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Ki Tezei 5769

By: Rav Ari Shames

I would like to part from the standard form of our email shiurim that usually focus on the parsha and instead I would like to deal with Ellul and our preparations for Rosh Hashanah. In fact, I would hardly call it a shiur, but rather a sketch of a program to get the most out of Ellul.

The month of Ellul is meant as an introduction and time of preparation as we approach Yom Kippur. All of the halacha books point out that these are the forty days in which Moshe Rabenu ascended Har Sinai for the last time, and returned with the second set of luchot, a clear sign of the forgiveness that God granted us. While we view Yom Kippur as a day of teshuvah and getting our lives straightened out, I think it is obvious that Yom Kippur is not the only day of the year when one can do teshuva. In this respect Yom Kippur is very different to all other holidays. It is of no value to eat matza, sit in a sukkah or light candles today; however it is highly recommended to do teshuva each and every day. Yom Kippur is part of a longer and more permanent process, the final stages of which we have started in this first week of Ellul.

In the Yeshiva/Midrasha world the month of Ellul is dedicated to the beginning of a new year of learning and symbolizes the intensifying of all of our efforts in avodat Hashem. As most of the readers of this shiur are not presently in the Midrasha, Ellul presents a huge challenge. You may be in university, working, raising a family or trying to do all of these things at once! The vast majority of your time is taken up by the daily responsibilities that you have, and even trying to work out an inspiring moment on Yom Kippur is not easy, let alone the entire month of Ellul.

I would like to suggest a few hands-on ideas to help each of us make this Ellul "work"; suggestions that I think each and every one of us can adapt to their own life style.

There is no question about it that if we wish to improve in avodat Hashem we should focus on quality and not quantity. The last mishna in Menachot clearly states that it does not matter how much one does (in the context of which type of offering one brings) as long as his or hers intentions are pure. This rule is applied to teffila all year long and during selichot even more so. It is better to say less with more kavanah that the opposite.

However, when we are trying to build a program for improvement, focusing on quality only is very dangerous. We can make a firm commitment to add quality to all of our efforts but we are not likely to succeed as this cannot be measured. If I want to have more kavanah in teffila, how do I know if it is really changing? My learning should be qualitatively better - in which way?

On our "Ellul Program" we need to increase both our quantity and our quality. We need to increase quantity because it gives us a clear border of where we were and how far we have come, while at the same time really focusing on the quality as the essential part of our goals.

Teshuva/ Teffilah/ Tzedakah
The three areas of teshuva, teffila and tzedakah are where we need to focus our attention. For each of them we need to figure out how to increase both the quality and quantity of our avodat Hashem.

The realm of tzedakah includes not only giving money but all forms of helping others. If one is able to help out financially then one must do so, however even the college student burdened by large loans and lack of income should not ignore tzedakah. One can donate time, effort and empathy all of which are part of these mitzvoth.

It is clear to see how we can increase our quantity of these mitzvoth. Whatever money, time or effort you have been using for these mitzvoth must be increased this month. What about the quality? What is meant by an increase of the quality of tzedakah?

Tzedakah is not simply a donation of time, money or any other resource. Tzedakah is meant to be a sense of identification with our fellow Jews, a true feeling of empathy and desire to help out. Our qualitative avodah should be in trying to increase our inner feelings while doing chesed/tzedakah to truly fulfill the mitzvah.

On a quantitative level we should increase the amount of teffilot. If one does not daven three times a day (based on the positions that women are required to do less than that) this is a good time to do a bit more. It does not necessarily have to be an obligation from now on, but at least for the Ellul and Tishrei times we should make the extra effort to add to our daily avodat Hashem.

The qualitative aspect of teffilah is of course the central part of the mitzvah, much more so than in the case of tzedakah. Here we need to do our best to develop a solid plan of increasing kavanah and really be able to "talk to God". We may need to make a change in the time and/or place that we daven to a venue that is more helpful in this manner. It may be an idea to try to concentrate and improve one bracha at a time during the amidah, slowly transforming the experience from a rote declaration to a real dialogue.

Brachot and Birkat Hamazon also fall into this category and should be taken slowly and savored (no less than the food itself).

This is the most difficult area as it is the most amorphous. It is impossible to define the mitzvah either quantitatively or qualitatively. Teshuva is a long process of introspection and self development that we need to work on each and every day.

If we are talking about practical suggestions, we could suggest the daily inventory of the day's events before going to sleep. What were our strong points? Which challenges did we meet and which issues need to be improved for tomorrow?

We often find ourselves on Erev Yom Kippur asking forgiveness from our friends and family in a manner that is "last minute" in nature. We can invest our time in Ellul to really think about the relationships and make some real improvements. Frank and open conversations can be used to forge new bonds and solve old problems.

In order to accomplish anything in life we must put forth effort. We are given this month to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and we must see it as a really opportunity to make this coming year a significantly better one than last. No mater where one may be this month, each and every one of us has the ability to make it a meaningful month, a time of growth and progress in our avodat Hashem. May our suggestions offer a plan to make the most out of our Ellul.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov
Rav Shames


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