By Rav Mordechai Gifter, ZT"L, Rosh Hayeshiva, Telshe Yeshiva
Originally published in Elul, 5747
We have entered the month of Elul in the Jewish year, the month preparatory to the High Holy Days.
The need for self-evaluation is the motif of the Yamim Noraim -- the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Life must be governed by periods of retrospect in which Man is able to examine himself in the light of past experiences and future hopes. Therein lies the secret of that great idea called teshuvah -- which connotes much more than the term penitence, usually used as its English equivalent.
The entire month of Elul serves as a preparatory period of the Yamim Noraim. The daily blowing of the Shofar is the reminder for a change in attitude, a stronger and more powerful consciousness of the fact that we alone are not masters of our destiny. Once the Jew begins to feel this he becomes conscious of a yearning towards G-d. And with this yearning, there comes the realization of his personal unworthiness in the light of G-d's boundless Greatness -- Great both in Judgement and in Mercy.
When these thoughts begin to penetrate the Jew's consciousness, he begins to see himself as part of the vast and universal plan of creation, and is no longer self-centered.
Compassion and Mercy
And so, when Rosh Hashanah arrives, the Jew does not stand in supplication for personal needs. Rather, the tefillos are an expression of the recognition of G-d's endless power as Master of the Universe, finding in Judgment the place for compassion and mercy, the source of which lies in Zichronos -- in the collective repository of Israel's past, leading ultimately to universal recognition of the Divine Presence in Creation.
There follows the period of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah in which the Jew deepens and broadens the consciousness of Divinity which is beginning to permeate his being. And all this culminates in the glory of a Yom Kippur -- when through complete abstinence from earthly matters the Jew reaches a state of Divine proximity which carries with it purification and expiation.
The warmth and fervor of the tefillos on the Yamim Noraim are certainly a great source for Divine inspiration. But this calls for tefillah in its proper environment, not in that of the chazzanic glamorization and commercialization of the Yamim Noraim. It is our responsibility to choose and find the proper shul to observe pious tefillah, not merely musical incantation.
It must be remembered that the Yamim Noraim are Yamim Tovim. They are not days of a backward, despairing spirit. They are the days of a renewed spiritual power and struggle. The specific dishes, such as the carrots and honey, which serve to symbolize the hope for acceptance of our prayers, help to enhance the Yom Tov spirit. It is a Yom Tov tempered with solemnity, but it is by no means a day of sorrow and sadness. It is the concept of V'gilu Biradah -- Be "joyous" in "trembling."
The feeling of personal unworthiness, which is such an integral part of the Yamim Noraim, is a very important factor in controlling the natural instincts of the personal ego, which many times hampers our healthy spiritual development. The Yamim Noraim will teach us that Man is greatest on his knees.
The lesson that mistakes and misdeeds can be rectified, where there is a sincere desire, is of great importance in the development of one's personality.
Let's make good use of this wonderful period in the Jewish year to merit a Ksivah V'Chasimah Tovah -- to be inscribed by Him, who alone governs our destiny for Life in His Divine Countenance.