While most of Western civilization now find themselves in the month of September, we, the Jewish people, find ourselves in the thick of the month of Elul, scrambling to ready ourselves for the imminent arrival of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We are told that Elul’s inherent propensity for Divine sympathy and compassion make scrupulous introspection and genuine change a no-brainer. In a split second of Elul we can overcome challenges that, throughout the rest of the year, appear otherwise insurmountable.
Yet, because of its tremendous potential for spiritual growth, Elul can often leave one feeling overwhelmed and, consequently, frazzled. After identifying the umpteen different areas in our lives that we need to improve, and with the indisputable fact hovering in the back of our minds—that New Year’s resolutions carry a quicker expiry date than a carton of milk, we are ready to throw in the towel before we have even begun.
However, if we take a moment to consider what repentance means and what constitutes genuine change, we do not have to stand by helplessly, watching another Elul slip away. Instead, we can excitedly grab the horse by the reigns and make the most of this precious time.
Feeling overwhelmed and frazzled by Elul betrays an underlying misconception that repentance demands achieving a state of perfection. Earlier this week, my Rebbe, Rabbi Binyomin Moskovits, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Midrash Shmuel, explained that repentance does not oblige us to transform into the yardstick of perfection. Perfection is purely Hashem’s domain and infinitely beyond human grasp. As King Solomon tells us in Koheles (7:20), “For there is no man so wholly righteous on earth that he [always] does good and never sins.”
Rather, repentance means drawing closer to Hashem, and that can only be done one step at a time. Our duty is to identify our current spiritual standing and then move forward, saying, “I am now on level x and I want to move to level x+1.” If we remain transfixed on the final target of perfection, we are doomed to fail. Instead, we must look at our own state of relative imperfection and work from there.
Furthermore, while the “perfectionist-type” repentance inhibits any genuine change, the “non-perfectionist-type” repentance spawns even greater progress and change. Looking back to where we were and seeing how far we have progressed, generates a special feeling of triumph that in turn propels us forward to greater heights of achievement and success.
Elul is indeed a unique and awesome time, but certainly not cause for despondency and gloom! On the contrary, we must take strength from what we have achieved and appreciate how much we can accomplish. May Hashem help us all to make the best of these days and merit a year ahead filled with blessing and success.
In memory of the Neshama of Reb Asher ben Tzvi Haynoch
L’iluy Nishmas Aidel bas Avraham
L’iluy Nishmas Chaim ben David