By Rav Mordechai Burg
Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidus, explained the nature of Elul with the following parable. Usually, a King is found in the royal palace. It is difficult to gain access to the King. Appointments are difficult to come by and one must go through an intricate bureaucracy to get even a minute amount of time. Those who do not live in the capital must journey to reach the King. The King’s throne is situated deep in the palace and one must pass many levels of security before reaching the King. Even when one finally is received by the King, it is a formal meeting with all of the trappings of a royal meeting. Every word must be meticulously prepared because every moment of the King’s time is exceptionally precious.
In contrast, there are times when the King travels outside of the palace. When the King is out in the field anyone can approach him. Those in the field need not travel great distances nor jump through endless hoops to gain an audience with the King. They are not dressed to meet a King nor do they have any prepared statements. In these moments the farmer in the field has access to the King in a way that even the highest ministers do not when the King is in the palace.
In Elul, Hashem is in the field. During the year there is a distance that a Jew feels when confronting Hashem. There can be a formality to our relationship. In Elul, Hashem comes to us. We can address Him directly and as we are. The imagery that Rav Schneur Zalman depicts for us is beautiful. Hashem, in His infinite humility, makes Himself accessible to us. Especially as we are doing teshuva, the feeling that we are returning to a loving God, a King who cares deeply about his subjects, is so important.
And yet, for some of us, this mashal makes us feel even worse.
We know what we have done this past year. To be sure, there were many moments we can be proud of, but as we confront our misdeeds we are highly conscious of our wrongdoings. Yet even now, in our state of sin and impurity, Hashem comes out to the field to greet us,a loving parent seeking only to make His children feel comfortable. Hashem has showered incredible blessings upon us. We have done nothing to deserve his beneficence. How can we stand in the presence of this loving God when we have thrown that love in His face by behaving so poorly?
The Midrash (Shocher Tov 22) teaches that amidst the most troubling times, the greatest light emerges. In the words of the Midrash, “From amidst anger comes goodwill. From amidst darkness, light. From amidst anger, mercy. From amidst constriction, expanse. From amidst distance, closeness. From amidst descent, ascent.”
How is it that distance creates closeness? That descent brings ascent? The Degel Machane Ephraim, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, quotes a teaching in the name of his holy grandfather. “It is impossible to consistently remain on one level. One is always rising and descending. But the descent is for the sake of ascent – when one focuses his heart to know and to feel that he is in a state of smallness and he calls out to Hashem.”
Having fallen into the depths of despair, with nowhere left to turn, a person calls out to his Maker. The purpose of this descent was revealed at the moment that this person cried out to Hashem and asked to be drawn close. The relationship between man and God has reached new heights. Had there been no distance there would never have been the desire to draw close.
The Sefas Emes (Chukas 5637) explains that the vitality of sin is the existence of Teshuva itself! Teshuva is not merely a return to our prior pre-sin state, it is designed to reveal new levels of depth in our relationship with Hashem. Thus Chazal teach us that in the place that a Baal Teshuva stands even a complete Tzaddik cannot stand. Man is created with a “helpmate opposite him.” Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner in his monumental sefer Mei Hashiloach explains that this is not limited to our relationship with our spouse, our help always comes from forces that oppose us. The yetzer hora which led us to the failure of sin also brought us to the subsequent Teshuva, elevating us to untold heights.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Heilige Piacenza Rebbe, explains this using a parable. There is a difference between a wealthy person who loses his fortune and a pauper who knows with absolute certainty that there is a buried treasure lying right beneath him. The wealthy man becomes depressed because he despairs of ever regaining his fortune. The pauper is brokenhearted because of the obstacles that stand in the way of gaining the fortune just beyond his reach. But broken-heartedness does not lead to despair. In fact, it is the hope of the pauper that he will attain great wealth which leads to the feeling of brokenheartedness. While the wealthy man has given up on regaining his fortune, the pauper, frustrated and discouraged, is spurred on by his feelings of broken-heartedness to continue digging. Somehow, he will find ways around the obstacles in his path and will access the buried treasure.
This is the mindset we must cultivate to find Hashem in our broken state. We are not the wealthy man who has despaired, we are the pauper who knows that we are inches away from greatness. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that if sin is the bite of the snake then despair is its venom. The bite hurts. The venom kills. The real damage comes from the venom that spreads afterward, when a person says, “What a worthless thing you are. Look what you’ve done! Now you’re really lost.” If we become like the wealthy man who has given up hope of regaining his fortune, then certainly, the venom of despair will ultimately take our lives. We are instead obligated to be the pauper who, from his brokenheartedness, cries out to Hashem.
It’s Elul and Hashem is in the field. His love for us transcends any of the aveiros we have done this past year. If this brings you to an even greater feeling of distance, embrace it. All descent is only for the purpose of ascent. There is a buried treasure lying right beneath your feet. Calling out to Hashem from this place of brokenheartedness is the essence of Teshuva.