Are We “Yessing” God?
Every year when the month of Elul arrived, the Rav of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, used to relate a childhood memory from when he was still living in the city of Kovno. Rav Yisrael Salanter was also a resident of Kovno, and Rav Tzvi Pesach retained a vivid memory about Rav Yisrael one Elul when he was eight years old.
A sign had been posted in the main shul of Kovno that Rav Yisrael Salanter would be giving a drasha in the afternoon of Shabbos Mevarchim Elul.
“I went to shul at the designated time,” said Rav Tzvi Pesach, “and I couldn't find a place to sit. With the innocence of a child, I decided to sit on the steps leading up to the aron kodesh. A few minutes later, Rav Yisrael entered the shul and walked past the aron kodesh to speak. He called out, ‘Rabbosai, we have already bentched Chodesh Elul.'”
“At the moment that Rav Yisrael cried out the word “Elul”, he fainted from the awesomeness of the month, and as he fell, he landed on top of me. Everybody in the shul stood up in shock, and brought water to revive Rav Yisrael from his faint.”
Rav Tzvi Pesach added, “I was only a boy of eight when this happened, but since that day, I have felt the weight of Rav Yisrael Salanter's Elul.”
Every year on Shabbos Mevorchim Elul, I come back to this story, hoping to pick up just a little of that experience. It's not the intensity and dedication that draws me, but the feeling of “this is real; this is meaningful.”
Our Elul experience quite a distance from those palpable overwhelming emotions. Of course, we also work to rededicate, refocus and refine ourselves; but somehow we are often falling very short of feeling anything, and even the fleeing highs of inspiration seem short lived.
The solution to this problem, however, might be hiding in an unlikely place. The Torah, this Shabbos instructs Klal Yisrael to eradicate Avoda Zara from Eretz Yisrael:
וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתָם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת־מַצֵּבֹתָם... לֹא־תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site. Do not do this to Hashem your God.
The end of the Pasuk is bizarre: “Do not do this to Hashem your God.” Of course not! Why would any think that we should do this to Hashem?
In a piercing insight, R' Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (אגרא דכלה ראה ג׳) notes that the Torah is telling us the deepest form of destruction – the one we so desperately need to avoid: לֹא־תַעֲשׂוּן כֵּן לַה׳ – Don't “Yes” (כֵּן) Hashem.
We've all been “yessed” at some point. Sometimes by a parent, a child or a spouse. I dare say that we're all probably guilty of it as well. It's that moment when someone comes to you exasperated, looking for care, concern and validation, and we answer with “yes dear.” It's painfully and frustratingly dismissive. In one “yes” we manage to convey the full force of: “I'll do the thing you want, but it's annoying. And I don't want to talk to you about it, because it's not important to me. And the fact that this is important to you is your problem.”
That's the greatest destruction possible. It rips apart relationships and friendships while maintaining the guise of dedication. It drives a wedge between our mind, heart and actions, while we adamantly insist that we are doing all we can. Be beneath the surface, we know it's lip service.
Moshe Rabbeinu is begging us: You should destroy the Avoda Zara in Eretz Yisrael, but don't destroy your relationship with Hashem.
Do we ever ״Yes״ Hashem?
We have a laundry list of mitzvos, obligations, schedules and sedorim. We think to ourselves: “if I get this done, Hashem will leave me alone. He'll give me what I need and stop bothering me.” It's possible for a person to be engaged in Torah and mitzvos all day and, Chas V'Shalom, still be engaged in destroying Hashem's presence in their lives.
It's also possible for a person to achieve the opposite. All it takes is a single moment of speaking to Hashem, learning His Torah or doing a Mitzvah with gratitude and love. It requires living as a Jew because we want to; a relationship with Hashem that is conscious and emotional, not simply transactional.
Hashem is, so to speak, reaching out to us in Elul saying “I know you're doing as much as you can. You're good, you're dedicated and I love you, I care about you. But please, can we just talk?”
Our Avoda this Shabbos is to find the space and place within our Torah and Mitzvos to recultivate meaning, purpose and our shared vision.