Rosh Chodesh Elul: Introspection, Repentance, Return

This Shabbos Kodesh and Yom Rishon (Shabbos and Sunday) we mark the days of Rosh Chodesh Elul… It is hard to believe, but it is Elul once again.  The final, impactful, hopefully awe-inspiring, stirring month of the year. 

If we have been lax in our avodas Hashem until now, we still have one more month to change, to improve, the strive to be better, to get it right, before we stand before the RS”O on Yom Ha’Din (before the Master of the World on Judgement Day)!  No matter how much we feel we have been unsuccessful in change these past eleven months, we still have today, every day of this final month, which is ripe with potential. 

As Hillel used to say: אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי – If I am not for myself, who will be for me.  And if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, then when…? (Avos 1:14). 

Famously, Elul is interpreted according to the following acronym: אלול = אני לדודי ודודי לי – I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.  A Jew always seeks out G-d, and G-d always seeks out the Jew.

Elul, followed by Tishrei, is the time of year when Hashem is closest to us, keviyachol, when we seek Him out where He can be found, when we call to Him when He is close (Yeshayahu 55:6). 

As we usher in Elul, we will begin to say Tehillim Ch. 27 twice daily: after Shachris and Mincha (nusach Sefarad) or after Shachris and Maariv (nusach Ashkenaz).  Dovid Ha’Melech proclaims: אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-ה’ אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ – one thing I ask from Hashem, this I ask: שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-ה’    כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי – to dwell in the house of Hashem, all the days of my life, לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-ה’, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ – to behold the pleasantness of Hashem, and to visit in His sanctuary (Ps.27:4). 

שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-ה – to dwell in the house of Hashem… שִׁבְתִּי, from the same root word as teshuva: to dwell in the house of Hashem, to repent and come close to Hashem. 

A certain chassid once came to R’ Chaim of Sanz (1797-1876, Poland) and said that he was unable to repent, since he saw himself as inept and hopeless due to his past failures.  Then he started to cry bitterly.  R’ Chaim of Sanz comforted him and said, “Do not take it to heart.  The anguish of being unable to repent is also repentance” (Tales of the Righteous, Simcha Raz, p.136).   

And yet, we are unsure about ourselves… Is it possible for a former sinner, a repentant, to dwell in the house of G-d all the days of his life?  Are we welcome in Heichal Hashem with our past misdeeds?

Moreover, we wonder, how is repentance possible?  How can man change, not only himself, but his deeds, his past, his very existence? 

Rav Soloveitchik zt’l powerfully teaches, “The very phenomenon of repentance, the fact that a person is able to rise above his lowly state and ascend the mountain of the L-rd, is one of the most wondrous favors with which the Creator has endowed His creatures.

“The grace of repentance has a dual nature and this is revealed by two factors: first in the fact that the human personality is the true sanctuary of HaKadosh Baruch Hu (HKB”H – the Holy One, blessed be He).  The greatest of all holy temples, even more sacred that the Western Wall, is the human soul, the divine dwelling place.  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם – make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell within them (Shemos 25:8).   

“If HKB”H did not dwell within man, repentance would not be possible.  The Divine Presence within man – this is the first act of grace.  The second one, which is a divine favor throughout eternity, is the fact that HKB”H, who chose the human soul as His dwelling place, does not remove Himself from man even after he sins…. Where does HKB”H live? Where is the dwelling place of the eternal G-d?  The home of HKB”H, is in man, in his heart, in his soul; and He does not depart from there even when man has sinned and defiled the holy sanctuary within him.  HKB”H continues to dwell within the depths of the soul of the sinner: השוכן אתם בתוך טומאתם – Who dwells with them in the midst of their impurity.

“HKB”H has two dwelling places within man.  He is to be found in two homes, in two sanctuaries.  One is the sanctuary of feeling, in the Holy of Holies of human sentiments, such as love, wonder, mercy, goodness of heart, awe of the exalted, joy, sorrow, amazement.  In all these it is possible to find a manifestation of the Divine Presence.  The second is the sanctuary of thought.  When a person thinks, when he studies Torah, when he purifies and sanctifies his intellect, the instrument of his knowledge and reason – there HKB”H can be found. 

“One dwelling place of the Eternal G-d is within the human heart.  The second dwelling place of the Eternal G-d is inside the human brain.  When a man sins and HKB”H continues to dwell within him, both emotion and cognition cry out in revolt and battle with him until he is brought to either of the two kinds of repentance, whether it be repentance of the emotions or that of the mind.  When a person becomes a penitent it is because HKB”H, Who is present within him, has aroused and altered him to do so” (On Repentance, p.207-208).

Are we welcome in the house of the L-rd?  Is change possible? Does Hashem always desire our closeness and return?  The answer to all is yes.  Despite our past misdeeds, Hashem waits for us to return to Him. 

A certain person came to R’ Yisrael of Rizhin (1796-1850, Ukraine), broken in spirit.  “There is no hope for me,” he cried.  “I have been focusing on repentance for a long time, and yet I have just sinned again!”  “Do not despair,” answered R’ Yisrael.  “Just as it is the custom of people to keep on sinning, so it is the custom of HKB”H to keep on forgiving” (Tales of the Righteous, p.137). 

בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום,


1 Comment
  • vicky klipper
    Posted at 07:55h, 30 August

    thank you Michal for such an inspiring Vort, on this day, before shabat, and before chodesh Elul. May you continue to be Zocheh to share your wisdom with each of us. shabat shalom, chodesh tov. zei gezint. regards from Netanya,Israel.