10 Aug AN ELUL PRIMER
The month of Elul is upon us with all of its seriousness and high stakes. First of all, it is the last month of the year and in Yiddishkeit this is very significant for we have a Talmudic concept, “Hakol holeich achar hachosom – Everything goes according to the finale.” So, in a very real way, in the month of Elul we get a golden opportunity to correct the past year’s mistakes. Additionally, it is crucial to reflect before Rosh Hashanah on the many gifts that Hashem gave us during the past year so that we can say “Thank You” for the past before petitioning for the future. This is why, when we start saying Selichos, we say the refrain, “Lishmoah el ha’rina v’el hatefilah – [Hashem] should hearken to the song and to the prayer.” It is imperative that we sing our appreciation before we pray for more of Hashem’s benevolence. So, let’s make our Modim in Shemone Esrei more meaningful this month and thank Hashem for not being in the hospital, for having a job, for having a spouse, and other blessings.
As we hear the shofar every morning during Elul, the Rambam tells us that it’s an alarm to remind us to take stock of our behaviors and to repent. My single biggest recommendation for this time of year is that people should make a “To-Do-Better-List,” to have in their Machzor on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On the Day of Judgement, we don’t simply ask Hashem for another year. We want a better year. Better health, better parnassah (livelihood), better marriages, better, better, better. Hashem responds, No problem, I have Infinite treasures in Heaven to fulfill all of your requests. Just one thing! Tell Me how you are going to be better. That’s only fair. If you want better, you have to give Me something in exchange.” It’s a quid pro quo arrangement. So, in order to make this list, one must sit down and attend to a rather painful assignment – and that is the making of a Cheshbon HaNefesh, a personal accounting of our behaviors.
This inspection is not enjoyable for we never like to shine a light upon our flaws. But, it’s the only way that we can properly craft an honest To-Do-Better-List. The proper way to make such an examination is to review the entire day from Modeh Ani in the morning to Krias Shema Al HaMitah in the night and see what needs improvement. Don’t become depressed or dismayed if the list is long for this also means that with a solid campaign of improvement, you can expect great improvement in the quality of your life for the coming year.
Here’s another thought. We will ask Hashem for many things for the coming year. Let me offer some advice on how to petition Hashem more wisely. In the Hagadah Shel Pesach, right before the Mah Nishtana, we find the instructions, “Kahn haben sho’el – Here, the son asks.” We find these instructions in almost every printed Hagadah. Is it written only for the absolute novice? I mean, who doesn’t know the function of the Mah Nishtana. The great Chassidic Admorim of yesteryear explain that there is a much more profound message: Here is the place to ask for a son. When we ask Hashem for something, why should He fulfil our request? We need to give Him a reason, so explains the Admorim. We ask for a son by Mah Nishtana, give us a son so that we should be able to fulfil the mitzvah of teaching our son about the Exodus. Now, that’s the way to ask for something.
This is a guide on how to successfully petition Hashem for all of our needs – so that if someone wants a bump in their salary, they say to Hashem, “If I wouldn’t be worried about my bills all of the time I would be able to be spending more time learning Torah.” “If I had better Shalom Bayis, marital harmony, I’d be able to give a better example to my children for their future marriages.” “If I had an easier commute, I would be able to daven longer and put my tefillin on with more concentration.” “If I had more money, there is so much chesed I would like to do. This is the way we should approach our prayers.”
Finally, let’s not wait until erev Yom Kippur when we say Tefilah Zakeh to forgive people. Let’s forgive them now before the Day of Judgement and make a deal with Hashem: Just like I forgive others, even though they might not deserve it, please Hashem forgive me as well, even if You find me undeserving. In the merit of our Elul preparation, I’d like to wholeheartedly wish my readership and your families a very healthy happy and wonderful New Year.