Family vacations can be fun and exhausting at the same time. We returned from ours very late Thursday night. Our heads hit the pillow around 1 a.m. when suddenly all our smoke alarms went off! “Fire, fire, fire,” they blared throughout the house. We all ran outside, despite seeing no fire and smelling no smoke. Big fire trucks with sirens wailing came rushing to our house. However, it turned out that one of the smoke detector units had malfunctioned. Thankfully, all was well and we went back to sleep!
On Shabbos, my wife commented that last year, just prior to Rosh Chodesh Elul, we were awakened during the night by a loud banging on our door. The police had received a distress call and were given an address similar to ours. Baruch Hashem all was fine then as well.
It seems that two years in a row, Hashem sent us our own personal shofar blast.
The Shulchan Aruch says the custom is to start blowing shofar from the first day in Elul, and the commentaries say the purpose is to awaken us from our slumber. The Shelah says the pasuk “When a lion roars, who won’t be terrified” is referring to the blasting of the shofar. He also says the word aryeh—lion—is comprised of four Hebrew letters, all referring to a different day during this time period: Aleph—Elul, reish—Rosh Hashanah, yud—Yom Kippur, heh—Hoshana Rabbah. Each of these days has its own roar.
This past summer, we unfortunately heard many “sirens.” There were a number of untimely deaths of young yeshiva men in different tragic drowning accidents. It’s a sobering wake-up call to each of us.
Yet, many people miss out on beneficial actions they can take during Elul because they don’t like focusing on their shortcomings. Rav Nosson Wachtfogel tells us not to wallow in our mistakes during Elul, but rather to increase our good deeds. Grab every opportunity to learn Torah and do mitzvos. Sephardim increase their prayer with Selichot during each day of Elul. Ashkenazim add an extra chapter of Tehillim, “L’Dovid Hashem ori.” (Psalm 27)
The parshios we read during Elul teach us specific areas to focus on. In Parshas Shoftim, a pasuk says, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof,” righteousness, righteousness you shall seek. My great-uncle Meyer Thurm passed away a few weeks ago. A few stories that were told about him left a big impression on me. When he was 15 years old he found a wallet in front of his apartment building with $300 in it and no identification. He could have kept it, but instead went knocking on each apartment door, asking if they lost money. No one claimed it, so he went to the next apartment building and found a painter in the hallway who said he indeed lost his wallet. The painter started crying. “You saved me! I’ve been saving to bring my son back from Europe, working day and night. I was devastated to lose the money.” The painter offered a reward for his righteous deed, but Uncle Meyer said, “I can’t take a reward for being honest. That’s what I’m supposed to do!”
Another form of tzedek (righteousness) is giving tzedakah. Uncle Meyer was known for his caring heart, and many people came to his office to collect charity. Not only did he give each person a gift, but he sat with each person and listened to his story. One of his family members asked, “I understand you want to help each person, but how do you have the patience to sit and listen to each person?” He replied, “As long as I can sit on this side of the table, that’s what I’ll do.”
Perhaps we can glean this lesson from the double use of the word tzedek in the foregoing pasuk, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” It is saying that there are two aspects to a gift: first, giving the actual tzedakah money, and second, the manner in which it is given. The Torah is imploring us to give to each individual with care, respect and dignity.
In Elul we recall the roar of the lion, the shofar blasts and the recent tragedies. I recall my smoke alarm also! Let’s act positively and grab all the mitzvah opportunities we can find in this special month. In doing so we will merit the conclusion of the pasuk, “Chase after righteousness so that you shall merit to live and inherit the land that Hashem, your God, gives you.” (16:20)