As we enter the month of Elul, and close the year 5778, it is a time to make an accounting. Just as in the world of commerce, the end of the fiscal year requires taking inventory and paying taxes, so too in the calendar of teshuva. We are called upon to examine our lifestyle and habits to determine whether we are liable to pay tax. You know about sales tax, income tax, and state tax, but what tax is connected to teshuva? I call it the “Backwards Tax.” Let me explain.
Rav Chaim Zaitchik uncovered a penetrating insight into the Torah’s attitude towards personal growth. He brought the halacha from the book of Vayikra. If one consecrates his field as a dedication to the Bet Hamikdash (Temple), the Torah gives the option to redeem the field and reacquire it for personal use. To do so, he must pay the current market value of the field and add a surcharge of twenty percent. However, if someone else wants to redeem the field, all he has to do is pay the value without the extra tax. Why should the one who originally did the missva of donating his field have to pay extra?
Rav Zaitchik explains that this surcharge is the “Backwards Tax.” That is, it is a penalty tax for spiritual regression. This Jew who was inspired and had a moment of clarity in which he connected to eternal truth acted on his inspiration and donated his wealth to Hashem. If he now wants to renege on his achievement, the Torah imposes a penalty. The other person who wants the field never rose to a height of donation, so he is not penalized for going backwards. Gd detests when someone is “wishy-washy,” and goes back on a decision of truth.
Holding on to Our Gains
At the beginning of this year, we all became a little better. We made resolutions, and we progressed. Now, during the month of Elul, at the onset of 5779, we have to bank our profits. The amateur investor may make gains in the market but he easily squanders them. The pro knows how to hold his gains.
A young man came up to me at the end of a shiur and said, “Rabbi, I am going straight home tonight to install a filter on my smartphone. I use the internet for work and even for Torah, but I want to avoid the gutter. After your shiur, I clearly see how harmful it is…” A few months later, I met this person at a black-tie affair. “How’s the filter?” I inquired. “Um…well…I unlocked it.” The Torah calls this toevah (repugnant) – even though he was wearing the tuxedo. If he never had clarity, that’s one thing, but he saw the truth and went backwards.
There are endless examples of this. Sometimes a family realizes they should enroll their kids in yeshiva, but then they take them out the following year. What happened? “We got cooled off. We sent them to public school.” A man may start wearing tsissit, but when he goes to the gym he gets embarrassed what people may think about those “funny strings,” so he stops. Some women take upon themselves new segulot and positive practices: taking halla, Perek Shira, etc. These are all great, but it should not be the “Segulah of the Month Club.” The Torah demands that we be strong and consistent in our growth. It is a sin to go backwards on a decision of truth. There are many examples, and during Elul, everyone must make an accounting where we are “wishy-washy.”
The Eye of the Needle
It is precisely because of this problem that Hashem encourages us this month, in the words of the midrash, by saying, “Open for Me a small opening as small as the eye of a needle, and I will help you expand it into a gigantic opening…” I was always bothered by this image of a needle. Why does the midrash choose to illustrate the idea of a small beginning with the eye of a needle? That may be a familiar example to tailors and seamstresses, but most people don’t have daily encounters with sewing utensils. Wouldn’t the message have been more accessible by using a more familiar example of a small hole? Perhaps it could have said the small hole made by a finger penetrating the sand or poking the water.
However, there is a big difference. A hole in the sand or water reverts to being closed as soon as you remove your finger. The hole in the needle stays open permanently. It doesn’t dissipate. This is the lesson of the midrash: When we come to improve, the changes in our life don’t have to be big – but they have to stick.
Our rabbis went even further and established that every year we read Parashat Nissavim at the end of Elul, before Rosh Hashanah. The parashah begins with the words, “Atem nissavim hayom kulchem – You are all standing today.” The word nissavim, meaning standing, teaches us that our success during Elul depends on our ability to stand steadily by our good decisions and commitments. We can’t go backwards. We must stand and not sink into the quicksand.
The Down Escalator
This is the first lesson for Elul. Nevertheless, there is a second critical lesson. Merely avoiding the “Backwards Tax” and holding one’s ground is not sufficient. Do you think that if someone made a commitment in kindergarten to wear sissit, that he can sit back and rest on his laurels? As he grows older, Hashem expects him to continue advancing and conquer new territory, in which he will hold his ground before progressing even further.
Thus, the second lesson of Elul is that it’s not enough to keep your commitments. Rather, you must never stop for a minute; constantly go forward. Never become comfortable or complacent with your current spiritual situation.
The pasuk says in Parashat Shoftim, “Lo takim lecha masseva asher sanah Hashem Elokecha – Do not establish a monument, which the Lord your Gd hates.” The simple meaning here is that the Torah prohibits erecting an altar similar in style to the pagan mode of worship. However, the Hasidic master, the Ma’or Vashemesh, offers a deeper meaning to these words. He explains that the word “masseva” (monument) is connected to theword “massav,” which means status. Thus, the Torah is teaching us don’t establish your status. Don’t be content where you are in religion. Some people say, “I don’t want to grow. I’m happy in the middle-not too much; not too little.” The pasuk here continues and says that Hashem hates such an attitude.
To make sure we don’t remain stuck, standing in the status quo, the parashah of Vayelechfollows right after Nissavim. If the message of Nissavim is to stand by your commitments, then the message of Vayelech, which literally means “and he went,” is to get up and go forward. Nissavim is only half the story; you also need Vayelech.
The Vilna Gaon is quoted as saying, “If you’re not going up, you’re going down.” I understand this to mean that there is a natural spiritual gravity that constantly pulls us down. If you do nothing, the natural flow is towards the bad. In order to break free, and even maintain your level, you need to need to exert force to constantly move forward.
Staying in one place is equivalent to a pilot telling the passengers, “We’ve reached a cruising altitude at 36,000 feet, so we’re going to shut down the engines and coast!” Without the engines going, you fall. You need to exert energy even to maintain your status quo. Or as one great rabbi put it, “Life is a down escalator.” You need to climb faster than the pace of decline. If you stop, you go down.
How the Evil Inclination Operates
I once visited the Skverer Rebbe in New Square before Rosh Hashanah. He offered an insight into a statement of our rabbis which left a strong impression on me. The gemara (Shabbat 105b) says, “That is the craft of the evil inclination. Today it tells him do this and tomorrow it tells him do this, until eventually, when he no longer controls himself, it tells him worship idols, and he goes and worships idols.” The simple meaning of the gemarais that the yesser hara (evil inclination) is very patient. It uses a slow process to chip away at a person, leading him from one misdemeanor to another more severe sin, little by little.
However, the Rebbe noticed something unusual about the language of the rabbis. The gemara should have said, “Today it tells him do this, and tomorrow it tells him do this,” i.e. something else. Why does the gemarasay, “Today…do this, and tomorrow…do this,”implying that it’s the same thing every day?He answered, because that is precisely the tactic of the yesser hara. It wants us to stay the same, from day to day, from year to year. If he can get us to remain stagnant and not improve, then we automatically fall into doing the worst.
Similarly, I once asked a great rabbi why tashlich (the custom of casting away sins on Rosh Hashanah) must be performed next to a body of water. He answered because water is always moving. Even water that is standing has ripples and small waves. The segulah and lesson of tashlich is to become a work in progress, always moving forward, like the water.
New Year, New Growth, New Life
This is the time of year when we start to see where there is room for improvement. We don’t need to make a revolution; even marginal growth is good. Everyone must figure out what they must take upon themselves for the new year – whether it is praying with more kavanah(intent) in the amidah, or a woman accepting Shabbat a few minutes early.
This is so critical because in a few weeks, on Rosh Hashanah, we are going to ask Hashem for a new year of life. You can’t ask Hashem for a new year of life and still live the same life as last year. If you want a new year, you need to have new life-at least in a small way.
Our role model for living an upwardly mobile life is Sarah Immenu. The Torah records that she lived to the age of one hundred twenty-seven years, but it writes out each stage separately: “The lifetime of Sarah was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years. The rabbis understand this to mean that at each stage of her life, from youth through middle age into old age, she lived each stage to its fullest, never resting on her laurels. She was the epitome of the Eshet Hayil (woman of valor) who went from hayil tohayil (from strength to strength). This is the reason that when Avraham eulogized her, he did not cry so much. We cry over a person’s death, because we sense there was a lost opportunity. “If only he would have had more years, he could have/should have/would have…” However, Sarah lived her years to the fullest. At her passing, she didn’t miss out on any opportunity for growth. Her life was one continuous aliyah (ascent).
I believe that this is the reason that Sarah Immenu figures so prominently in the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. Her life reminds us to keep growing and never remain stagnant, so that we won’t fall. Even now, before Rosh Hashanah, when we come to the month of Elul, Sarah reminds us to keep climbing. That is why the Hebrew word E.L.U.L. is an acronym for “V’ayavo A’vraham L’ispod L’sarah – And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah.” Sarah’s life and triumphant death is a model for us all.
Our lives, on the other hand, are full of wasted time. How many hours do we spend binge surfing websites? How many times a day do we have to check the news? Do we really think something major is going to change every hour on the hour? In contemporary America there is a concept called “spare time.” A spare tire is helpful, but not spare time. We have such an abundance of time that we don’t know what to do with it. That’s why you hear people say on a Sunday afternoon that they’re going to the mall to kill time.
My mentality is generally to try to keep on accomplishing and advancing towards the next goal. One day, on a recent trip to Italy, I was in a rush to make my next engagement. Italians are famous for their coffee, and I made a quick stop at an espresso bar. I ordered a double espresso “to-go.” The man behind the counter just looked at me puzzled. At first, I thought he just didn’t understand my English, so I tried to explain that I wanted my drink in a paper cup. He gave me a strange look, as he handed me the espresso in a glass. When I protested, he just pointed to the sitting area, where the natives were spending one hour, leisurely shooting the breeze over one cup of coffee. They didn’t have a concept of “to-go.” The Jew, who is a descendant of Sarah Immenu, is always in the mode “to-go” forward and to use every possible hour to serve Hashem.
The reason we often feel that we don’t have time is because we waste it. The truth is that we have a lot of time. If we don’t know where it went, we must use this Elul to make an accounting to discover where we waste time. If this is the sin of our generation, then the tikun for the upcoming year is retrieving those lost hours. We must accept upon ourselves to reclaim the hours, days and months that the yesser hara has stolen from us with all the diversions and distractions we are immersed in.
There is no doubt that those who use their time wisely will be blessed by Hashem with many happy, healthy years. When Hashem sees that granting such an individual more time is a “good investment,” He gives us more time, and we use it wisely to give it back to Him.
May all the readers be blessed in the spirit of the pasuk, “Va’atem hadvekim bashem elokechem, hayim kulchem hayom.” You who cling to Hashem will all be blessed to continue living a long life of health and happiness.