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    When we think of Elul and the High Holidays, we generally think in terms of fear, anxiety and trepidation. We intuitively assume that during this period we are supposed to be scared.

    But this is not precisely correct. True, this is a time for fear, but not the kind of fear that we’re familiar with.

    “Am I Pretty?”

    Somebody once showed me a newspaper article reporting on a phenomenon that apparently became widespread, and might still be widespread, among young preteen and teen girls. Girls who feel insecure about their looks post videos of themselves on YouTube, with the question, “Am I pretty?” and invite viewers to leave comments about what they think of their looks. Some commenters, admirably, leave comments reassuring the girl that she has nothing to worry about, and is, in fact, good-looking, whereas many others leave obnoxious, hurtful comments like, “You’re ugly. Go cry about it to somebody who cares.” We can only imagine how an insecure 12-year-old girl feels after reading such comments.

    According to the article shown to me, tens of thousands of girls post videos like this, asking the world to comment about their looks.

    On another occasion, I was shown a different newspaper article reporting on a precise opposite phenomenon. The article spoke of a certain summer camp that strictly implements a fascinating rule: no “body talk” allowed. This means that nobody is allowed to make any comment about anybody else’s appearance. Comments like, “You look great today” or “What kind of hair style is that?” are forbidden. No one in this camp is allowed to make any observation about someone’s body.

    What a liberating experience it must be to spend two months knowing that nobody will comment about looks! Throughout the summer, everyone in the camp pays attention only to character and personality. In fact, the article said that a sign is hung up alongside all the mirrors in the camp that says, “Don’t look at the body. Look at the soul.” This policy freed the campers from having to worry about their appearance, enabling them the opportunity to focus exclusively on their characters and their friendships.

    This is the “fear” of Elul. The purpose of this month is to free us from all our mundane, trivial “fears” that consume us and prevent us from concerning ourselves with what really matters. Elul is not a time to walk about in a state of paralyzing panic. Quite to the contrary, Elul is a time to step away from the less important stresses and pressures so we can focus our attention on personal growth.

    The Torah (Bereshit 3:24) tells that after Adam and Havah were banished from Gan Eden, G-d placed “keruvim” with a revolving sword at the entrance to the garden. One of the commentators, Chizkuni, explained this as a reference to scary, frightening images. One of the consequences of Adam’s sin is that man began living with frightening images in his mind. Young girls and women walk around wondering, “Am I pretty?” Men walk around wondering, “Do I earn enough money?” People live with all kinds of irrational fears that cause them unnecessary pressure which stifles them and prevents them from moving forward and growing.

    Elul and the High Holidays is the time to recognize these irrational fears and overcome them. It is the time to stop the “body talk” so we can focus on “soul talk.” It is the time to stop worrying about vanity and start focusing on what’s truly important. This is the liberating fear of Elul.