One of the most tragic decisions made by the government of the State of Israel was the decision to purposefully and viciously secularize the migrant Yemenite children. Taken away from their parents, who were often told they’d succumbed to disease and died, these children were put into facilities that cut off their peyos (side-locks) and forced them to break Jewish law. Systematically, they tried to break the spirit of these children to convince them to abandon Jewish law, and sadly, they were largely successful.
The Chazon Ish heard about these secretive efforts and sought to help. When he heard of a new facility that was near his town, he sent a group of bochurim from the Yeshiva to the facility to gauge the situation and see what they could do. The bochurim were unsuccessful; they were turned away at the gates of the walled facility and could not gain entry. They returned to the Chazon Ish and told him they had failed. The Chazon Ish told them that if they could not get it in, then that must not have been their mission. Instead, he instructed them to return to the facility and walk around the building, thereby putting in their own effort.
And so, the bochurim returned and spent the afternoon strolling around the building, trying again to gain entry to no avail. They returned to yeshiva, disappointed in the futility of their efforts.
Many years late one of these bochurim, now a grandfather, was celebrating the bar-mitzvah of his grandson. At the kiddush, he struck up conversation with a man he didn’t know, a neighbor of the bar-mitzvah boy. As they got to talking, playing a standard game of Jewish Geography, it came out that the man was a Yemenite Jew who had come to Israel as a child. Interested, and remembering his own failed attempts, the student of the Chazon Ish asked him how he had avoided being secularized as so many others had been.
“It was a narrow escape,” the Yemenite man revealed. “Like so many others, I was separated from my family and taken with other children to a facility. The pressure to conform and give in was intense. One day, a group of us decided that they must be telling us the truth, these Jews who spoke in Hebrew but broke our laws so easily. It must be that our ways were dated and this is was the new way to be a Jew here in the holy land. Just as we were going to give in, we saw from our window a group of Jews, different than us, but so alike, walk by. Like us, they had long peyos, and like us they wore a head covering. We watched, entranced, that afternoon, as they walked by our window again and again, and we knew the truth: the laws of the Torah and our traditions were alive and flourishing, and we need not forsake it all. And so, we resisted.”
Shaking with awe, the man realized that his failed and futile afternoon had been anything but. The Chazon Ish was right—they had put in their effort and their mission had been completed.
A World Created
Let’s go back to the beginning, to a time of תהו ובוהו, and imagine a vast nothingness.
It’s not blackness, for blackness has yet to be created.
It’s not emptiness, for that concept doesn’t exist yet.
There is absolutely nothing, other than an all-mighty Creator.
The Creator is Good in the truest sense of the word, and seeks to give.
So He creates a chasm, and in that, out the nothingness, He creates a world—our world.
The date of creation was the 25th of Elul, and the seven-day process peaked on the sixth day with the creation of Adam on Rosh Hashana.
Thereafter, yearly, on Rosh Hashana a process of judgment is begun on mankind, descendants all of Adam, and they are written in either in the book of life or death for the upcoming year.
Chazal teach us that Hashem created Adam and gave him life, it imbibed a spiritual power into this date. Hashem, with the great chessed of “עולם חסד יבנה”, renews our lives yearly, giving us another opportunity to serve Him and cling to Him. Each Rosh Hashana the creation of the world, and the creation of man, is renewed for just one year, and each Rosh Hashana it is incumbent upon us to earn creation for the next year.
When Hashem created Adam, he consulted the angels. Some said, “Yes, create him!”, while others voted no, not understanding the value of a creation that would be given free choice. Each Rosh Hashana too, as we stand in judgment there are angels that nay-say our rebirth, while others, created by the good deeds of the past year, fight in our favor.
As recipients of this heritage and keepers of this knowledge, we must perpetually consider the question: what is the job we must do to justify our creation and to earn the right to live?
Purpose Of Creation
Within the first word of the Torah, “בראשית”, there is already a hint as to the purpose of the world: “בשביל תורה...בשביל ישראל….for the Torah and for B’nai Yisrael [who would keep it]”. More specifically, when the Torah summarizes the happenings of creation, there is another hint: “אלה תולדות השמים וארץ בהבראם” B’hibaram contains the letters of the name “Avraham,” telling us that Avraham Avinu was the first to actualize the purpose of creation: acknowledging Hashem and submitting to His plan for the world and for the individual.
How did Avraham do that? Avraham Avinu was unique in his time because he looked around the world, created with physical perfection, with nature beautifully executing its cyclical spin through the seasons, and let what he saw lead to recognition of Hashem. Then, having seen Hashem, he let the message resonate in his soul and set off to fulfill his mission: אב המון גוים.
Your Mission—Should You Accept It Or Not
On Yom Kippur, we’ll read the story of Yonah Hanavi. Although the story is on the surface about the city of Nineveh and teshuva, the story focuses more on Yonah and his journey than on the Assyrians and their sins.
Let’s recap the story as it’s told and see what the message is for us.
Yonah is commanded by Hashem to go and prophesize to the Assyrians, warning them about their behavior, cautioning them that Divine retribution is close. Yonah does not want to go for fear that they will quickly and fully repent, causing the Jewish nation to look bad. Yonah seeks to flee from Hashem’s prophecy.
The Gra teaches that every one of us is a Yonah. We’re born to this world with a mission, sensed by our Divine soul, that we can and must fulfill. This is often a scary prospect for us, as most gains come only after great risk. Like Yonah, we want to escape and hide from Hashem.
Yonah runs away to Tarshish, and then to Yaffo where he boards a ship.
The names of the first two places Yonah goes are very telling. While these are both physical locations, they are also Hebrew words: tarshish, an expensive stone, symbolizing wealth; and yaffe, which means beauty. Our escape path when we flee from our mission is often through immersing ourselves in a world of physicality, of beauty and wealth, hoping to lose ourselves there.
A violent storm brews, seeming to threaten only the vessel Yonah is on. The sailors realize that the storm threatening their survival is not natural but Divine, and seek to counsel him and save their lives. But Yonah has already given up, sleeping while they pray. Left with no choice, and with his consent, they throw him overboard causing the storm to abate.
In our mashal, the sailors are the strengths that Hashem has given each one of us. These strengths were given to help us with our mission, but if we are determined to escape they can’t help.
Thrown overboard, Yonah is swallowed by a whale. In the cramped, grave-like conditions, he repents and acknowledges Hashem’s full command of the world, and is spit out ashore.
He proceeds to Nineveh and calls out his prophecy. Dramatically led by the king of Nineveh himself, the nation repents and is spared. Yonah is disheartened and saddened, not understanding Hashem’s mission for him. Seeking comfort, both emotional and physical as his skin was raw from his underwater trek, he plants a kikayon tree that miraculously grows in one day, and rests beneath it. Overnight, the plant is consumed by a worm, causing Yonah to cry out to Hashem. Hashem replies that Yonah mourns for a mere tree that grew overnight and was destroyed overnight, and yet he tries to tell Hashem to have no regard for a Nineveh, a city full of people? The story ends there with the rhetorical question, but the Midrash tells us that at these words, Yonah fully understood, calling out to Hashem, “Rule Your world with Your mercy!”
The whale, and its threat of death is what jolts Yonah back on to his mission. For us, too, recognizing that we are not eternal as we give accounting every year and beg to be inscribed in a book of life can bring us back to the mission that resonates so deeply within us. We echo Yonah’s declaration that Hashem is the Master of the world.
Elul—The First Step
As we’ve discussed before, the spiritual powers of a month are reflected in the in the season and state of the natural world. We discussed in Av that the land is hot and parched, cracked and hard from the summer heat and lack of rain. (Previously we learned that rain is a sign of Heavenly blessing and connection to Hashem, both of which are sorely missing in Av.) As we approach the end of Elul and the start of Tishrei, the oppressive heat has let up. Soon we will start adding the prayer of “משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם” asking for the winter rains to begin. But in order for those rains to be effective, the ground must be worked first—it cannot absorb the rain water in its hard, baked state. The antidote is plowing: farmers will break through the physical accumulation of hard earth, breaking the land and preparing it to drink the rain water and nurture what will be planted.
Coming off of a Tammuz and Av which embody the essence of Hester Panim, we too have been hardened, fleeing from our mission and its tribulations by seeking out physicality (wealth and beauty, like Yonah). The avodah we have in Elul is to break through that physicality, so that when the power of Tishrei comes, when we stand before Hashem, trembling in awe, and crown Him king, we can absorb the power and rejuvenate ourselves for our mission.
In truth, the month of Elul is a path, a preparatory hallway into the month of Tishrei. The Yamim Nora’im lead one into another, and finally into Sukkos, a holiday of joy. The culmination of the month, the destination at the end is Simchas Torah morning, when we celebrate our joy in living with the Torah for a full year, and declare: “אתה הראת לדעת…you have been shown, in order to know, that Hashem is the G-d, there is no other than Him!” Much like the journey of Yonah, our yearly journey peaks at this realization.
Moshe Rabbainu, in recounting the trials and tribulations he undertook on behalf of B’nai Yisrael, seems to stress the fact that he did not eat nor drink for forty days and nights when he ascended Har Sinai and met with Hashem. Of course, in telling B’nai Yisrael this Moshe Rabbainu is stressing the miraculous nature of the revelation and of Hashem’s power. Still, one would think that amidst all the miracles of the moment, the food would be irrelevant. Meforshim on the possuk question why one would even think of food or hunger while talking to the Almighty? Something about the mundane action of eating and drinking is behind Moshe’s accusation.
Moshe understood the greatness of the opportunity man is given on Earth. For in each mundanely lived moment, man can soar, not despite of his human limitations, but precisely because of them. Hashem created us and placed us in this world, a spark of Divinity trapped in a physical body, and gave us the mission of fighting that battle. Moshe was telling B’nai Yisrael that in the sum of his days and in measurement of the heights he’d achieved in this world, those forty days were missing. There was no struggle, no battle, and therefore those days didn’t count towards his personal purpose in this world.
Moshe understood that the physical limitations are not limitations at all. In creating man, Hashem created a unique being that lives in the physical world and is dependent on it, but who must work to look past the trappings and see Hashem. It is so natural and so easy for us to lose ourselves in “Yaffo” and “Tarshish” but the fight of our lives is our resistance.
This task rightfully seems daunting, especially in Elul, as our lease on life is ending, so to speak, and we prepare to stand before the Landlord and beg. Our comfort, however, is found in the very word Elul, an acronym for: אפשר להתקיים ולעמוד לפנך—We are indeed able to stand before Hashem and to keep the Torah. The word להתקיים expresses that we are alive, we’ve managed to hang on to our lives until this point. The world “ולעמוד לפנך”, tells us that beyond being alive, we can and must be standing before Hashem, doing our job, not running away or burying ourselves in physicality.
This theme is present in Parashas Nitzavim as well. Moshe starts off by comforting B’nai Yisrael, who feel scared and shaken up by the harsh reprimands and warnings they’ve been given. He tells them, “You who are all standing before Hashem today, don’t be scared, for He’s made an everlasting covenant with you and will always help you in standing before Him.” Later in the Parasha, Moshe tells them that they have two choices, life and death, and that they should choose life in order that they and their progeny should live. Many Meforshim explain that the possuk cannot simply mean, ‘choose life so that you should remain alive’ as this would be simplistic. Rather, they say, connect it to the next verse: “לאהבה את ה’ …לשמוע בקולו”–choosing life includes clinging to Hashem and taking on the mission of fulfilling His word in this world.
Partners in Creation
The world was with ten “ma’amaros”, Divine pronouncements. The only aspect of creation that was not performed through Hashem’s speech was “ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים” when Hashem blew the Divine spark into Adam. On Rosh Hashana, when the world is be being evaluated and assessed for recreation, we join in the chorus of angel who urge Him to grant us life, and call out His praise. We point the shofar heavenwards and blow into it from our very being, as He once did for us. With that, we crown Him king, accept our job in this world, and partner with Him in Creation.
The story is told of a man who was blessed with a prophetic dream. In it, he was told that his mission in life was to travel to the forest at the outskirts of his town and push the enormous rock that lay there. Rejoicing that he knew his life’s work he set off, day after day, to work at pushing the rock. After several weeks of pushing with all his strength to no avail, he began to despair of his mission. What was he doing wrong? Did he lack strength that G-d expected from him?
After yet another day of pushing, he called out to Hashem in his frustration, “Master of the universe, I’m trying so hard to do my job in this world, and I can’t! The rock simply won’t move! Help me!”
Hashem replies to the man, “Your job wasn’t to move the rock—only to push it. And that you have done faithfully every day.”
This Wednesday is the 25th day of Elul.
5,778 years ago, today, Hashem saw fit to create our world. Next week, on Rosh Hashana, we will stand before Him and plead our case, promising to heed His word and fulfill our job in this world.
Each day this week is the last of the year: the final Monday, the final Tuesday, and so on. Let’s take the opportunity this week to listen to our souls and embark already on our missions, to create good angels with our actions. And when Hashem, as a King sitting in judgment, will ask the angels if the world and man should be created, our angels will join in the chorus, and a resounding “Yes!” will be heard.
Wishing us all a כתיבה וחתימה טובה…May we all be inscribed in the book of life.