We are now more than halfway through the month of Elul, and it is high time that we connect to its essence. We concluded last week’s exploration of that essence by examining the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah. Chapters five and six there clarify the essentiality and substance of the faculty of free will that Hashem has bestowed upon the human race.
In chapter seven, the Rambam continues in this vein and writes, “Since we have now established the idea that man has free will (with nothing else but himself determining his choices), a person must endeavor to do teshuvah and to rid himself of his sins, so that when he dies, he will be a ba’al teshuvah and merit Olam Habba (despite his previous sins).” [It is important to note that, in all likelihood, the passage that we have just quoted is the very reason for the Rambam’s placing the topic of free will here in Hilchos Teshuvah. For if free will is as fundamental a principle to Judaism as the Rambam went to great lengths to clarify in the preceding two chapters one would have assumed that the Rambam would write this discussion in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (Laws of Fundamentals of Torah), which opens the Yad Hachazakah.]
The idea that the Rambam expresses here seems to be a great chiddush (novelty), but in reality it is the epitome of simplicity and compellingly logical. If Hashem bestows free will upon people, this gift remains even after one has sinned. The ability to do teshuvah, to return to Hashem after sinning, is predicated upon and flows naturally from the fact that he or she has free will! It would be a violation of the principle of free will if a person would not be able to do teshuvah! For teshuvah simply says to the sinner: Yes, you have sinned. Indeed, you have erred, but that past does not condemn you to be mired there, to remain bogged down forever in your mistakes. You still have free will! You can break free of those behaviors and choose life! The principle of free will demands that you be able to hit the reset button and start life anew, free of impediments, and you can still freely choose to be righteous as if you have never sinned! You may be now dealing with other issues, of course, but your free will is untouched; the free will principle guarantees the possibility of teshuvah! You can rebuild your spiritual life, you can regroup, you can daven with concentration and deveikus, you can give tzedakah generously, and you can learn Torah with depth, meaning, and hasmadah. The past is not prologue to the future! The Rambam teaches us about free will in Hilchos Teshuvah to set the stage for what is perhaps its greatest conceptual innovation —teshuvah!
And do you know where in the Jewish calendar this power of renewal, of changing, of not being bogged down by the past, is embedded? That’s right, Elul! Consider this. There was a first set of forty days when Moshe Rabbeinu was at Har Sinai learning the Torah. This is described by Rashi as being days of ratzon (goodwill; conciliation). After all, why should they not have been? Bnei Yisrael had not yet sinned! At the culmination of these forty days, the Jewish people worshipped the Golden Calf. Then began a second period of forty days, in which the nation’s very existence is called into question. These, however, are followed by a third set of forty days, in which Bnei Yisrael set what was to become the standard for teshuvah; supplicating Hashem that their repentance be totally accepted. They did not ignore the past. We are told that they blew a shofar to ensure that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. At the conclusion of these final forty days, Moshe Rabbeinu achieved full forgiveness for his people, as Rashi states that the third set of forty days were also days of ratzon, just as the first forty days were!
This is the power inherent in the month of Elul. The power to be transformed despite the past, the power of bechirah. The ability to choose, at any point in one’s life; even though one has sinned, even though one had tried to change in past years without real success. All of this is possible because one has free will; now, no less than before one sinned! This is what the Rambam teaches us, and that is the power and the meaning of Elul.
However, there is another more important point. The Rambam says that a person must engage in two methods of entreating Hashem to ensure that this power is accessed. The first is the power of tefillah (prayer), as the Rambam writes that this ability to move forward is the prayer of (even) Nevi’im, Tzaddikim and all great people. The Rambam interprets certain verses from Tehillim in which David Hamelech beseeches Hashem, “Let not my sins block me from henceforth doing Your will properly.” “Let not my aveiros change my attitude towards doing Your will, let me do teshuvah.” (i.e., have full access to my natural free will). Thus, it is our responsibility to plead with Hashem that this be so with us as well.
There is an additional way of effecting teshuvah as Rambam states, “And what does David Hamelech mean when he says, ‘Hashem is righteous and good, and thus He teaches sinners the correct path, guides tzaddikim to the correct way and teaches the humble His ways’? [He means] that the prophets are sent to the nation to urge them to do teshuvah (since it is so accessible) and to give them the ability to study Torah, which would almost automatically move a person onto the correct path. This is the meaning of Chazal’s statement that ‘One who comes to purify himself is helped from Heaven.’” Meaning, this very idea, that when one studies Torah one is protected and guided along the right path. Thus armed with Torah and tefillah, we can now march into Elul, exercising our faculty of free will, which is the power to do teshuvah.