Rosh Hodesh Elul Torah Essay - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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Rosh Hodesh Elul Torah Essay

Michal Slovin

A New Perspective on Elul 

The month of Elul marks the beginning of an intense forty-day process of teshuva, culminating on Yom HaKippurim. Throughout my life I experienced this arduous process as a burdensome and difficult task. The regret that accompanies the cognizance of our sins can be rather difficult, often accompanied by feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt.

I would like to suggest an alternative avodah for the month of Elul based on Rashi’s chronology beginning with the sin of the Golden Calf. The surprising perspective will hopefully transform our avodah into one of tremendous connection and fulfillment. In place of associating Elul with guilt and begging for forgiveness, perhaps we may enter this month ready to embrace Hashem’s desire for closeness. 

In Sefer Shemot 33:11 Rashi teaches us, based on Chazal’s calculations, the chronology of Matan Torah and the subsequent events in the desert. After forty days of a deeply desired connection with Hashem atop Har Sinai, Moshe Rabeinu descended on the seventeenth of Tammuz, only to see that Am Yisrael had turned to idol worship. Moshe shattered the luchot and, with feelings of sorrow and regret, ascended the mountain for another forty days and forty nights, begging for mercy and forgiveness. Rashi describes these forty days as those of כעס, anger, in contrast to the forty days of רצון, desire, that preceded them. Only after the second “set” of forty days of continued wrath, on the first of Elul, did Hashem restore His desire for connection, ברצון, that He had felt prior to the sin of the golden calf. As Rashi describes:

מָה הָרִאשׁוֹנִים בְּרָצוֹן אַף הָאַחֲרוֹנִים בְּרָצוֹן, אֱמֹר מֵעַתָּה אֶמְצָעִיִּים הָיוּ בְכַעַס

Just as the first [40 days] were with desire, so too the latter were with desire, thus the middle days were in anger.

The first of Elul commences the third and final “set” of forty days on the mountain when the second tablets were written, and concludes with Hashem granting complete forgiveness on Yom Kippur:

בְּעֲשָׂרָה בְּתִשְׁרֵי נִתְרַצָּה הַקָּבָּ”ה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְלֵב שָׁלֵם, וְאָמַר לוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה סָלַחְתִּי, וּמָסַר לוֹ לוּחוֹת אַחֲרוֹנוֹת

On the tenth of Tishrei The Holy Blessed One was reconciled with Israel with joy and wholeheartedness, and [Hashem] said to Moshe, “I have forgiven,” and gave him the second tablets. 

The seventeenth of Tamuz through Av is laden with feelings of sorrow and guilt; the experience of Elul, is one of rekindling a love and desire which concludes in ultimate joy on Yom Kippur. How shall we reconcile the month of Elul with which we are familiar -one of repentance, selichot, and vidui – with the month heralding joy and forgiveness?

In his book Lazman Ha’ze, Rav Chaim Drukman quotes from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook’s zt”l approach to teshuva (from Orot Hateshuva). The first step in the process of teshuva as portrayed in Sefer Devarim (ch.30) is Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of one’s soul. Such introspection and accounting elicits two conflicting responses within one’s soul. On the one hand it reveals one’s negative attributes, engendering feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. On the other hand, it may also reveal one’s positive actions, attributes and behaviors, sparking a feeling of happiness and confidence to improve one’s ways. If one focuses on the first response which is laden with pain and sadness for having sinned, without finding any good within one’s self, then one is prone to sink into depression. True teshuva, תשובה שלימה, however, is a positive product of Cheshbon Nefesh that recognizes the good within one’s soul, leading to an uplifting process of repair. As Rav Drukman explains, ״איזו מעלה גדולה זו שאדם מצליח להצטער על מעשיו הרעים! כל דמעה ודמעה שמוריד על חטאיו היא גם דמעה של אושר ושמחה״

“If a person is able to feel sorry about his bad deeds, he has a big advantage! Each and every tear that’s shed over his sins is also a tear of happiness and fulfillment.” 

With this duality of Cheshbon Nefesh in mind, we may now resolve the initial dialectic of the nature of the month of Elul. Indeed, there is an important place for sentiments of regret, guilt and insecurity as we are unsure of whether we truly deserve to live another year. This “gate” of cheshbon nefesh leads one to the continued steps to teshuva. Some have already started this process during the three weeks; for others, the call of the shofar sounded from Rosh Chodesh Elul will inspire their first steps. Once we undergo introspection and initially feel shame as we recognize negative behaviors of the past, the true challenge begins! Instead of living in the past – as an “avaryan” (a sinner and someone steeped in the past) who focuses on the negative, we are charged to swiftly march into the second gate of teshuva, the gate of beauty and gratitude, the gate of worthiness and self-confidence.

Surely, this process is not as simple as portrayed. Though we may have started our introspection in the month of “Av” – as a child turns to one’s father (Av), we require much more investment to develop and maintain a relationship of love with Hashem in this month of ELUL (Ani Le-Dodi Ve-Dodi Li). Elul is the most challenging and simultaneously, opportune time to resolve to continue the process of teshuva. What may have started as regret and guilt must be transformed to positive potential for growth and improvement. What may have started as a relationship of רצון (desire) – turned to כעס (anger) after Matan Torah has the potential to be re-transformed to one of love and desire. The focus of the month of Elul is rebuilding our relationships with ourselves and with Hashem imbued with confidence in our self worth and in Hashem’s love for His people. We are in constant need of reminders. The shofar, selichot, sentiments of guilt and shame, they are our reminders. The essential task of Elul, however, is to rebuild with confidence.

What exactly does rebuilding look like? I can’t tell you exactly. Davening, learning Torah, acts of loving kindness, of course. Most importantly – to rise up with confidence, alacrity and motivation, as Hashem instructs Moshe on Rosh Chodesh Elul:

וֶהְיֵ֥ה נָכ֖וֹן לַבֹּ֑קֶר וְעָלִ֤יתָ בַבֹּ֙קֶר֙ אֶל־הַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וְנִצַּבְתָּ֥ לִ֛י שָׁ֖ם עַל־רֹ֥אשׁ הָהָֽר׃ 

Be ready by morning, and in the morning come up to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to Me, on the top of the mountain. (Shemot 34:2)

Elul is our time to wake up to the wonder and power within, to rise up the mountain of our relationship with Hashem. May we merit to enter the gates of teshuva through cheshbon ha-nefesh, allowing recognition of our sins to propel us into recognition of our strengths and the realization of our potential for full joy and love with Hashem.

Michal Slovin

Michal Slovin

is a graduate of the  Matan Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute for Tanakh and Jewish Studies.  She worked in informal education at Meor with visiting college students and ran the logistics for Machach Ba’aretz. Michal did shlichut in Australia as a Bat Sherut and on Counterpoint.  She graduated with a degree in business and economics from Ariel and completed a nutrition course. She is currently a yoga instructor and lives in Jerusalem with her husband.