THE RIDE OF YOUR LIFE
Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman
The Hebrew month of Elul, which has just begun, is a special time in the Jewish calendar. It is a time of yearning and anticipation for the upcoming holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The Hebrew month of Elul, which has just begun, is a special time in the Jewish calendar. It is a time of yearning and anticipation for the upcoming holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is also a wonderful opportunity to achieve a closeness to Hashem like no other time of the year. It is a time when the King leaves His palace and walks amongst the citizens of His land, a time when any one of us can petition Him directly, for the King of this world is accessible now like no other time of the year.
Elul is the month when we add the 27th Psalm of King David to our prayer services twice daily, as was discussed in last week's Torah from Dixie. In this Psalm, King David prays, "One thing I ask from Hashem, this is my only request: To dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of Hashem and to be like a visitor in His sanctuary."
After briefly examining this verse, we find that not only does it sound redundant, but it even seems contradictory. The sages wonder that if King David wants to dwell in Hashem's house at all times, implying a degree of permanency, then why at the end of the verse does he request to be only a visitor, seemingly a much lower status? The sages answer that King David was making an important psychological insight into the makeup of Man and seeking to avoid stumbling into a dangerous trap. King David understood that when we do certain mitzvot for the first time, we get a spiritual elevation - a high of sorts. With this newness often comes an excitement, an enthusiasm, an awakening to the glory of the experience. The first time one visits the land of Israel, or when one first puts on tefillin, there is a special "geshmak", a love and warmth which emanates from the experience. But after a while, the newness and excitement unfortunately fades and the mitzvot become routine. They are performed by rote with no enthusiasm, with no excitement, with no life - like a body without a soul.
Therefore, King David composed this prayer for all of Jewry to recite during our long exile without our Holy Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem was a place where we could observe Hashem's presence manifested openly in all of its splendor. With the destruction of the Temple and our exile, we were submerged into a darkness which the sages describe as a period of hester panim, when Hashem's face is, in a sense, hidden from the world. During such a time, it is especially important that we be "dwellers in the House of Hashem" - that we do not lose perspective of our role amidst the spiritual bankruptcy of a pleasure-seeking society, a culture whose value system is anti-Torah, anti-spiritual, and anti-anything which is not self-gratifying. Our life force and happiness should be as "dwellers in the House of Hashem", to make our main residence and enjoyment in Torah and prayer, where the spiritual dominates the physical. But that is not enough. At the end of the verse, King David prays that we should be, at the same time, "visitors in Hashem's sanctuary", striving to still maintain the emotional and intellectual freshness of a visitor - of learning Torah, of doing mitzvot, of being in synagogue for the first time. Our goal is to maintain that enthusiasm, joy, and life blood on the same high level, to perform mitzvot both in body and in spirit.
The verse in the Torah says "v'chai bahem - and you shall live by the mitzvot". Our sages say that this can be read "and you shall put life into the mitzvot" - that is to say, instill vitality into our service of Hashem. While it may be true that we must put the mitzvot back into our lives, we also need to put life back in the mitzvot.
Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner and we must prepare for it. But, even more importantly, we must prepare for after it. More than just an awakening, a feeling of remorse, regret, and repentance on the High Holidays, we seek to commit ourselves to be better Jews after the Holidays. Five months from now, we should still be excited and enthused that we are Jews who have been granted the unique honor and privilege to serve the King of the world and to do his beloved mitzvot. As we say in our prayers every morning, "Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu - how happy and rich we are and how good is our lot!"
Make a commitment this Rosh Hashanah, something small, maybe to take five minutes of each day to think about the World to Come, or to refrain from speaking lashon harah (gossip and slander) on Shabbat, or to recite blessings with concentration before we eat - something small, but something concrete. Make this Rosh Hashanah tangible. Anchor those emotions into a commitment of action of some deed or attitude that can be carried throughout the year.
Hashem promises us, "Make Me an opening the size of the eye of a needle, and I shall make for you an opening the size of a great hall" (Midrash on Song of Songs). Just try to make a small commitment, a small opening - but, as a great Chassidic Rebbe once pointed out, it should be a strong opening of steel - and Hashem promises that He will help us make it even stronger.
May Hashem bless us with a sweet and good New Year, in which we will recognize that the good He bestows upon us is truly sweet.
Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman writes from Atlanta.
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