5778 - Re'eh - Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Elul
Our Avoda This Elul
Every year when the month of Elul arrived, the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, used to relate a childhood memory from when he was still living in the city of Kovno. Rav Yisrael Salanter was also a resident of Kovno, and Rav Tzvi Pesach retained a vivid memory about Rav Yisrael one Elul when he was eight years old.
A sign had been posted in the main shul of Kovno that Rav Yisrael Salanter would be giving a drasha in the afternoon of Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
"I went to shul at the designated time," said Rav Tzvi Pesach, "and I couldn't find a place to sit. With the innocence of a child, I decided to sit on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh. A few minutes later, Rav Yisrael entered the shul and walked past the aron kodesh to speak. He called out, ‘Rabbosai, we have already bentched Chodesh Elul.'"
"At the moment that Rav Yisrael cried out the word "Elul", he fainted from the awesomeness of the month, and as he fell, he landed on top of me. Everybody in the shul stood up in shock, and brought water to revive Rav Yisrael from his faint."
Rav Tzvi Pesach added, "I was only a boy of eight when this happened, but since that day, I have felt the weight of Rav Yisrael Salanter's Elul."
What Not To Do
We might not feel the weight of that Elul, but we do need to feel something. To try something, to begin somewhere.
The Torah instructs us:
The meforshim grapple with this command: לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַי"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם - Don't do this to Hashem your God. What is it that we should not do?
The Baalei HaPeshat (Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Seforno) explain: We should not emulate the ways of the idol worshipers. They have varied locations and avenues for their service, we have a central location. Our relationships with Hashem, (whilst unique to each person), coalesces into a larger national relationship: הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר י"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִכל שִׁבְטֵיכֶם.
Rabbeinu Bachya (כד הקמח בית הכנסת) writes that today we find this reality in shul:
Rashi, however, quotes Chazal, that this pasuk is one of the 613 mitzvos:
In the world of Halacha, their is a prohibition of treating the name of Hashem, and the Places dedicated to Him with disrespect.
Letters of the Scroll
This should be a good point of departure to talk about the respect that we should have for our shul, and our davening. But before we do so, there is an deeper level of understanding of this pasuk that unifies the pshat and the Halacha.
The Gemara (מ״ק כה א) tells us:
The Ritva (שם) questions : How can we compare every person to a Torah scroll? Of course, people that uphold the values of Torah contain within them parts of Torah, but what about people that are not engaged with Torah and mitzvos, are they also likened to a Sefer Torah?
He quotes from the Ramban (שער הגמול) that the Neshama of a person - every person - is likened to the names of Hashem that are inscribed in the Sefer Torah. That is to say, inside of each and every Jew is a Neshama. That Neshama is quite literally a "piece" of Hashem - a חלק אלוה ממעל. It's a name of Hashem.
The Imrei Emes (אמרי אמת ראה תרס"ח) thus explains: When the Pasuk tells us לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַי"י אֱלֹהֵיכֶם - Don't do this to Hashem your God, and when Rashi tells us "Don't erase the name of Hashem" the Torah is telling us not to erase the part of Hashem that is inside of each of us. But beyond that, the part of ourselves that we cannot ignore, erase or forget - that's the part that unites us in Avodas Hashem; in the Mikdash, and in the Mikdash Me'at.
You're the Tzadik
The Chiddushei Harim once noticed that a certain Chassid was staring through his window. He asked him "What are you doing?"
The chassid explained: Moshe begins his speech this shabbos with:
The Ohr Hachaim Hakodosh explains that by looking at Moshe, the face of a tzadik - they would receive Bracha.
The Chassid continues: I too would like to look at a tzadik!
The Chiddushei Harim replied: In that case, you should know that the pasuk tells us ועמך כולם צדיקים - we are all tzadikim. Perhaps you should find the tzadik within yourself and stare at him instead.
Conversations with the Tzadik
I would like, thus, to have a conversation with the tzadikim in our shul, which each one of us; the Neshamos of every person here. Our conversation today is between the deepest, most connected parts of ourselves. Because to have this conversation with only bodies and minds, could, Chalila, result in frustration or even insult.
Rav Kook (Olat Re'iyah I, p. 11) explains:
That is to say, at our core, everyone here wants to daven in the most real way.
If we address our need to daven purely as a bodily function, (which, of course it is as well,) to ensure that our physical needs are met, then davening is little more than a shopping list. "Hashem, I need health and wealth and lactose free milk and gluten free, sugar free cookies, and avocados..." Such requests are necessary, important, even, but that is not what our Neshamos crave.
If we address Tefillah from the perspective of our intellect, our obligations and Halacha, there too, we have a religious requirement to discharge the duties of Tefillah. So we can rattle off some words and be "Yotzei" - we can fulfill the technical obligation.
But ultimately, as everyone knows, what we really want and need is to have a moment of connection - d'veikus with Hashem. Moments to disconnect from the insanity of the world and login to the world of Avinu Av HaRachaman; to deepen our connection with the Ribono Shel Olam. To get to know Him, and ourselves.
With this understanding, talking to the deepest needs of our Neshamos, I want to address the concerns of a number of people in the past few months regarding our talking in shul.
I am always hesitant to bring this up, because I truly believe that talking in shul is reflective of our Ahavas Yisrael, the desire to connect to our friends. Of course, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to talk in shul, good reasons even. And I don't like to give mussar to the incredible chevra in our Kehillah.
But if we're honest, we all know that the reasons we have to talk in shul might good and acceptable for the body, perhaps we can rationalize them our minds. But our Neshamos are deeply in pain.
So I have some suggestions to make, but before that, the first thing we should all know, is that Hashem does not put us in boxes. For anyone who thinks "I'm a habitual talker, this is not for me,", I have good news! You're wrong. Elul is the time for Teshuva; if we want to be different, there is no reason not to.
The Torah tells us ועתה ישראל - and now, Jewish People... Reb Baruch of Mezhbizh would explain, that regardless of what we've done in the past, ועתה and now, ישראל, you can be a good Jew.
Making a Commitment
These are my suggestions:
The Tosfos Yom Tov instituted a מי שברך - A special tefillah for people who don't talk in shul, and we will be adding that Tefillah to our davening during Elul. Beginning now:
I wish to challenge each of us, this Elul, to treat our shul as a real Makom HaShechina. To ensure that this space enables that real and deeper connection with Hashem to shine. To know that we are truly amongst those who fulfill לשכנו תדרשו - we seek out space for Hashem in our lives, in our shul.
May we be zocheh to the words of the Medrash, as quoted in the אגרת הגר״א: