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At War before Rosh Hashanah

September 15, 2016 | by Rabbi Noah Weinberg

No one but you can make you great.

A pious man encountered a group of triumphant soldiers coming back from a fierce battle, flushed with victory.

“You have returned victorious from a minor struggle,” he said to them. “Now get ready for the major battle.”

“And what is that major battle?” they asked.

“The war within us, against the evil inclination. That is the great war. You just came back from three weeks of intense fighting, and now the enemy has been vanquished. But fighting the insanity of the yetzer hara, our evil inclination, never ends. Even after 100 defeats, he will never leave you alone. The battle is constant. He will not rest until he kills you. The moment you let your guard down, he will pounce and attempt to utterly destroy you.

“In a typical war there is a front line. Sometimes you are surrounded, but at least you know where the enemy lies. The yetzer hara, however, is a master of disguise. He knows how to mask illusions as reality, how to rationalize evil as good. He is so devious, he knows how to get you to harm yourself and your loved ones without your even realizing it.” (Duties of the Heart, Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh, chapter 5)

We are in the middle of the Hebrew month of Elul, gearing up for Rosh Hashanah, and it is time to intensify the battle against the yetzer hara and restock our supply of weapons.

The enemy’s first plan of attack is to knock out your sense of personal responsibility and get you to hand it over to someone else. “Let my teachers inspire me,” you think. Or, “Let my rabbi tell me what I have to work on.”

No one can help you grow unless you take responsibility for yourself.

Stop waiting for someone to tell you what to change. You are responsible for yourself. You must do the necessary introspection, get in contact with yourself, and determine what you need to work on. As the Mishnah says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Avos 1:14). No one can help you grow unless you take responsibility for yourself. Your teachers can give you the greatest tools in the world for self-transformation, but you will leave those tools on the bench if you don’t take responsibility for your own life.

You need to get clarity about what life means to you. What do you want to accomplish this coming year? What are you committed to tackling? If you don’t make these decisions, you might easily delude yourself into thinking that you are preparing adequately for Rosh Hashanah by listening to some inspiring talks and hoping that somehow these great rabbis will make you great.

No one can make you great. No one can fight your battles. No one can turn you into a Torah scholar. There are no shortcuts; you are solely responsible for your own growth and learning. Toughen up and stop relying on others. No one can do it for you.

Judgment and Love

The month of Elul seem to be paradoxical. On the one hand it is the time for "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li – I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me” – an acronym for “Elul.” It is a time when we feel God’s intense love and closeness. Yet Elul is also the time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah, when the Book of Life and the Book of Death are open and the King of the universe sits in judgment, deciding who will live and who will die, who will have cancer and who will be cured, who will be crushed in an accident and who will survive. There seems to be a contradiction between Ani l'dodi v'dodi li and the Day of Judgment. How are the two related?

The Ramchal encapsulates in one paragraph the whole point of our existence, and in doing so gives us an answer. In The Way of God (1:4:6) he writes, "The root purpose of the service of God is for the human being to constantly turn to his Creator, to realize that he was created for the sole purpose of being drawn close to his Creator…." Everything that happens to us in this world is for one reason and one reason alone: to get closer to the Almighty, to feel that I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me. The Jew understands that everything God does is for our good; it is an expression of His love. Every judgment He renders – whether a windfall or a bankruptcy – is exactly what we need to grow closer to Him. Ani l'dodi, if you love the Almighty and appreciate that He is your father, then v'dodi li, you will see that the Almighty loves you and that everything He does is for your good. But if you don't appreciate what God has done for you and instead you have complaints, you will mistakenly think He does not love you.

The Ramchal describes the objective of the war against the yetzer hara: "Man was placed in this world only to overcome his evil inclination and subjugate himself to His Creator through the power of his intellect. He must overcome his physical desire and tendencies, and direct all of his activities toward attaining this purpose [of coming close to God]" (ibid). It is up to us to choose to cling to God by vanquishing our yetzer hara and rising above the vanities and confusion of the world.

Learning Torah

The Ramchal then identifies the primary weapon God gave us to fight the yetzer hara and achieve our purpose: "God gave us one means that is greater than anything else in bringing man close to God, and that is Torah study" (1:4:9). There is nothing more powerful than learning God’s instructions for living. These are the actual words of our Creator.

Elul is the time to examine your goals and drives, and to make sure it is for the right reasons. Keep it pure.

The shofar is blowing; the Day of Judgment is approaching. You are at war and the enemy is at the gate. Now is the time to strengthen your resolve to fight the great battle against the yetzer hara. It is time to take responsibility for every aspect of your life, to reconnect to God’s constant love, and to intensify your determination to learn Torah. No one can do it for you.

Adapted from Wisdom for Living: Rabbi Noah Weinberg on the parasha. Click here to order.

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