The Un-Yeshivish Approach to Elul

Thinking back, there's a certain mythical quality to Elul in Yeshivos and Seminaries. For many of us who attended these illustrious institutions, Elul was our first foray into self-improvement, religious maturity and growth without grades.

We heard stories of Gedolim who didn't speak a single unnecessary word throughout Elul, and those who deprived themselves of sleep or food to increase the time they spend learning, davening and doing chessed.

Of course, for most of us, those achievements were and are unattainable (not to mention unhealthy), but the dream of riding the Elul wave to a radical life transformation was palpable and tangible.

I dare say that the same is not true of life as an adult. This is partially because our time commitments operate differently now. With careers, families and responsibilities, we no longer have the luxury to spend all night pouring over texts or debating ideology, morality and philosophy. But it is also because people, including ourselves, don't really seem to change all that much from Elul to Elul. Most of us are still coasting on whatever auto-pilot setting we rode a year ago.

All of this begs the questions: What does Hashem really want from me this Elul?

The “Yeshivish” answer is as obvious as it is impractical. The endeavor to correct and upgrade every area of our lives to be in line with the Shulchan Aruch, is noble, beautiful and impossible. That is not to say, of course, that we shouldn't aspire to be in complete and total observance with all of Halacha. I'm also not, Chas V'Shalom, saying that Halacha is impossible to keep in its entirety. It's simply a recognition that we will likely be “klapping al-Cheit” next year as well.

I would like to suggest that acknowledging this truth and saying it out loud is neither defeatist nor heretical. It is honest, reasonable, and the beginning of meaningful growth.

Where do we begin when attaining perfection is so improbable? Realistically, we can begin anywhere; with three important conditions: 1. We accept that there is necessary growth that we need to achieve in this area. 2. We are ready to work on this area, and we can begin now. 3. We have a strategy and action plan in mind – and we carry it out.

I'd like to briefly unpack each of these:

1. We accept that there is necessary growth that we need to achieve in this area.

I once asked Rabbi Azriel Goldfein זצ״ל (the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah in Johannesburg) why all Jews in South Africa considered themselves Orthodox – regardless of our level of observance. He explained that since almost all South African Jews were Lithuanian, they were never exposed to the grander and prestige of non-Jewish life. “In Western Europe there was aristocracy, enlightenment, education, nobility. But in Lita, they still ate with their hands. When a Lithuanian Jew stopped keeping Mitzvos, they knew that they were doing the wrong thing and they never attempted to fit in to European culture. They didn't want to be religious, but they certainly didn't want to be Lithuanian.”

As a result, much like Sephardim, South African Jews never developed a doctrine of apologetics and they never justified their religious failures with a new understanding or rendition of the Torah and Shulchan Aruch. I grew up in a world where most people would drive to Shul on Shabbos. But if they would get to shul and see no Mechitza, they would get into their cars and drive to another shul.

The way that Jews in the US operate is a little different. Here, people are far less comfortable with sin and hypocrisy. This obviously has significant merits, but carries a serious pitfall as well: The culture of the US temps us to think that since failure is unacceptable, “if I sin, I need to reinterpret the Torah to make it not a sin. I cannot accept my failure, I must explain it and justify it.”

But in order to truly work on something, we need to accept that this is, in fact, something to work on. No excuses, no blame, no reinterpretations.

This Elul, pick something that you know you need to fix and that you want to fix. Lashon Hara? Shnayim Mikra? Anger? Checking lettuce? Swimming on Shabbos? Attending Minyan? Overeating? Giving Tzedakah? Daily Learning? Brachos with Kavanah?

Whatever it is, step one begins with “This is my problem, and it is my responsibility to fix it.”

2. We are ready to work on this area, and we can begin now.

Aliza and I had an NCSYer a number of years ago who started becoming observant in twelfth grade. Her parents, whilst mostly supportive, refused to kasher their kitchen and buy only kosher products. She came over one Shabbos, heartbroken that she had just decided to keep kosher and was clearly unable to do so. We discussed many elements of hilchos Kashrus, including a host of potential leniencies, but concluded that perhaps her focus could be on other areas of Halacha that were more attainable at that point.

The Yetzer Hara often guilts us into working on something that we know we cannot change yet and it is tempting to overcommit to big dreams. But it doesn't work. If you're struggling to make it to shul on Shabbos morning, don't commit to daily minyan... yet. If you're having a hard time finishing Shnyaim Mikra, don't start Daf Yomi... yet.

Of course, we'd love to wave a magic wand and jump a thousand steps, but that's a recipe for failure. All growth must be gradual to be sustainable.

This approach was taken by Hashem Himself who didn't lead us directly to Eretz Yizrael after the Exodus: פֶּן־יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה – “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” Sometimes, taking the long way 'round is worth it, to ensure that we get there in the end.

3. We have a strategy and action plan in mind – and we carry it out.

Our strategies are essential prerequisites to success. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter famously said that changing one Middah is more challenging than learning all of Shas. To change something – for real – is going to require a serious amount of planning.

We will need to consider our habits, environments, social circles, triggers and weaknesses. We will need to establish support systems of trusted partners and allow ourselves the latitude to fail as we practice and learn. None of this is simple, but dedication to deprogramming and reprogramming our thoughts and behaviors will take time, grit, patience, humility and empathy.

Indeed, the Gra (אבן שמלה ד:כב) notes that while the advice of Chachamim is essential in Avodas Hashem, it is insufficient when contending with our own Yetzer Hara. For that, we need our own creativity and our own strategies.

The most important part, however, is action.

Our lives are not the story of the things that we think, but the things that we do. Our thoughts, plans and considerations have little to no impact, when contrasted with even our least significant action.

Moreover, the Sefer HaChinuch famously instructs us: אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות – Our emotions follow our actions. Waiting to be in the right mindset with the right intentions guarantees that we will never take actions.

The Nesivos Shalom quotes from Reb Shlomo Dovid Yehoshua (the 4th Slonimer Rebbe) that often when we feel like our head is not in the game we should remember that when climbing a ladder, we first raise our feet and then only then our heads.

There are many ladders to climb this Elul. Many opportunities to make a real difference in our own lives. The Sfas Emes quotes from his grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim that the beginning of our Parsha, רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה” – See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”, means to tell us that every day we have the capacity to make choices. To pick a ladder, to begin to climb.

Hashem should help each and every one of us to keep on climbing, keep on striving, keep on growing, so that by next years Elul we're a little closer to who we want to be.