We are approximately one-third of the way through the month of Elul, and so it behooves us to understand its essence a bit better and with more perspective.
The first question that we must ask is: What IS Elul? Meaning, we know that Jewish moadim, special times, are embedded in the continuum of time, to be relived repeatedly as we reach specific points in the calendar. Pesach is zeman cheiruseinu (the time of our freedom), Succos is zeman simchaseinu (the time of our joy), and Rosh Hashanah is the Yom Hadin (the Day of Judgment). In that vein, what is Elul? We are probably used to thinking of it as merely a preparatory period, 30 days before Rosh Hashanah; a time to get ready for the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays). Surely, it is so. Yet, given all the various remazim (hints) that we are given in acrostics that can be composed from the Hebrew letters of the word ‘Elul’ [e.g., u’mol Hashem Es Levavchoh V’ess Levav zarechoh… Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li… VehoElokim Eenah Leyado Vesamti Lecho… ARYEH (=Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah) sho’ag mi lo yeerah], all of which point to the auspiciousness of these days, one would certainly assume that Elul itself is an objective moeid. That it is a unit of time with its own unique character and message, and spiritual shefa (influence) from Heaven. But what is its nature?
Let us look at the historical Elul. In the desert, Klal Yisrael sinned by creating and worshipping the eigel hazahav (golden calf). Moshe Rabbeinu, having just spent forty days on Har Sinai being taught the Torah, ascends to the heavens for another forty days to pray and ask Hashem to spare the Jewish people from destruction. Hashem agrees, but full atonement was not yet achieved. In fact, Rashi (Shemos 33:11) refers to these forty days as being days of anger. On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moshe Rabbeinu returns to the mountain for a third set of forty days, this time bringing about full forgiveness, descending at their conclusion on Yom Kippur with that achievement. This day is henceforth embedded in time as the Yom Selichah Vekapparah (Day of Atonement). As Moshe Rabbeinu ascends the mountain at the commencement of these last forty days, a shofar is blown in the encampment to prevent the reoccurrence a miscount of the forty-day period, which was what led to the sin of the Golden Calf during the first forty-day period.
These are the events of that “first” Elul. What does it signify? What do the days contain?
We have read recently in the Torah (Devarim 11:26), “See how I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” The pesukim there (verses 29 and on) continue to describe blessings and curses to be recited, ‘placed,’ as it were, on Har Gerizim and Har Eival upon the Jews entering Eretz Yisrael. But is the first passuk indeed referring to these? From the Rambam it would seem that this is not so.
The Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah (chap. 5) states:
“Each person has been given free-will. If one wants, one can follow the correct path, and be a righteous person, and if one desires, one can follow an evil path and be wicked. One can choose, one has complete free will, and nothing can stop a person from making his or her own free choices in life… Do not consider that which foolish philosophers have said, that what a person shall be —whether righteous or wicked— is predetermined. Rather, each individual can reach the heights of Moshe Rabbeinu or the depths of Yeravam ben Nevat. No one and nothing compels or decrees upon a person one way or the other. Only he and he alone, decides what he is to be, therefore a sinner has no one but himself to blame. This is a major fundamental and foundational principle of the Torah, as the passuk (that we quoted above) states, ‘See how I place before you…’
“This is the foundation of reward and punishment and this is the basis upon which the prophets warn the nation to desist from evil. This is virtually the basis of Judaism… If one will ask, ‘How can anything in this world occur that is not the will of Hashem [if the person chooses to do evil]?’ the answer is that it is Hashem’s desire that there be free will and free choice. Thus, just as it is Hashem’s will that fire and wind rise while water flows downward, that the planets and stars turn in their orbits, and that all other creatures function as Hashem wants them to, so too, Hashem wants a person to have freewill and to be the only decider as to what he chooses to do… Thus, the will of Hashem is being fulfilled regardless of what the person decides, since it is His will that there be free will.”
(The Rambam then continues to discuss the classic philosophical dilemma of the reconciliation of the seeming contradiction between Hashem’s omniscience and man’s absolute free will, but this is not within the scope of today’s column.)
In the next chapter of Hilchos Teshuvah (chap. 6), the Rambam brings various pesukim that would seem to indicate otherwise. The Rambam therefore raises the possibility that a person can sin so severely that the punishment for his sin is the removal of his ability to choose!
The person actually loses his ability of free choice! This phenomenon occurred, says Rambam, with Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, with the inhabitants of Canaan, and he cites pesukim that support this premise. The Rambam then writes something that is absolutely amazing, (6:4-5) “This is what tzaddikim and other righteous people pray for, that Hashem help them not reach that level where the removal of free will would be the person’s punishment… this is achieved through the power of prayer, and through the power of Torah-learning; this keeps a person on the correct path…”
The reason that I find this ‘amazing’ is that the Rambam implies that this is something that should concern every person, i.e., the loss of free will as punishment for previous aveiros that were extremely severe or extremely common to or part of his or her lifestyle.
We will im yirtzeh Hashem continue exploring all of the ramifications of free will, as well as what Elul reflects, in our next column.