This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama.
According to the Sefat Emet, a Torah commentator from the mid 1800's, the month of Elul is a time of preparation for war.
Rosh HaShana is a tug of war between us and this world - a place full of distraction - where the million dollar question is "Will G-d awareness ultimately prevail or will we get sucked into a lifetime of pain and deception?"
Just something to think about.
A personal story that happened to me recently demonstrates what I think preparing for Rosh HaShana means.
A while back, while walking past Ben Yehudah street in Jerusalem, I came nose to nose with a man who shoved a smelly hat in my face and muttered, "Charity saves from death. Charity saves from death."
I took the hint and fished out some coins. Only in Israel, I mused to myself, could a panhandler offer mussar (rebuke).
Most people find interactions like that one invasive and are most likely to ignore the guy. In fact, we often close our eyes to encounters with human frailty for the simple reason that they make us uncomfortable.
Generally, I would raise that flag as well.
This time, however, maybe because Rosh HaShana was right around the corner, I found it hard to feel irritated, especially when the situation I was confronted with came in the form of a man who seemingly had nothing, not even his dignity.
Could I dismiss this man, assuming that his situation came about through his own series of bad choices? I had no idea who he was or where he came from so who was I to measure what he deserved and why? What was it me to part with a few shekels, anyway? These two arguments, occuring within the space of nanoseconds, took place while I gave the man charily.
He walked away smiling and in a nutshell, I believe this is how I brought about a revelation of G-d just before the High Holy Days.
You should know that the bent of a person's thoughts on Rosh HaShana should not be on repentance, as some people erroneously suspect. They should be [hyper] focused around the excitement of G-d's coronation as the king of kings. The reason we also call Rosh HaShana a battlefield is because life on this earth demands that we struggle to reveal G-d in a place where it is very difficult to find Him. We think we're in charge of our destinies but we're not. We tend to assume that other people's mishaps are a result of their own failings but we can't. Nothing is clear.
This world is called an עולם (olam), a word which shares the same root as the word העלם (he'elaim) hidden. Why? Because part of our purpose here on earth is to grapple with that false sense of reality in which we assume our actions set numerous effects into motion and that 'it's by the strength of my hands which bring me this bounty.' Yet, really, anything that happens starts and ends with G-d's willing that it be so. Our constant struggle is to reveal and concretize that truth within ourselves.
Rosh HaShana is referred to as the day of judgment as well as a battlefield because Hashem (G-d) opens up the books of life and death. He writes our names down based on how we've conducted ourselves in the last year (we're also judged based on where we are personally during the davening (prayers) as well). Afterward, on Yom Kippur, the judgment is sealed.
The only way to a good life is through nullifying ourselves and in effect, declaring G-d's total dominion over us. My life is not mine to control; the only thing I own is my will to do better. The rest is up to G-d.
You can't fake that, though. "Okay, Big Guy, I let You be in Charge. Okay, cool. We're good."
G-d can read your thoughts.
How on earth do we prepare for something so challenging?
Most classic commentaries suggest the three T's: teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah (repentance, prayer and charity), saying that all three can save a person from an evil decree. Or, as my panhandling friend put it, from the cold fist of death itself.
What do teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah have to do with rescinding a difficult decree?
Repentance i.e. returning to G-d, praying to G-d and giving charity to one's fellow i.e. doing acts of kindness, bridge the gap between us, G-d and other people. By building emotional, and spiritual bridges, we make it more and more possible to feel G-d's presence in our daily lives.
Elul is called a time of intense closeness to Hashem, a time when He is referred to as 'The king in the field.' It's special because we don't need to make appointments or go through hosts of middlemen, as would be the case with a regular king, in order to get to Him. We just need to step out of our homes i.e. our comfort zones, and run into the fields.
This is why people often refer to אלול (Elul) as אני לדודי ודודי לי - I am to my Beloved as my Beloved is to me.
When the Chazon Ish originally moved to Bnei Brak, the city was a small yishuv, vastly different from the sprawling metropolis of concrete apartment buildings and schools and shuls (synagogues) it is today. The Chazon Ish moved into a small house off to the side, among a host of orange trees in a grove; at night, a choir of jackals serenaded his arrival. Since, followers of the Chazon Ish found this situation inappropriate, they installed a lamppost.
Passing the lamppost one evening, the Chazon Ish made a simple yet profound observation: The further I move from the light of the lamppost, the more elongated my shadow. When I approach the light, however, the smaller my shadow gets, smaller and smaller until it practically disappears. So it is with G-d. The closer I come to the Creator of the world, the more I recognize the truth of my own insignificance.
We are nothing next to the Creator of the universe.
If you really want to get into the spirit of things, go out into a field later tonight (free of light pollution and human activity); gaze up at the heavenly bodies, the ribbon of Milky Way threading its way through the sky, the kaleidoscope of stars and planets, and you will be struck by the absolute puniness of you.
We're just specks of dust floating through space.
And yet, we're everything. Why? How? Because G-d breathed part of Himself into us; He gave us life and therefore, we have a divine mission to impart here on earth.
We just have to fight to see it.