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Shoftim - Elul
Hashem Is Close ByAdapted from a recorded lecture by Rav Yisroel Eliyahu Weintraub, zt"l.
Elul is the month of preparation for the Yomim Nora'im. It is brought down in the holy seforim that a hint at the meaning of Elul lies in its name: Elul is roshei teivos (an acronym): àìåì = àðé ìãåãé åãåãé ìé "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me" (Shir Hashirim 6:3). I love Him, He loves me. Chazal are telling us that the best way to prepare for the Days of Awe and Judgment is to become close to Hashem, to make Him our beloved. In order to accomplish this we have several minhagim during the month of Elul. Twice a day we recite Mizmor LeDovid Hashem is my light… (Tehillim 27). After Shacharis we blow the shofar as a reminder to awaken our spirits and inspire us to begin soul searching in preparation for the High Holy Days. The Sefardim start Slichos before daybreak already from the beginning of Elul. The Mishne Berura explains that towards the end of night, HaKadosh Baruch Hu comes down to this world. That means that during Elul, Hashem is close. It is our job to seek Him.
There is another Mizmor LeDovid that we say before Bircas Hamazon, Hashem is my shepherd… (Tehillim 23). This mizmor is divided into two sections. In the first half Dovid Hamelech describes the most wonderful times of his life:
A song of David. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He causes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
What could be better than all this? Everything is wonderful.
The second half discusses the turbulent dark times that Dovid Hamelech endured: Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff-they comfort me.
Upon looking at this mizmor we find a very strange thing. Imagine meeting a good friend and you ask him, "How is it going?"
"Oh, wonderful. Hashem is so good to me. Parnossa is going, the boys are all learning, my wife is wonderful. Everything is great. It should only continue this way."
A while later you meet him again and his face has turned sour. "What happened?"
"Oh, don't ask. What didn't go wrong? I have no parnossa. My kids are going off. My sholom bayis is a wreck. Hashem seems to have deserted me."
These responses are very normal. Things are good, Hashem is close; things are bad, Hashem has disappeared. But Dovid Hamelech turns everything around. When he discusses the most wonderful times of his life, when Hashem is shining His face upon him, he speaks of Hashem in the third person. He is my shepherd. He causes me to lie down in green pastures; He restores my soul; He leads me…. During the times when everything is rosy, he doesn't describe Hakadosh Baruch Hu in the personal, as one talking to Him face to face; rather he describes Him as being distant. And from that distance, Hashem showers His bounty upon him. During the best days of his life, Dovid Hamelech didn't see Hashem as being close to him.
Then, during the second half of the mizmor, when he describes the darkest days of his life, he refers to Hashem as you. Even when I walk in the valley of shadow of Death, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff-they comfort me. Even in the shadow of Death he sees Hashem standing there with him. This is just the reverse of the way we think!
I want to tell you a story about one of the greatest gaonim of Europe. Rav Mordechai Progromansky was considered the biggest iluy (genius) of prewar Lithuania. He was a totally holy man and all of Torah was an open book laying there before his eyes. During WWII he suffered under the Nazis in the Kovno Ghetto. Somehow, miraculously he and several others survived.
One of the survivors told over the following incident, which, while not describing anything miraculous, shows how he towered over everyone else in his tremendous strength of faith.
During the end of the Kovno Ghetto the Germans had already lost all reserve. If they spotted a Jew they shot him on the spot, no warning, no questions asked. The Jews' lives were utterly worthless. Anyone not shot was enslaved in forced labor camps to work in backbreaking slave labor. It was a very terrible time.
What kind of taste of life did any of the Jews have in that ghetto? Everyone was just waiting to die and let all this suffering be over with. That's the normal reaction of a person in such a situation. All he wants to do is leave this world. Let me die already!
One day three Slobodka Yeshiva bochurim were standing near the barbed wire fence that surrounded the ghetto. Their faces expressed all the suffering and torment that everyone in the ghetto was enduring. They were totally demoralized and broken. All their feelings of humanness were deadened. The three of them stood there together speechless. They were beyond words. There was nothing to say.
Rav Mottel saw them and their looks of despair. He approached them. He asked them, "Rabbosai, what should we be thinking about now?" That question seemed totally out of place. Three individuals in such a despondent situation as they, was there any ability to think anymore? They looked at Rav Mottel and their eyes asked the question, what do want from us?
Rav Mottel immediately grasped their bewilderment and answered. "I'll explain. Look over there. On the other side of the barbed wire is a Nazi guard. Look at his rifle. He's making sure no Jew escapes the ghetto. There are two very clear facts about that Nazi. First of all, the most enjoyable sport he has is to shoot Jews. They don't shoot Jews for any reason. It's all a sport for them. The greatest pleasure a German could have would be to kill a Jew. For no reason at all. Pure sport. The second fact is that if a German kills a Jew no one will hold him accountable. He's absolutely free to do as he wishes." Rav Mottel continued, "In light of these two facts, if that German loves killing Jews so much, what is holding him back from shooting us right now? If someone is enjoying a game of soccer, is there any reason for him to stop in the middle? Never! That's his greatest enjoyment - sport. Sport is his life! And so, if it is so impossible for this German not to want to take his rifle and shoot us right now, it must be that something is holding him back. It's none other than Hakadosh Baruch Hu and His Hashgacha Elyona protecting us right now. There's no other explanation."
This story goes to show us the difference between the way we look at things and the way a gadol looks at the same things. He also suffered those days of Holocaust, but his outlook was entirely different. He was head and shoulders over everyone else.
This is what Dovid Hamelech is telling us.
Even when I was passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and survival was totally impossible there because death was all around me. And yet I did survive. That is the biggest proof that You are there with me! You weren't over there, distant. You were right here next to me!
When everything is bright and rosy, then the natural tendency of the person is to see the siyata d'shmaya. Hashem has a part in my success. The Hashgacha Elyona is not distant; it's right here.
The truth is the reverse. Only when everything is black, when there's absolutely no chance to survive; only when every avenue of escape is blocked, then we can see the Hashgacha Elyona that Hashem is right here with us, guiding us, taking care of us, caring for us. Only then is His presence so crystal clear. This is the avoda set out for us during these days of Elul in preparation for the Days of Judgment. Hashem now comes close to us and wants us to find Him. I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network