Like many people, I took my family on a little end-of-summer getaway. We loved it—change of scenery, peace and quiet; a respite before the rush of fall activities begins. This year we ended up finding a newly renovated five-bedroom home in Fleischmanns, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. It’s a tiny place known for its Jewish hotel called Oppenheimer’s. Sure enough, we felt we entered a different world up there. No hustle and bustle. Even quiet by mountain standards! Locals drove their pickup trucks and people like me drove their minivans. Nearby, we saw a retreat for Satmar chasidim with a small Satmar camp and yeshiva, plus a new shul. The air was clean, the stars were bright at night. It was just what we needed.
The Jewish calendar now puts us in the month of Elul. For many, this time of year can get overlooked because of summer plans and trips and the whirlwind of getting ready for a new school year. Often, we might only begin to think about Rosh Hashanah when Selichos begin.
It’s not surprising that some people associate Elul with a feeling of nervousness. It’s a time to focus on changing for the better…Rosh Hashanah is coming! Perhaps that’s why many people don’t like thinking about Elul—there’s so much at stake! However, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel explains that Elul should evoke a feeling of great joy, as it’s a truly auspicious time. In no other time period does Hashem openly make Himself so available to us. Elul is a gift!
Rav Wachtfogel equates Elul to spending time in a remote vacation village. We take ourselves outside our “normal” world to cocoon with the Almighty! I look back now at my time in Fleischmanns, New York, with a whole new motivational perspective.
Many pesukim allude to this 40-day period. One famous one is “ani l’dodi ve dodi li”—I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. Here, the first letters in these four words spell Elul. The Mishna Berura points out these four words all end with the letter yud, which has the numerical value of ten. The sum of these last four letters equals 40, alluding to this 40-day period.
The Bnei Yissaschar notes the minimum size of a mikveh is 40 seah of water and equates the period of Elul through Yom Kippur to a mikvah. Forty seah is equal to 960 pugin (measurement used in time of the Gemara), which is the same number of hours found in 40 days. When we emerge, we are new and purified.
The mazal (Zodiac sign) for the month of Elul is a besulah (an unmarried girl), signifying this time period is one of creating a new relationship and marriage with Hashem. The start of any relationship needs quality time and attention. As expressed in Parshas Ki Seitzei, the first year of marriage absolves a man from his army service, as he needs to be home with his new wife to develop their relationship. The month of Elul provides us with the opportunity to renew our relationship with Hashem and we need to invest time to develop this relationship.
With every step we take to get closer to Hashem, He takes a step closer to us. Everything we do pays dividends and catapults us further! In many airports you’ll see “moving floors.” Some people stand on them for the ride, not having to walk. Personally, I get a thrill to walk on them and see myself zooming by the people walking on the regular floor. Every step I take, I move at double or triple the speed! This is Elul. Every positive move we make to increase our commitment to Torah and mitzvos propels us forward spiritually for the rest of the year.
We have a gift in this 40-day period between Elul and Yom Kippur. We can accomplish so much more. Now is the time to sow simple seeds and watch them grow. With every little increase in Torah study, starting a new shiur, focusing a bit more on just one part of our davening, making a phone call to someone who needs our help—the payoff in making these efforts is huge.
A student of mine just completed learning the entire Mishna Berura; it took him five years. He studied one page a day. It took focus, persistence and perseverance. A day at a time—and he gained a life-changing accomplishment.
The most effective steps are baby steps—slow and steady wins the race. One small change can transform your Elul…and your life!