Of Loggers, Forest Rangers and Elul
by Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein
The Shulchan Aruch [Orach Chaim 607, 4] writes that each year we may say vidui and do further teshuva for sins that were committed in the past, no matter how long ago they were committed. What is astounding, though, is that the Shulchan Aruch writes clearly that this is even if we have already successfully done teshuva for these old sins and have not repeated them. The Mishna Berura quotes from the Gemara that not only is this something that one may do, but, in fact, is something that Chazal say is “harei zeh meshubach,”a “praiseworthy practice.” At first glance, this seems very strange to us. Haven’t we been taught to believe that the teshuva process actually works? Don’t we know that if we have truly done teshuva out of love for HaShem, teshuva me’ahava, that our sins are not only forgiven, but actually turn into merits for us? Not only that, but this is something that even sounds disheartening! If my teshuva last Yom Kippur – and the one before that, and the one before that – was not enough, who says I will get anywhere this Yom Kippur? I think it is critical that we properly understand this halacha; and what the ramifications for our own teshuva process are.
There is a well known story about Rav Saadya Gaon. He would frequently afflict himself (specifically by rolling in the snow, as the story goes) in his effort to atone for his sins and seek teshuva from HaShem. His students would ask him why he does this – surely he is not such a great sinner so frequently that he needs to go to this degree to achieve teshuva! Rav Saadya Gaon explained with the following story. He was once travelling the land “incognito.” He would arrive in a town and find the local inn and stay for a few nights, then move on to the next town. [This process of putting oneself in “galus” was practiced by the great tzaddikim of old.] As a way to gain humility, he would travel around anonymously so everyone would treat him like a common pauper. However, on one of his travels, after he had already stayed one night in the local inn, someone recognized him and told the inn-keeper who he was. That night when Rav Saadya returned to the inn, the inn-keeper threw himself at Rav Saadya’s feet, begging for forgiveness for, out of ignorance, not having treated him with the respect he deserved. “Even though he committed no wrong to me at all,” concluded Rav Saadya, “just the very fact that he didn’t recognize who I truly was, itself was something worthy of begging for forgiveness. I am constantly realizing more and more about HaShem Yisborach! I am constantly realizing how inadequately I recognized Him until this point – and for that I need to do teshuva.”
Now, this is obviously a story about a person who operated on a level that we can’t even really conceive of. But I think there is a very fundamental point here that we can consider. A point that can really affect a person’s approach to Elul. Sometimes around the Yomim Noraim, we spend a lot of time focusing on our shortcomings – our aveiros, our middos that need improvement, our many promises to HaShem (and ourselves) that we did not keep. And the truth is, there is a place for that. But, to use a cliché (you know, they do become clichés for a reason): that sort of a focus is spending a lot of our kochos focusing on the trees, perhaps not realizing that there is a whole forest that needs tending to as well. What is the “forest” that is made up of all those trees that we examine so closely? We need to make sure to check the “State of the Union” of our general relationship with HaShem.
Elul is the time for focusing on that relationship. Ani lidodi viDodi li. The very name of the month alludes to the foundation for a person’s whole avodah during Elul – cultivating, nurturing our relationship with HaShem. Let’s understand this a little better.
When someone in a close, healthy, loving relationship – be it with a spouse, parent, sibling or friend – does something selfish that ends up being upsetting or hurtful to “her beloved,” she doesn’t need a mussar schmooze or a sefer to feel badly about what she did. She doesn’t need to spend a day fasting and concentrating on her shortcomings in order to wish she hadn’t made the choices that lead up to this discomfort. Why? Because she realizes that she has done something that is not what a person in a loving relationship should do. The “process” of teshuva for her is not something technical; it is something that she has a desire to do for her own sake. Depending on the severity of the insult, she may feel that she would do just about anything in order to show that the relationship is something that she values, and does not want to take for granted.
This is what the avodah of Elul is all about. Ani liDodi viDodi li! This is a month set aside for focusing on the forest, before we get to examining the individual trees in greater detail. That time will come in Tishrei. On the Aseres Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur, I can be a logger in the forest, searching for the appropriate trees to chop down, trying to figure out how to remove the ones I can, and what to do about the ones with the really deep, stubborn roots, and how damaging they are to the rest of the trees around them. But right now, I am a forest ranger, keeping my eye on the big picture. My priority is examining my relationship with HaShem. Do I appreciate, truly appreciate, even a small amount of the kindness that I received over this past year? How much of my life – what I have, who I am, my relationships – do I simply take for granted? Do I live my life, day in and day out, really thinking about the fact that everything good I have, and every positive experience I live through, big or small, is a personalized gift, directly from HaShem to me?
If someone truly focuses her concentration in Elul on what she can do to enhance her relationship with HaShem, she can walk in to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur with a sense of the feeling of Rav Saadya Gaon. To whatever extent I now appreciate HaShem more than I did last year this time, to that degree my attitudes and feelings towards teshuva will change. And upon reflecting on my current appreciation of HaShem and His love and care for me, I may very well come to realize an even greater level of selfishness or lack of hakaras hatov in certain actions I did, even years ago.
Perhaps that is what Chazal and the Mishna Berura are referring to when they say that one who repents for the same sins year after year is praiseworthy. If someone is experiencing deeper feelings of regret over things she had already thought were “behind her,” that means that she has deepened her relationship with HaShem. She has come to appreciate her direct connection with HaShem that much more than she did before, and is lifted up that much higher. And now she needs to do teshuva from this new vantage point. She truly experienced an Elul of Ani liDodi viDodi li – harei zeh meshubach!