Rosh Chodesh Elul & Making Teshuva Real
This Shabbos we read the parsha Re’eh, coinciding with Rosh Chodesh Elul. The Bobover Ruv brings the Bas Ayin on Re’eh, that for Elul the name of the month, normally spelled, אלול, can be spelled as עלול instead, substituting the aleph with an ayin. The latter term, with an ayin, refers to a baby. Thus, the fullest way to engage in the power of Elul, which is Teshuva, is to be like a newborn baby.
There’s an interesting point that the Sanzer Rebbe brings – we can begin Elul with thoughts of Teshuva, but if we don’t act on the inspiration, we will return to our pre-Elul ways.
The Bobover Ruv connects these two concepts by pointing out that עלול isn’t just new life, but also action or doing. Thus, our desire is insufficient, we must also take action, and by taking action, we can bring new life, like a baby, as we make the Teshuva transcend from mental to physical, affecting the world around us.
This past week I attended a wedding in Los Angeles. Living out of town, traveling yidden often ask me how I survive in an area with so few resources: no kosher restaurant, a handful of stores that carry some kosher items, limited availabilty of pas yisroel and cholov yisroel, a one-town shul, a single minyan at one set time, etc. The list goes on. The challenge is that these travelers see these things as limitations, whereas I see them as opportunities.
Here’s an example: during my visit to LA, I stopped by a kosher market. Everything in the store has valid hashgacha, so I don’t need to scrutinize the label so closely. The produce is bodek, so I don’t need to wash and bug check. Items have the brachos on the labels, so I don’t need to think about what I’m supposed to say. These things can be helpful aids, but we can rely on them far too much. These things, to me, are potential barriers in avodas HaShem. Each mitzvah that we have to strive for, that we need to have clear kevanah for, is at an elevated state and worth more than gold. That’s the milah of out of town life. Everything becomes of value, all the kol Torah, the davening, the kehilla – everything is fought for and invested in.
Another thing I noticed in LA. There are advertisements everywhere. A lack of tznius as well. It’s very hard to properly guard one’s eyes there if they’re driving, since it’s impossible to drive a car and not be exposed to schmutz. The yidden in LA have the amazing opportunity to guard their eyes, not like I have in my small town with little to no billboards. Yasher koach for their community maintaining observance in the belly of the marketing beast.
One ad in particular, however, that is quite ironic, is the city’s plea for people to reduce their water usage due to a longstanding drought. The source of their drought is their schmutz, as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh writes that one’s speech turns to the heavens and brings rain, and an area of aveiros will have cursed rain and an area of mitzvos will have blessed rain. The aveiros of LA is creating not just the drought, but also the little rain they have to further root the city in its rut.
The city of LA isn’t Nineveh. Nineveh, ruled by Pharoah, recognized the Navi and the power behind him. The power of the tzaddik’s words. Just as Pharoah did teshuvah and guided the city in teshuvah, so too can the city of LA. But they shouldn’t be alike. Although Pharoah did teshuvah, the Midrash tells us that it was a teshuvah of thought and pledge, not one of permanence or action. It was the teshuvah in the hearts and minds of Elul, but didn’t last beyond that. As a result, the city was eventually destroyed.
In order to do this avodah properly, however, we cannot and must not lose the energy in our teshuvah. We need it to be holistic, from thought to speech and from speech to action, like the cycle of rain.
Just as during Pesach we retell the story of our redemption, so too during Elul and Yomim Noraim we need to tell the story of our Teshuvah.
Just as Pharoah said no to letting us go, so too he said no to real Teshuva and the feeling faded.
Just as we have these two cautions to us, so too we need to follow HaShem with thought and effort, inspiration and action.
If we can engage the physical Teshuva, and not just the mental inspiration this season brings, then we become newborn in the eyes of HaShem, and the relationship between father and infant is one of the most precious of all…