Our rabbis established the custom of blowing the shofar
during Elul in order to awaken us to do teshuva. Reb
Aharon Kotler, zt"l, writes that we have inherited a
great fortune: we can attain great heights in teshuva,
Torah, and service of Hashem during Elul with comparatively
little effort, as compared with the rest of the year. It is
important to capitalize on this month since if we let this
chance go by, not only do we lose a golden opportunity but it
is also tantamount to showing that we are not interested in
doing teshuva, chas vesholom.
There are at least four reactions that one can have to Elul.
One is that a person doesn't see any faults in himself that
need improvement. This, of course, is merely a ploy of the
yetzer to keep the person from doing teshuva,
and hopefully most of us do not harbor such overconfidence.
Another person may feel that he has many sins, character flaws
and bad habits and, in short, he feels that he is a
rosho. Such a feeling also comes from the yetzer
hora, as in Pirkei Ovos, 2:13, Rabbi Shimon says,
"Do not consider yourself a rosho." The Rambam
elaborates that this will lead one to associate with evil
company. This is because one gives up all hope of improving,
which is merely another tactic of the yetzer hora.
Perhaps a more common response is to feel that Elul is such an
important time that one will certainly utilize it. This person
has already chosen which mussar sefer to learn, which
shiurim he will attend, and which middos he will
work on. But even here the yetzer goes to work, making
the person feel overconfident to the point where during the
entire month he basks in his lofty goals but never takes a
penetrating look at his real self. Without this, true
teshuva is unlikely.
Fourth, one might feel that one has both strong and weak
points and is therefore a beinoni. Although he would
like to improve, he rationalizes that since he has strong
points his need for teshuva is not so great, and as a
result he allows himself to be convinced that he cannot do any
teshuva in his weak areas because that is beyond his
Reb Yisroel Salanter, zt"l, writes that a person has
the capacity to completely change his nature in a moment. In
lieu of this, however, there are two areas to work on in order
to best prepare for the Yom Hadin. One is in the
category of deeds that cause the most harm to others. For
example, one should be extra careful in business dealings with
the poor, because any loss that a destitute person suffers
hurts him much more than an even greater loss would to a rich
The second area to concentrate on is those transgressions for
which there will be the most punishment. How can one ascertain
which those are? "Lefum tza'aro agro" tells us that
when we perform something which is hard for us to do, our
reward increases according to the difficulty. Reb Yisroel
makes an extension of this concept and quotes the
gemora in Menochos 43 which says, "The
punishment for not having white (tzitzis) is greater
than that of failing to have the blue (string)." The reason,
Rashi explains, is because that which is more available is
easier to obtain.
The failure to fulfill what is easy demonstrates greater
indifference to the wishes of the King. Hence it carries
greater punishment. Therefore, the majority of a person's
punishment is due to those mitzvos which he finds easy to
fulfill but nevertheless fails to fulfill. At least during
Elul, one must double one's efforts to be careful about areas
which are easy to keep but one is lax about. Teshuva in
these areas will exempt him from much of the punishment that
would have been due to him.
Reb Yisroel then explains a concept which is on the one hand
extremely frightening but on the other hand exuberantly
encouraging. If someone ignores mitzvos which are easy for him
to keep, then even sins which are difficult for him to avoid
are judged as if they are easy, that is, more stringently.
This is because the verdict of the Heavenly Court is that even
if they were easy he would have succumbed to the yetzer
hora and would have ignored them also!
However, the opposite works in our favor. If he fulfills
difficult mitzvos and avoids tempting aveiros then,
because he shows that he is a servant of Hashem, the Heavenly
Court deems that he certainly would have fulfilled the easy
challenges even if they had been hard. Therefore his easy
accomplishments are judged as if they had been difficult for
him and thus his reward is enhanced many times.
In Rosh Hashana 16b the gemora discusses the
well known concept that on Rosh Hashana the righteous are
immediately granted life and the wicked receive a verdict of
death, while those in the middle have their sentences
suspended until Yom Kippur. The Yerushalmi in Rosh
Hashana 7a says that if these beinonim do
teshuvoh then they are written with the
tzaddikim, but if not, then they are included with the
Even one who has not yet done teshuva for ignoring easy
mitzvos has hope. He should at least decide resolutely to
learn mussar daily, since his mussar learning
will motivate him and give him the tools to do teshuva.
Reb Yisroel explains that because of Hashem's boundless love
for us, He will view this resolution as if he is doing
teshuva! With a sincere desire and firm resolve to
learn mussar, he has the power to influence Divine
judgment in his favor.
May Klal Yisroel have a kesivah vechasimah tovah
and merit the geula sheleimoh bimheiroh veyomeinu!
Rabbi Basner is a rosh kollel in Kiryat