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Day of Renewal

By: Rav Yonny Sack

We are now deep within the preparatory month of Elul with Rosh Hashana only days away. There are many allusions to Elul in various pasukim, perhaps the most famous being the pasuk in Shir HaShirim “ Ani Ledodi, VeDodi Li – I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me” with the first letters of each word forming the acronym E-l-u-l and teaching us that this is a time of incredible Divine favor and compassion.  A less known hint however comes from a verse in this week’s parasha Nitzavim-Vayeilech. The Torah tells us of the Jewish people’s return to Hashem and says: 

“ . . . and you will return unto Hashem your G-d . . .  then Hashem, your G-d will return your captivity and He will gather you in from all the peoples to where Hashem your G-d has scattered you . If your dispersed will be at the ends of the heavens, from there Hashem your G-d will gather you in and from there He will take you. Hashem your G-d will bring you to the land . . .  Hashem your G-d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring to love Hashem your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul , that you may live.” (Devarim 30:2-6) 

The Baal HaTurim points out that the words above “(will circumcise) your heart and the heart (of your offspring)” את לבבך ואת לבב  " forms the acronym E-l-u-l.  The Mishna Brerura also mentions this hint in the pasuk. The question is what has this pasuk got to do with Elul?  Simply put,  Rabbeinu Yona in his Shaarei Teshuva writes that this verse is a promise that one who tries to do Teshuva will be given Divine assistance, beyond what their ‘natural hand can reach’.  The Ramban writes that this verse is actually referring to the times of Moshiach where Hashem will remove the thick blockages of the heart, the Yetzer Hara,  from Am Yisrael allowing us to return to the level of  Adam HaRishon before the sin.  So what does this verse refer to - the Divine assistance of Elul, where Hashem is helping us to do Teshuva or the times of Moshiach like the Ramban? 

In answering that question, let’s first look into a profound insight of the Slonimer Rebbe, about the essence of Rosh Hashana. 

In only a few days the whole world and all its inhabitants will pass before the King of kings, the Master of the world, for Judgment for the year to come. Each and every one of us will have our moment in the spot light, where our lives and all that we have done, thought, spoken over the year will be put into focus. One can feel a little anxious, to put it lightly, especially when we realize that everything for the coming year, including life and death, is being investigated and written down. Amidst the intensity of the day and the praying for our very lives 'Katveinu BeSefer HaChayim' - 'Write us in the book of life', one might forget the all-important basis of this day; that Hashem is not out to get us, that this judgment is not for the sake of punishing sins but rather Hashem is "Melech Chafetz BeChaim" - " the King that desires life",  He wants life,  and this is the day that we remind ourselves what life really is.

A parable written by the Netivot Shalom [1] paints the following picture: A King established a new country, in order to reveal his glory and give great kindnesses to his subjects. He made one day a year to renew his commitment to sustaining the country, and in doing so , this renewal day was set aside to also check, to ensure the country was achieving its intended purpose and that is was therefore worth continuing to sustain. As this day would approach, the people of the country would think deeply about what was the original intention of the founding of the country and whether their lifestyles were in line with it. They would then accept upon themselves resolutions to realign their lives with the founding intention of the King and thus the day of Judgment served to renew the connection and commitment between the King and his subjects and reawaken their desire to receive his bounty.

Rosh Hashana is "Hayom Harat Olam" - "the day of the birth of the world" - which really means that this is the day of renewal of the world [2]. On this day, the world and everything in it is renewed and as such, every detail needs to be judged to ensure it is doing its job in line with the intentions of the Founder. 

In the end, Hashem wants life. He is on our side and gave us this day and all its surrounding intensity to help us climb back to living the life of blessing and goodness that He wants for us. Our job on this day is to rekindle in our hearts the desire to want life ourselves, a life of truth and goodness. It therefore makes sense that the overwhelming majority of the prayers of Rosh Hashana have nothing to do with judgment. The references to Yom HaDin are very few. It is not the focus at all, but rather ancillary to the main message of the day which is: "VeTimloch Ata  Hashem Levadcha Al Kol Maaseicha" - "And Reign shall you Hashem  alone over all your creations". - and "Meloch al Kol HaOlam Kulo" - " Be the King upon all the entire world". What are we asking for here and over and over in the majority of the prayers of this day? We are filling our hearts with desire for the revelation of G-d in this world, for the resultant removal of evil, for goodness and blessing to permeate every spot on this planet, for the world to be flooded with deep knowledge of G-d and for that light to banish all the darkness. That is crowning Hashem as King of the Universe and we can be part of bringing that about in our own unique way by making sure our lives are the life that He so desired and desires for us to live.  Then we each crown Hashem by making Him our personal King, the guiding light in our lives - a life that is worthy of asking Him to be able to live.

Rosh Hashana is therefore a chag, a day of rejoicing and celebrating life as a Jew, and not a day of crying and mourning over an ill spent year that has passed or over a pending sentence for the future. It is rather a day of joy and love, of renewal of connection between each and every one of us and Hashem. As the Slonimer Rebbe taught, it says in the verse (Devarim 4:4) "VeAtem HaDevekim Bashem Elokeichem, Chaim Kulchem Hayom"And you who cling to Hashem your G-d, you are alive all of you today", the "Today" in the verse is hinting at the day, the day of Rosh Hashana, that this day is one of incredible devekut , bonding connection with Hashem. It is the day of renewal of our special relationship, a day to take the crown off our own heads and place it back with Hashem, renewing our bond and recalibrating our direction in life, making a policy decision as to which direction we want to be heading - revealing or concealing Hashem's kingship.

Back to our question about Elul and the verse from this week’s parasha. The Baal Haturim himself simultaneously connects the verse we quoted above at the beginning of this message, to Elul and also to Yemot HaMoshiach (like the Ramban). I believe the message is clear. Elul is a time of incredible Divine assistance to grow and return in ways that we could not possibly achieve on our own. There is in fact a taste of the Divine assistance of the times of Moshiach in these very days of Elul, and if we stretch out our hands far enough, Hashem pulls us through to the miraculous. Then we can truly enter Rosh Hashana knowing that Hashem is on our side; Ha Ba Letaher Misaayin oto – One who comes to purify himself, is assisted from Above.

May you have a meaningful, powerful and uplifting remaining days of Elul and Rosh Hashana,

Chativa Vechatima Tova,

Yonny Sack

[1] quoting the Yesod HaAvoda

[2]  Netivot Shalom. This entire message is based on the Netivot Shalom's first piece on RoshHashana, called "HaYom HaRat Olam




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