Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim| 5766
From the works of Hagaon Harav Shaul Yisraeli zt”l - “Fortunate Is One Who Is Always Fearful” - From Derashot Layamim Hanoraim, pp.12-13
Elul is not the month of teshuva (repentance); it is only the month of preparation for teshuva. So we see that the preparation for teshuva is more substantial than the teshuva itself, for an entire month is required for preparations and only ten days for teshuva.
One can express the content of the preparations that are to take place during Elul through the month’s emblem. “Shall a shofar be blown in the city, and the nation will not tremble?” (Amos 3:6). The point of the preparations, which include the daily blowing of the shofar, is to shake up one’s spiritual equilibrium, to bring fear into the soul, cause a little lack of confidence, a little doubt about our ability to decide and act.
Normally, a person has fears on a regular basis, but we are talking about a different type of fear. A person is afraid about what will happen tomorrow or the next day. He wants guarantees about the security of his existence in the future for him and his family. In order to help secure his future, which is hidden and full of doubt, he is willing to relinquish some pleasures in the present. Certainly, the past is of little concern to him. It is no longer in the world, so what is there to think about?
The correct and necessary fear has been inverted, as if by mirror image, and is placed at the wrong time and place. A person should be fearful only of his own actions. What others do will not impact on him. The gemara says that the pasuk, “Fortunate is one who is always fearful” (Mishlei 28:14) refers to his situation in regard to Torah study. He should be worried specifically about any shortcomings that he might have in the past, which are so often ignored.
“Every path of man is straight in his eyes” (Mishlei 21:2). Indeed, we are not used to seeing blemishes in ourselves. The one who is wrong is always “the other guy.” “I am always right.” From the time of the Romans, the accepted foundation of societal perspective has been that a person sees himself as fine. As long as a person has the mind frame that he always makes the right decision, it is impossible to talk about teshuva. In fact, he is not even able to bring his heart to believe in the Creator. This is the source of the self-complacency and the refusal to be self-critical and corrective.
The month of Elul comes along to shake us out of our complacency and focus our attention on the past, as opposed to the future. It is not that we should not care about the future. Rather, it is the past that is the key to the future. We should have fear, a healthy, productive fear of the past. It does not let us rest but makes us be critical and suspicious about ourselves. This is the content of Elul. Yet, too often, our approach is to stay where we are, without listening to the signs of the days and, thus, everything can remain like it was the year before.
If there are no preparations for teshuva, there is no teshuva. The days that were reserved for waking up to the situation pass unnoticed. A person will not purify himself if he does not know that he is impure. Let us “come to make a calculation” (a famous rabbinic play on words, taken from Bamidbar 21:27). The fundamental understanding that there is a need for careful calculation, not just to fulfill an obligation, but for one’s own sake and in respect to the Knower of Thoughts, is part of the calculation itself.
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