Drosho for Elul 5761

August 25 2001

Elul 5761 The Jewish calendar devotes ten days to teshuvah; the עשרת ימי תשובה. It also devotes an entire month to preparing for teshuvah; the month of Elul. Apparently the preparation necessary for teshuvah is more difficult, and requires more time, than teshuvah itself. Unfortunately, much of that month has already gone by. And so it behooves us to כאפ אריין, and to give as much of our attention as we can to the עבודה of אלול and to its significance. And as good a starting point as any, I would suggest, is with the name Elul itself; because our rabbis over the centuries have found deep significance and meaning in the very name of this special month. And they have even found allusions to this name in the words of the Torah itself. Some of these allusions you've perhaps heard of: such as אני לדודי ודודי לי, I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me, the first letters of which spell out אלול. And there are other such allusions, some well known, some relatively obscure. Among the less well-known such allusions is one that is found in the שני לוחות הברית, better known as the של"ה, one of the classic works of Jewish thought. The של"ה writes that the name אלול is alluded to in the כתיב and קרי of a verse in פרשת בהר. The pasuk to which he refers speaks of the special status of walled cities in ארץ ישראל. These cities have special קדושה and special halachos - most especially, of course, ירושלים, but every well city in ארץ ישראל shares some of this special קדושה. The verse, in speaking of such cities, uses the phrase: בעיר אשר לא חומה - and, as the pasuk is written in the Torah, the word לא is spelled with an א - the city that has no wall. But, of course, the Torah is really speaking of cities that do have a wall, and so the תורה שבעל פה, the Oral tradition, teaches that this word should be read - and understood - as if the word לו was written with a ו rather than with an א; העיר אשר לו חומה, the city that does have a wall. And this discrepancy - between the way this word in the Torah is written - לא with an א' - and the way it is read - לו with a ו - is ensconced in the name of the month of אלול, which combines these two words: לא with an א, and לו with a ו. It is hard to imagine a more enigmatic, cryptic and puzzling explanation for the name of the month of Elul than this. In fact, however, I believe that the של"ה is telling us something very beautiful and very profound about the nature of this month and our task in it. As we mentioned, walled cities in ארץ ישראל have a certain קדושה. The wall is the physical expression of that קדושה. And the Gemara in מגילה therefore considers the question of what happens if the wall is destroyed. Does the destruction of the wall wipe out the קדושה of the city as well? The Gemara's answer is that it does not. Although the wall is necessary to create the קדושה, the קדושה continues to exist even after the destruction of the wall. And the Gemara derives this from the discrepancy between the כתיב and the קרי, the written form of the word and the way it is read, in our verse. As we have seen, the כתיב is written: אשר לא חומה, the city that does not have a wall; while the קרי is read: אשר לו חומה, the city that does have a wall. And from this discrepancy we derive, as the Gemara puts it: אע"פ שאין לו עכשיו, כיון שהיה לו קודם לכן; even if there is no wall now, so long as there once was a wall, the city retains its קדושה. Let us understand this Gemara better. When we look at the pasuk, at the letters as they are written on the parchment, what we see is a negation: לא with an אלף - אשר לא חומה. The city that has no wall. But our tradition tells us that when we read the pasuk we should understand it to mean - אשר לו חומה, the city that does have a wall. In other words, there is a discrepancy between what we see with our eyes and what the Torah wants us to understand with our mind and our faith. And that discrepancy parallels the state of the city itself. Because when we look at the city with our eyes we don't see a wall - the wall has been destroyed, the city is desolate, ravaged, in a state of חורבן. But the Torah teaches us that - while we cannot see it - the wall is still there. The קדושה that the wall represents continues to exist, and continues to nourish the city, which will one day, therefore, be rebuilt and reconstituted. On the deepest level the Gemara is teaching us that the city itself has a כתיב and a קרי. The כתיב of the city - what we see of the city - is לא with an אלף. negation; no wall, no life, desolation. But the קרי of the city is אשר לו חומה, the once and future wall, and the continuing wellspring of קדושה that it represents. What is true of the cities of ארץ ישראל is true also of ארץ ישראל as a whole and of the Jewish People themselves. The land and the people of Israel also have a כתיב and a קרי. For centuries the כתיב of our land and our people was אשר לא חומה; the land desolate and wasted, the people dispersed, degraded economically, and helpless. To the naked eye the situation of both seemed hopeless; the land beyond rejuvenation, the people beyond recovery. But there remained the קרי. Our מסורה, our Torah, our faith, taught us to that there is a truth beyond what the eye can see. The light of the שכינה continued to glow within our people, who, within the grotesquely crowded and impoverished exterior of the judengasse created a world of great spiritual granduer. And the land that had laid desolate for so long could - and would - bloom again, and the people would rise and resume their national life in it. That is the קרי of our history. Every individual also has a כתיב and a קרי. The כתיב is the actuality that is visible to the eye, and that actuality may be tarnished by the bad habbits of a lifetime. But the קרי is the potential for קדושה that is inherent in every single one of us; because each of us was born with a נשמה that is holy and pure, and each of us, therefore, has the capacity to rise to great heights of עבודה and spirituality. The challenge is to believe it. Teshuvah means to return - to return to the source of קדושה within ourselves. But in order for teshuvah to be possible we have to believe in the קדושה within ourselves. We have to believe that we - every single one of us - has the capacity to daven with fervor, to do חסד selflessly, to love our fellow Jew, to learn Torah with enthusiasm and to achieve real accomplishment in Torah. Because if we don't believe it, then we will never try. And that is the challenge of Elul. Elul is the month in which we prepare for Teshuvah. And the first step in that preparation is to recover our faith in ourselves and in our own capacity for spiritual growth. And therefore the very name of Elul contains these two words: לא and לו, which represents the gap between our present reality, and our spiritual potential. Elul is when we stretch our wings. Perhaps the whole year round we davened mechanically; but in Elul - at least from time to time - we try to daven ווי עס דארפט צו זיין, and we discover that it is possible for us. Perhaps the whole year round we couldn't imagine refraining from לשון הרע, but in Elul - certainly in the week of selichos - we give it a try and discover that we can do it. Perhaps the whole year round we thought that לימוד התורה is for other people, but in Elul we make the effort and discover something new about ourselves in the process. And these self-discoveries are the gates of teshuvah, so that when Rosh Hashanah comes we are ready to march through them: פתחו לי שערי צדק, אבוא בם אודה לך; open for me the gates of righteousness; I too can enter through them and praise You.


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