I am writing these lines as the hours dwindle down to the month of Elul. And you are reading them in these first days of that month. Elul is, of course, the traditional preparation time for the upcoming Yomim Nora’im, days of teshuvah and judgment – Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of teshuvah, and of course Yom Kippur.
So, how do you plan to prepare? Or, are you indeed preparing for the preparation? After all, can you expect that when the sun sets, ushering in the first night of Rosh Hashana, that you will just “be there”? We see that Chazal were aware of this difficulty, and declared that a small measure of “awakening” be instituted during Elul – namely, blowing the shofar daily, and saying the 27th chapter in Tehillim twice daily. This, of course, is merely the institutionalized wake-up; surely each person has to make a personal cheshbon hanefesh and have some battle plan for 30 to 40 days hence.
If you are like most people (please forgive me for lumping you, a unique, special, exclusive individual with the insidious grouping called “most people”), you are basically clueless (again, please forgive me). Do you learn mussar – at all? Do you have a plan for self-improvement? After all, one doesn’t change even the most innocuous habit overnight – and we are, for the most part, creatures of habit. How will we have a fighting chance to have a year different from last year, and the year before that, if we basically stay the same?
To suggest in a column of this length a master plan for personal spiritual growth is preposterous. To whittle it down to preparing for the Yomim Nora’im doesn’t really make sense either. However, baruch Hashem, a specific mahalach, an approach, a doable step, a specific middah-which-contains-the-doorway-to-all-others presented itself to me, and that is what I’d like to share with you. One specific area to devote the rest of Elul to working on.
The Gemara in Shabbos (31A) states: Even if one were to be proficient in the entire gamut of Torah Sheb’al Peh (the Oral Law), nevertheless, the most important thing in the eyes of Hashem is whether the person has developed within himself yiras Hashem – fear of Hashem… and after going through a list of questions that a person will be asked after he has completed his life (always a distinct possibility), he will be told: even if you have answered all the questions appropriately, it is only if you have developed fear of Hashem that you are assured of a favorable judgement… The Gemara continues: fear of Hashem is like the preservative which safeguards the wheat – without the preservative, the wheat will spoil quickly, and all of the farmer’s previous work will have been in vain; so, too, without fear of Hashem, one’s actions and Torah knowledge quickly “spoil”, i.e, are not sustainable… fear of Hashem are the keys to allow one to enter the “inner chamber” of service of Hashem… And a last statement in that sugya: “Hashem has created His world for the express purpose in having its population fear Him. ”
There are many other Gemaras in this vein, my friends (see, for example, Brachos 33B). Fear of Hashem is a preservative, a safeguard, a “bottom-line” brake to keep us from pursuing an agenda which may be harmful to our soul. To keep us from relying on questionable “heterim.” To awaken us to think about what we are doing with our lives – for one day we will have to answer for and be judged upon our deeds and fulfillment of our potential (or lack thereof). And there’s no escaping that! Whether we are talking about the major Yom Hadin judging our entire lives, or the “mini” one happening every Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, it is that latent fear that is the catalyst for change.
Let’s examine this a bit further and deeper.
Technically speaking, fear of G-d, to develop it, to acquire it, to feel it, to seek ways that it not dissipate, is a mitzvass assei – a positive mitzvah. We find it in Devarim 6:3; 10:12; and 13:5. But it is more than that – it is actually ubiquitous throughout Torah. How many people remember and realize that the midwives in Egypt, Shifra and Puah, acted as they did and defied Paroh because they feared G-d? (Shmos 1: 17) [Rav Yerucham Levovitz zt”l suggests that the verb in the possuk is not descriptive praise , but an active verb: the midwives did pe’ulos – actions and activities – to further their yiras Hashem, their fear of Heaven, as their nisayon was overwhelming; and they realized that only through seeking methods to advance and grow and really feel that fear would they be able to hold fast.]
When King Avimelech remonstrates with Avrohom Avinu about hiding the true identity of Sara, Avorohom responds: “But there is there is no fear of G-d in this place, and thus they will kill me in order to take my wife from me!” Wow! Avimelech has just criticized Avrohom Avinu for almost causing their populace to sin – and Avimelech “piously” cries, You have done with me unspeakable acts (in not disclosing Sara’s true identity as Avrohom’s wife). You have violated the civilized norms of our lawful society! Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l points out that Avrohom Avinu’s answer contains a key word, BUT (rak) there is no fear of G-d; BUT, meaning all your norms, civilized laws, and societal mores will fall away; if there is no yiras Hashem, man is capable of anything, will justify anything, will do anything, if he thinks he can get away with it.
Yosef protests to his brothers (before they are aware of his identity), “How can you suspect me of acting improperly; why, I am G-d fearing! ” Yosef is the land’s ruler, capable of doing what he pleases on a whim, yet fear of G-d would surely hold him back. The Giving of the Torah finds Hashem saying to Moshe Rabbeinu that the ultimate purpose of the magnitude of the sights-and-sounds of mattan Torah itself was to cause Bnei Yisroel to develop yiras Hashem! (Shmos 20: 17) The Egyptians in Egypt are described as non-yirei Hashem! (Shemos 9: 30). Yiras shamayim is all-embracing and comprehensive.
OK – what now?
to be continued…