By the time you read this, Elul 5772 will be just about two-thirds gone. The obvious question you should be asking yourself is, “What have I done with this gift of Elul?” And if your answer is, as most people’s would be, “Not much, but it is not really my fault; I was not really aware that it is a gift, and if I was, I was not taught what its essence is, nor what it is I am supposed to do with it,” then this column is going to attempt, in the short amount of space and words allotted, to rectify that.
Indeed, it is an excellent question. We know that in Jewish thought, each Yom Tov, each special day or season in the Jewish calendar, is embedded in the reality of the time of those days. It is a time for a certain emanation from Heaven to be directed at earth with a flow of spiritual energy specific to that time frame. For example, on Pesach it is the ethos of freedom; on Sukkos, it is being under and feeling the overarching protection and hashgacha of HaShem. Even, perhaps especially, every single Shabbos has its transcendent charge of spirituality, and it is up to each and every one of us to take advantage of that shefa and to grow and acquire those kochos hanefesh.
But what is Elul? Or, more precisely put, what is Elul? Is it anything more than 30 days before Rosh Hashanah? Traditionally, Elul is known as yemei ratzon, days of desire, days of willingness, days of finding favor. This is actually reflected in Rashi’s description of those days, when Moshe Rabbeinu went back to Har Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Elul for the third time, to ask HaShem for full forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. The result of this was, forty days later, the very first Yom Kippur — salachti — and Moshe Rabbeinu returning with the second set of luchos to replace the first broken set. Rashi states, “Just as the first 40 days [before the sin of the eigel] were days of favor and willingness on the part of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, so too these 40 days [Elul to Yom Kippur] were days of favor and willingness, obtaining full selichah from HaShem.” So we see the idea of yemei ratzon embedded in Elul. Further, this goes so far as to effect the days of the week, a true rarity in the Jewish calendar. Tosafos (Bava Kama 82a) says that the reason we say special prayers on Mondays and Thursdays, beseeching HaShem to end our galus, is because Mondays and Thursdays are yemei ratzon, due to the fact that if we figure that Bnei Yisrael left Egypt on a Thursday, which is generally assumed, it turns out that Rosh Chodesh Elul that year, when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended the mountain yet again, was a Thursday, and he came down with the luchos shniyos on a Monday! And we are told that these days are now embedded in time as yemei ratzon! (This is indeed highly unusual — with the obvious exception of Shabbos, which happened within a context of seven days — that is, for a day of the week when something occurred to be said to be imbued with the shefa of that point in time.)
Further, Rashi (Shemos 33:18) says that the reason Moshe Rabbeinu pressed for HaShem to fully reveal His G-dliness as never before was because he, Moshe Rabbeinu, saw that it was an eis ratzon. And this was during that “first” Elul!
So we have established Elul’s shefa in time — eis ratzon. But what does that mean to us, and how do we use it?
Rambam teaches us about one of the most fundamental principles of our faith in Hilchos Teshuvah (ch. 5): the principle of free will. Rambam states there: A person has the power to choose his or her own path in life, to do good and to be a tzaddik, or the opposite. It’s completely up to the individual. The Torah describes this as uniquely human, a most singular trait. Do not be misled by those who suggest that it is predetermined; a person can choose freely to be as righteous as Moshe Rabbeinu or to be as wicked as the infamous Yeravam Ben Nevat, to be kind or to be cruel, to be generous or stingy. This being the case, a sinner deserves the punishment meted out to him, and has no one to blame but himself. Rambam continues in this vein for the whole of perek 5, and explains that the entire foundation of reward and punishment rests upon accepting this premise. He discusses some of the philosophical difficulties with this (can a person do what HaShem does not want him to do? Why doesn’t HaShem’s foreknowledge of everything make free will an impossibility?), provides answers, or just states emphatically that there are answers which we cannot grasp; but the principle is true, and must be true, as it governs the very raison d’etre of the creation of mankind.
The question is why Rambam writes this, and spends so much time on this, in Hilchos Teshuvah! It more logically belongs, one would think, in Hilchos Yesodei Torah (the foundations of Torah) where basic Torah principles of faith and belief are stated and discussed. True, Rambam in Chapter 7 of Hilchos Teshuvah writes that this idea of free will has a corollary — the idea that you can change, the idea of repentance, that you still possess free will after sinning — but that hardly seems reason enough to include the entire discussion of this fundamental principle in Hilchos Teshuvah, and to omit it from Hilchos Yesodei Torah, where other articles of our faith are established.
To be continued…
I take this opportunity to invite the entire English-speaking community to Beis Tefillah Yonah Avrohom this Motzei Shabbos, leil the first selichos, to hear three inspirational talks.
The first is specifically for women and teenage girls, given by the famous Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, at 9 p.m.
Rav Yechiel Spira will be lecturing at 10:15 p.m. (for men and women) on understanding the kashrus scene here in Eretz Yisrael and Ramat Beit Shemesh — a must for everyone, and an absolute must for new olim.
And Rav Binyamin Jacobson will be giving divrei his’orerus appropriate for the evening, at 12 midnight, leading up to the selichos at 12:37.
Use the evening for spiritual growth!