Parshas Shoftim (5773)
Yes, you read that correctly … the Hebrew month of Elul (which began this Wednesday August 7th) marks the real beginning of the “tourist season” for Jews all around the world.
You see, the Rabbis teach us that Elul is actually an Aramaic word meaning to “tour”, “explore’ or “spy out”. As the Torah tells us regarding the men who were sent by Moses to spy out the Land of Israel, “And they ‘explored’ the land…” (see Numbers 13:21), and the Targum Onkelos (the official Babylonian Aramaic translation to the Torah) translates the word “explored” (Vayasuru in Hebrew) as V’alilu in Aramaic, which has the same Hebrew letters and root as the word Elul.
What this means is that the month of Elul is actually our “tourist season”, i.e. a time when we are meant to explore and spy out our deeds from the past year and make some positive changes in advance of the upcoming Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashanah.
There are those who spend the Elul tourist season wisely, utilizing their free time to make a cheshbon hanefesh, a moral accounting, of their past deeds, and strategizing how to improve whatever needs improvement during the coming year.
Of course, most of us “skip the tour” and spend no time at all during the month exploring our past deeds. Then, when Rosh Hashanah arrives, we get all flustered and agitated that we did virtually nothing to get us ready for the Day of Judgment. If only we would use the month of Elul properly, we would save ourselves a lot of trouble and embarrassment on Rosh Hashanah.
A story is told about a man who was looking to find a shidduch (match) for his oldest daughter. Many eligible young men were suggested for her but he rejected them all, saying that they just weren’t good enough for her. As the years went by and his daughter was still single and feeling quite desperate, he let the word out that they would now settle for any match that was suggested for her – even one with a physical handicap – provided that the man was intelligent and had a good head on his shoulders. A few days later, a shadchan (matchmaker) suggested a man who was highly intelligent, but who had a stuttering problem. The father and daughter agreed to the shidduch. When the man knocked on the door of the house to pick up his date, her father opened the door and greeted him with a huge smile and a friendly “hello”. The fellow wanted to respond, but because he stuttered, it took him a full three minutes to get out the words he wanted to say. After the date was over, the father called up the shadchan, complaining that the man he had suggested was a complete dunce. The shadchan responded that the fellow was actually quite brilliant, and in no way could be considered a dunce. To which the father responded that if the fellow would have had some brains in his head, he would have started his response three minutes before knocking on the door, so that by the time the door opened, he would be ready to answer the greeting!
Of course, this story never happened, but the lesson is clear. We need to start our preparations and explorations now, before Rosh Hashanah arrives and we are caught stuttering and not knowing what to say for ourselves.
Practically speaking, during this month we should commit to sitting down with pen and paper, and reflecting on what is going well in our lives, and what areas need spiritual improvement, making sure to be honest with ourselves. This can be the beginning of a more serious and detailed cheshbon hanefesh and moral accounting of all our character traits and negative behaviors, and a critical assessment of the direction in which we are headed on our spiritual journey in life.
Remember that a good, well-planned Elul will yield a good judgment, which, in turn, will yield a good year. Let’s use this opportunity well.
[Sources: Based on the writings of Rabbi Shlomo Levenstein shlit”a in his work U’Masok Ha’or on the High Holidays]