How to Really Grow During the Month of Elul
No one can help you grow unless you take responsibility for yourself.
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, the 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 beginning the Hebrew month of Elul. 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.”
Stop waiting for someone to tell you what to change during Elul. You are responsible for yourself.
Stop waiting for someone to tell you what to change during Elul. 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 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 “I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me” and the Day of Judgment. How are the two related?
Every judgment God renders – whether a windfall or a bankruptcy – is exactly what we need to grow closer to Him.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 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.
I am for my Beloved, if you love the Almighty and appreciate that He is your father, then my Beloved is for me, 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.
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 Hashem's instructions for living. These are the actual words of our Creator.
But the Ramchal sets conditions: "For the person who reads them in holiness and purity, with the proper intent of fulfilling God's will, these words have the unique property of causing the one who reads them to incorporate in himself excellence and greatest perfection." We need to learn Torah with holiness and purity, which means that our learning has to be lishmah, unadulterated, for the sake of Heaven. Our motivation to get close to God cannot be mixed with the desire for approval or the need to conform to societal pressure.
Elul is the time to examine your goals and drives.
Elul is the time to examine your goals and drives. Why are you learning Torah? Make sure it is for the right reasons. Keep it pure.
And lastly, learn Torah with the intent to fulfill God's will, as we say in our daily prayers in the second blessing before reciting the Shema: “Instill in our hearts to understand and elucidate, to listen, learn, teach, safeguard, perform and fulfill all the words of your Torah's teaching with love.” Torah study is not just for intellectual stimulation. The goal is for you to absorb it in your bones and live it. Torah learning has to change you and bring you closer to the Almighty. If your intent is not to fulfill what you are learning, you may know an incredible amount of Torah, but you are just a donkey carrying books. Your knowledge has not penetrated into the fiber of your being.
The shofar is blowing; you are moving closer to the Day of Judgment. You are at war. 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 with purity, in order to fulfill the God’s will. No one can do it for you.