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    Changing For the Better (Part One)

    It’s hard to believe, but it’s nearly that time of the year again.  The month of Elul.

    As we try to squeeze the last drops of juice from our vacations and prepare to return to the yearly grind, our minds already are filling with thoughts of school supply lists and new bus routes.  As summer wanes, our thoughts start to focus on getting back into the yearly grind.

    Yet, to an observant Jew, the month or Elul means so much more.  We are taught, “Hakol holeich achar hachasom  —   Everything is decided by the conclusion.”  Thus, this month, the last month of the Jewish year, is the decisive one when it comes to determining how successful our year was.  Just as one can correct an entire life in its last day, so too we can greatly improve the previous year in its final month.  We are also taught that Moshe Rabbeinu went up Har Sinai to appeal for forgiveness over the sin of the Golden Calf on the first day of Elul and, after staying there for forty days and forty nights, he came down on Yom Kippur achieving atonement for Klal Yisroel.

    Moshe Rabbeinu thus injected into this time of year a powerful opportunity for one to repent and mend his ways.  This is why this time of the year is known as the Yimei Rachamim v’Selicha – days of mercy and forgiveness.  In Chapter 138, the Chayei Adam tells us that it is incumbent upon a G-d fearing Jew to prepare at least 30 days before Rosh Hashanah to be ready for the Day of Judgment.  Moreover, the Alter of Chelm further challenges us by relating that it is absurd to say the verses of Kingship, and to realistically accept Hashem as our King in the Rosh Hashanah davening, without ample preparation beforehand.  He makes the scary statement that to say Malchios (Kingship) on Rosh Hashanah in an ‘off the cuff’ manner is even worse than saying vidui (confession) on Rosh Hashanah.  (This is a practice from which we abstain since it would be wrong to confess openly during the moments when we are being judged.)

    So how do we prepare?  Of course, the answer is to do t’shuva.  But, what exactly is t’shuva.?  The meaning of this word is not as simple as it sounds.  You see, t’shuva has two almost-contradictory meanings.  This can be illustrated by the following two verses.  In the verse, “Vayashov Avraham el na’arov,” t’shuva means to return.  In the verse, “Shuv mei-acharon apecha,” t’shuva means to abandon or to forsake.

    The Rambam explains t’shuva in the latter sense, interpreting it as the pursuit of abandoning and forsaking our sins.  However, both the Maharal of Prague and the Mabit explain it in the sense of return, understanding it to mean the attempt to return to Hashem.

    Let us focus on the Maharal’s interpretation first.  Indeed, the job of returning to Hashem is the focus of the verse, “V’shavta el Hashem Elokecha  —  and you should return to Hashem your G-d.”  This is what is alluded to by the acronym which we so often associate with the word ELUL —  Ani V’dodi V’dodi Li  —  I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.

    It is our duty as we hear the shofar every morning in Elul to remember our great Patriarch Avroham, who was so attached to Hashem that he was ready even to give up his precious child for the love of his Creator.  It is up to us to return our thoughts to Hashem during this critical month.

    We have a positive command – Es Hashem Elokecha tirah  — to fear G-d.  How, on a practical basis, do we fulfill this?  Is it a precept to tremble at the thought of the Almight-y?  The Rishonim teach us that if we are tempted to speak some Loshon Hora, scream at our spouse, or gaze at improper things and we abstain because we realize that Hashem is watching us, this is the very essence of Es Hashem Elokecha Tirah.  This is action which is consistent with the deeper focus of Elul.  —  Being more aware that Hashem is around.

    But Hashem is not only an inhibiting factor.  He should also be our primary motivation for doing good.  The posuk teaches us, “B’chol d’rachecha da’eihu  —  In all your ways you should acknowledge Him.”  Thus, when we are debating whether to get up early for selichos (or sleep another half-an-hour), or when we weigh whether we should travel an entire hour to visit a sick person (or browse the latest sports page), and we decide to do these mitzvos because we want to please Hashem, this is an embodiment of the real meaning of Yiras Shamayim.

    In our Yomim Nora’im liturgy, we say, “T’shuva, Tefilla, u’Tzedaka ma’avirin es ro’ah hagezeirah  —  Repentance, Prayer and Charity abolish the evil decrees.”  Thus, we see that prayer is also a very important item on which to work at this time of year.  Working on our davening is so consistent with the theme of returning to Hashem, for the great success of proper prayer lies in a correct realization that everything depends upon Hashem and that, when we are praying, we are really talking to Him, and believing with a certainty that davening can really help.

    So many people think that working on davening means to learn the meaning of the words and to concentrate on them.  This, however, is not the first step.  Rather, we must first learn to realize that when we pray, we are talking to G-d.  Once we tailor our davening with this realization, everything else will just come naturally.

    Let us remember that, in direct proportion to how much we feel Ani l’dodi, I am to my beloved (Hashem), that is how much Dodi Li, my beloved will pay attention to me.  So, let’s make an effort to think, each of the countless times we pass mezuzahs every day, just for a milli-second, that Hashem is in the room with us.  Let us think “Thank you G-d” every time we say a blessing.  And let us make it a firm practice to start off our day with a meaningful thank you in Mode Ani, and end our day with gracious gratitude as expressed in the brocha of Hamapil.

    As we pepper our day with constant acknowledgments of Hashem, we will then truly be ready, this Rosh Hashanah, to coronate Hashem as our King.

    (To be continued.)

    Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’s articles.

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