler and baker is very significant this time of year. The holy seforim (see Sifsey Chaim) state that just as on King Pharaoh’s birthday he held a great day of judgment and decided who would live and who would die, so too, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, an accounting is made by Hashem regarding his servants. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday, so to speak, of the world, the first day of Hashem’s rulership of the physical universe. Hashem thus chose this day as the one when He opens up the books and decides the fate of each of His subjects throughout the coming year. This is a perplexing hint, what is it teaching us?
Let us begin with a simple question on the verse itself. When describing the outcome of the butler and baker, why does the verse go out of its way to inform us that after the butler was reinstated he then delivered a goblet to Pharaoh, why not just stick to the verdict? I believe that contemplation upon this subject will yield an amazing and relevant insight!
To Be Meritorious in Judgment
The pressing question on all of our minds right now is, how can we assure that we will be judged favorably as Hashem decides our fate?! I believe that a deeper study of the judgment stated in our verse will give us a clear answer as to how we too can find favor in Hashem’s eyes. First a brief summery of the above quoted story: Yosef was thrown into jail, accused of a sin which he did not commit. Pharaoh’s baker was jailed after a pebble was found in his bread; the butler was also locked up after a fly was found in Pharaoh’s goblet. Both were waiting to see if they indeed would be executed or pardoned. One night, each of them had a dream. Yosef heard the dream of the butler and assured him life and from the dream of the baker he informed him that unfortunately his execution was near. How did Yosef see this from their dreams?
The Netziv (Haamek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816 – 1893) explains a fascinating concept here. Listen carefully to the dreams and see if you can detect their clear undertones. The butler, who was spared, stated (Bereishis 40:9-11), “…in my dream there was a grapevine… Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, I pressed the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the cup onto Pharaoh’s palm”. Yosef saw life from this! The baker said (Bereishis 40:16-17), “…in my dream, there were three baskets on my head… in the top basket were baker’s goods.. and the birds were eating from the basket on my head”. Yosef saw death from this.
Where’s Your Focus?
The focus of each dream, says the Netziv, is what showed Yosef how Pharaoh would rule. The baker focused on himself and his basket. He was not a dedicated servant. Pharaoh had no reason to keep him alive. The butler, on the other hand, focused on Pharaoh and his faithful service of the king. He was a devoted and dear servant. The king desired him!
This, I believe, is the explanation as to why the Torah tells us that after the butler was spared, he served a cup to Pharaoh. It is stressing that the only reason why he was granted life was because of his dedication to the king and the favor that he found in the king’s eyes. The king was honored and happy to have him as his servant.
This is a powerful message for us to bear in mind as we stand before Hashem in these great days of awe. How can we merit life? Hashem will give a sweet year to those who are dedicated to His service. Hashem will bestow kindness and compassion upon those who give Him great joy from their committed and focused service of Him. Let us set our eyes upon this goal so that we can achieve it. Let us choose life and be proudly dedicated to follow Hashem! When Hashem sees our sincere effort to get close to Him, we will be dear in His eyes and we will merit a k’siva v’chasima tovah, a good judgment, and have a year of only sweet tidings and success!
Remember Us For Life
During the aseres yimei teshuva we add many phrases into Shemoneh Esrei. One of them is the request of “zachrein l’chaim, remember us for life.” The request is understandable as we are being judged, however, the placement is odd. We don’t normally find anything added into the first three berachos of Shemoneh Esrei as the Gemara calls those berachos “the praises of Hashem” and thus not a place for personal requests. So why are we asking for life here?
Answer 1: One can certainly hear the urgency of the request, “remember us for life” and it evokes the saying, “there is no king without a nation.” Thus, although we normally don’t make requests in these first berachos, only praises, in this case, we are expressing to Hashem, that we wish to live so that we can give You praise.
Answer 2: The statement is in fact a praise. We call Hashem, “the One Who wants life.” We state that He gives us life “for your sake, the God of Life.” We are interjecting a personal plea, but it comes in the form of a praise as well. Additionally, it is added right after the words, “He sends a redemption to His children… with love” and this is exactly the theme of the praise we are saying now.
The goal of this world can be summed in one sentence, “Hashem created man to give him the ultimate pleasure.” There are three aspects here, God, man and pleasure. And truthfully, God is the pleasure and thus, when man follows God, he reaches the greatest pleasure in this world and the next.
The three themes of Rosh Hashanah are malchiyos, zichronos and shofaros. They correspond to these three levels. Malchiyos is about Hashem being the King, Zichronos is about the judgment of our actions, as to whether they are on par with the world’s purpose and Shofaros refers to mashiach and the final redemption.
The Yomim Tovim represent the 5 senses.
1) Pesach is about the mouth, peh sach, a holiday where the more we talk about Hashem, the more praiseworthy it is.
2) Shavuos is about hearing, naaseh vnishmah, we will listen to the Torah.
3) Rosh Hashanah is about sight, Hashem looks at us and our actions and scrutinizes the worthiness of our continuity.
4) Yom Kippur is about smell, it is the most spiritual sense corresponding to the most spiritual day of the year.
5) Succos is the sense of touch, where simply using our body to sit in the sukkah or to eat and sleep there is a mitzvah.
There is a fascinating hint to the holidays that ties into the seven liquids which enable items to become ritually impure (see tractate Machshirim).
The seven liquids are wine, blood, oil, milk, dew, honey and water.
They correspond to the yomim tovim:
1) Wine: Purim, when we drink wine
2) Blood: Yom Kippur, we fast and lose fat and blood, which is like a sacrifice to Hashem. Additionally, there are many times that blood is sprinkled on Yom Kippur as mentioned in the machzor.
3) Oil: Chanukah menorah
4) Milk: Shavuos when we eat dairy
5) Dew: Pesach, when we request it. Additionally, it gives life (See Shabbos 84b) and Pesach is the birth of our nation.
6) Honey: Rosh Hashanah, we ask for a sweet New Year and dip the apple in honey.
7) Water: Sukkos, nisuch hamayim, we pray for a year of rain, after we sat in the sukkah.
Although quite fascinating, why are these seven holidays hinted to in the form of 7 liquids that bring tumah upon an item? I believe the answer is twofold. One, on a simply level, these items are machshir, they prepare the fruit to now get ready for something, and so too, the holidays prepare us to take in spirituality. Also, they are only machshir if they are consciously poured onto the item, so too, the holidays only have an impact if we are mindful of their lessons. Secondly, on a deeper level, these liquids show the danger of coming in contact with tumah, but also, stress the importance of purity and preservation. As the Ramban writes, “the more holy, the more destructible,” the holidays can be used or abused. We need to ensure that they are utilized and not simply glutinous experiences. We need to choose to make them holy.
All Tied Up
On Rosh Hashanah we read about Akaidas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, one of the greatest merits that the Jewish nation has. Why is the event referred to with the words “Binding” and “Yitzchak”, it was Avraham’s test and it was not about the binding but rather the sacrificing? Avraham waited most of his life to have a son with Sarah and when he finally did, Hashem told him to offer his precious son as a sacrifice. This test went against every grain and fiber of Avraham’s being as a father, as a husband and as a human being. But, none-the-less, Avraham followed through faithfully despite his inability to understand it. By the time they got up on the mountain Yitzchak had figured out who the sacrifice was. It was none other than him! Avraham tied him up per his own request so that he would not flinch.
The Rishonim dispute whose role and passing of this test was greater so to speak. Some say that Yitzchak had a bigger challenge, because he had to trust that his father Avraham had heard the command correctly from Hashem and some say that Yitzchak accepted his father’s command and Avraham was having the internal battle to accept what Hashem had commanded him. Either way, the challenge was great. At the end both father and son showed unwavering faith in Hashem. The binding of Yitzchak came to represent a theological outlook of his future desendents. Even if you are bound and immobile, you feel powerless and lost, latch onto Hashem’s will and that will pull you through. As we stand at Rosh Hashanah, we beseech Hashem for a happy and healthy new year, but at the same time, as faithful Jews, we bind ourselves and accept Hashem’s will unconditionally. There are times in life that we find ourselves bound up as Yitzchak was, but we know that our Merciful Father is taking care of us and giving us all that we need to reach perfection.