By: Rabbi David Bibi
Before Times Square became the home of dueling Spider men, battling Betty Boops and pushy Sponge Bobs, all hoping to share a photo with you for a generous tip, there were other characters there. I remember the guy who stood on a box with a sign that read “Judgment Day is here”! He would yell out towards you as you passed by and if that didn’t work and he was close enough, he might grab you, warning you to, “repent because judgment day is coming”. Crazy we would think as we pulled away and made sure to avoid him in the future.
I was imagining that scene as we begin the month of Elul where for the past week or so, depending upon where we live and which community we find ourselves in we have been either getting up early to say Selihot, blowing the Shofar or concluding our prayer service with chapter 27 of Tehillim -Psalms–which begins with the words, “L’david Hashem Ori”–” G-d is my light”. Some do a combination of these and some do all three. And what is the behind these customs? It’s to send us a message and make sure we know that Judgment Day is here. The question here as with our crazy man in Times Square is do we heed the call, or do we pull away and make sure to avoid that call in the future.
Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that Hashem bestowed a great kindness upon his Jewish nation by revealing to them that the Day of Judgment is on the First of Tishrei or Rosh Hashana. Not only are the Jewish people being judged on that day, but the entire world stands before the magistrate of the universe. Those who do not realize they are being judged cannot prepare themselves accordingly and certainly miss out on a substantial benefit. Rabbi Yaakov Sasson writes that one who is suspected of breaking the law and is caught by a police officer might be immediately brought to the court to be judged in a swift manner. It is almost certain that the defendant will not be able to cope with the charges being leveled against him. If, however, he is told in advance of his court date and given the chance to seek legal counsel and prepare a case with his lawyers who will represent him, he certainly has a hope, not to be found guilty of the charges. The call of Elul is the call to us to prepare.
The Talmud teaches us that kings are judged prior to their subjects, and one reason for this is that the earlier one is judged the better. The later it gets, the angrier the Judge becomes, so to speak.
The Toldot Adam, zt”l, explains that the monarch refers to a righteous man. He works very hard to prepare himself for judgment, and starts long before the appointed day. Because he is more sensitive to the ramifications of being judged, he is prepared earlier, is judged earlier, and fares that much better for it!
Rav Chaim Solevetchik, zt”l, the Rav of Brisk, told a parable to illustrate this point. “Once, a man wanted to smuggle some merchandise across the border. He met with a wagon driver who specialized in such operations and made all the necessary arrangements. Although there was time until the appointed day, the merchant was anxious from the first moment. His nerves were so bad, and his conscience so guilty, that he literally had to stop himself from looking over his shoulder for the long arm of the law even though, as yet, he hadn’t done anything illegal.
“The wagon driver was not disconcerted in the slightest. For him, it was all business as usual. Even so, when the day finally arrived to more the merchandise, he too was also petrified. He kept looking over his shoulder for anyone who might be guarding the little known path that he had chosen. He was startled by the slightest sound and was ready to bolt at any provocation.
Rav Chaim concluded: “The only ones who had a good trip were the horses!”
Rabbi Zvi Akiva Fleisher comments. The lesson is readily understood. Like the illegal importer, some take the upcoming of the “days of awe” with seriousness and with the advent of Elul they take to the situation in earnest, doing true soul-searching, etc. Others are like the wagon driver, and only “get to work” on Rosh Hashanah itself. Last, and least, unfortunately there are those who are like the team of horses, who feel absolutely nothing. Their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even when spent in the synagogue are a cantorial entertainment. The “days of awe” come and go and their life goes on untouched.
So what should we be doing in Elul? Maimonides makes it sound very easy in his four steps which he outlines as follows:
- Recognize and discontinue the improper action.
- Verbally confess the action before HaShem 3. Genuine regret.
- Determine never to repeat the action.
Based on this it seems that anyone with ease can find a quiet spot; think, confess and commit and in so doing perform the positive mitzvah of teshuba.
But it’s easier said than done.
White might be more realistic and more attainable at least as a start is perhaps simply starting with the very first step.
Rabbi Yosef Bitton suggests we begin with the Viduy or “confession” of our sins.
He writes that, “The feelings of guilt and remorse, in Hebrew “harata”, are naturally a prerequisite for Teshuba, but they are not the essence of Teshuba. Teshuba takes place only when we perform the verbal confession of our wrongdoings.
“Psychologists explain that a patient begins his mental healing when he or she is able to verbalize his trauma (catharsis). Similarly, in the process of Teshuba we reach the definitive admission of our sins only when we are able to articulate our transgressions with words, not with thoughts.
“Anyone familiar with the process of Teshuba (repentance) delineated by Maimonides, would not be surprised to learn how the A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) or other agencies who help people with all type of addictions, developed a 12 steps recovery program in which the first step of this program is to admit that you have a problem.
“When someone is criticized of having an alcohol problem he would probably excuse himself saying: ‘I’m NOT an alcoholic. I just like to have a few drinks a day, like everyone else. I’m in control. I can stop whenever I want’.
“The biggest challenge an alcoholic needs to overcome, if he wants to get cured, is to do away with all his excuses and admit his problem. That is why when one attends A.A. meetings, the first step toward a cure is for the person to say loud and clear his “viduy”: ‘My name is Joe, and I’m an alcoholic.’
“Notice that, same as required on the Viduy, the addict must articulate and verbalize his problem, not just think about it. This articulation is an indispensable prerequisite to overcome his conscious and subconscious denial.
“In the process of Teshuba the most critical step is the Viduy: stopping our denial and articulating our misdeeds and flaws.”
Elul is here. The Shofar is blowing. The Selichot are being sung. Rosh Hashana is fast approaching. Judgment day is here.
I find it overwhelming.
But perhaps if I set aside the big picture for a moment and set aside the journey through Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur and beyond and think only about that first step, it will be something easier to swallow.
So forget the marathon, forget the run, and forget even the walk. Just start with a step, a first and crucial step. Be Modeh and admit and be very specific.
And with that you will be on the road.
King Solomon teaches us in Mishlei, “A Saddik falls seven times and gets up.” Hashem never expects us to succeed after our first attempt, in fact He expects us to fall multiple times! And so, all we have to do is, “Make for Me an opening of teshuva–repentance–no bigger than the size of a needle, and I will make it into an opening through which wagons and carriages can pass.” (Shir HaShirim Raba). All we have to do is make that first move, take that first step and with Hashem’s help, Naasheh VeNasliach–we will do and we will succeed.