Latest update: June 23rd, 2014
We stand at the threshold of the month of Elul.
Each year when this season of repentance comes, we think about how we can come closer to God, but it is often difficult to formulate a program. I would like to offer forty suggestions, one for each day from the first day of Elul through Yom Kippur. They are designed to be practical. I hope they will strike a chord.
- I like to daven so that I understand every word. After all, I am speaking to the Ruler of the Universe. He is listening to every word, even though I may be davening among a hundred other people. It takes a long time for me to daven – but when I’m talking to the Ruler of the universe, I’ve got to know what I’m saying.
- Cry when you daven. When I’m trying to concentrate on the meaning of every word, sometimes the tears come naturally, because I’m feeling I’m actually standing in front of God.
- The morning berachot –don’t say them in the car on the way to minyan! For example, “Pokaiach ivrim”(“Who gives sight to the blind”). You’re thanking God for your eyesight. We should put everything into those blessings.
- What about “zokeif kefufim”(“Who straightens the bent”)? To appreciate this berachah, ask someone with a bad back how it feels.
- “Asher yatzar,” the blessing we say many times a day. We are thanking God for our “plumbing system.” Just imagine if, God forbid, it wasn’t working.
- Greet a Jew. This applies, obviously, only when appropriate. One of the outgrowths of recent tragedies is that people are more afraid to speak to each other. But sometimes a greeting can literally save another person’s life.
- Smile at another Jew. Then both you and the other person will know you consider him or her to be your brother or sister. This helps heal sinas chinam, unwarranted hatred between Jew and Jew, which caused the destruction of the Second Temple .
- Answer a greeting. Often, people do not respond. If someone greets you, reply in kind, or go one better. If someone says “Have a good day,” you can raise it a level and answer“Have a great month” or “Have a great year.”
- “Good Shabbos” is major. And, again, don’t forget to respond enthusiastically. By the way, if the other person can’t hear your greeting, it’s not a greeting.
- I think that also goes for people leading davening in shul. If people can’t hear you, why are you leading the davening? And what about when you’re called up to the Torah for an aliyah? How can the rest of the minyan say “amen” to your berachah if they can’t hear you?
- This also goes for other blessings: people are elevated when they are able to say “amen” to your berachah. There are great people who wait for another person to be within hearing before making a berachah, just so it can be answered with “amen.”
- Birkas HaMazon (the blessing after a meal) is not easy to say with kavanah. Why? I for one am often knocked out after all that food (and wine). Perhaps try to say it slowly, and look into the bentcher;the printed words help focus your attention. Many specific blessings are contained in the fourth berachah of Birkas HaMazon:“grace, kindness, mercy, relief, salvation, success” and so on.I wonder how effective those blessings are if we don’t even realize we are reciting them.
- Before Shabbos, plan a d’var Torah. You can even bring notes to the Shabbos table. It will elevate Shabbos…and you!
- Invite less observant guests for Shabbos. They will thank you, literally forever. And your Shabbos will be enhanced.
- Don’t forget zemiros. Singing at the Shabbos table brings simcha and kedushah into our homes.
- Do you yearn for the Beis HaMikdash? We have a lot of troubles in this world. When the Beis HaMikdash was standing, we could purify ourselves, which means we broke down the barrier between us and Hashem. It was a different world. We need the Beis HaMikdash.
- Believe the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt. And Mashiach will come. “Ani ma’amin… I believe with perfect faith in the coming of Mashiach….”
- Do we believe the world can be perfect? It was perfect at the time of Creation, and we want to return to the Garden of Eden. We are so jaded by the surrounding culture that we don’t believe the world can be perfect again. Sometimes we say it would be “boring,” but that’s because we are so far away from it.
- Do you believe all Jews – in fact, all people – could get along? Believe it. If sinas chinam caused the present Exile, then “ahavas chinam” is surely possible.
- I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is to turn one’s cell phone off when entering the shul or beis medrash. The temptation is too great. Even if the phone is set on “vibrate,” you want to see who’s calling. You know who’s calling? The yetzer hara! Here you are, trying to talk to God or learn His Torah, and then you are being called away. Even if the phone doesn’t ring, you are allowing – maybe even wanting! — mundane considerations to knock out your connection with the Source of Life Itself. And what about every other person whose concentration is punctured by your cell phone ringing, or worse yet, by your speaking on it? If you are a doctor or have an emergency situation it’s another thing, but even then, go outside to speak.
- We can actually refuse to answer our cell phone when it’s not appropriate, for example when we’re speaking with someone else. “Shelo asani eved!” We’re not slaves. We don’t have to be ruled by our phone.
- When you’re with your children, do you speak on the cell phone? It grieves me to see mothers chattering non-stop on their cell phones while walking with their children. Those children must feel neglected.
- Men, do you go to the mikveh beforeShabbos? Try to have kavanah. I personally am bothered when people talk too much in the mikveh, especially if they conduct business on the cell phone in the dressing area. This is a time when we try to elevate ourselves – “v’tahair libeinu l’avdecha b’emes…[to] purify our heart to serve You truthfully….” Think about becoming pure in order to serve Hashem. Wives: send your husband to the mikveh Erev Shabbos.
- What about the dish mikveh? Do you have kavanah that all that enters your mouth will be pure? Are we eating in order to elevate our lives? A man once ridiculed me because I mentioned I tried to have the right kavanah at the dish mikveh. Sadly, that man’s marriage collapsed. I wonder whether having the right kavanah at the dish mikveh would have helped his marriage.
- When you park your car, are you careful not to take up one and a half spaces? Other people are also trying to park. And what about davening in a new shul? Are you careful not to occupy someone else’s makom kavuah, the place where that person usually davens? It’s always good to ask, “Is this someone’s place?”
- Jealousy. Believe me, I’m not immune. “Why did that person receive more honor than I did?” That’s jealousy. What’s the cure? I believe we should try to understand that our entire standing comes from Hashem. He alone gives us honor and stature.
- Are you angry? It’s good to remember that every event occurs because Hashem wills it. There’s always a reason. That doesn’t mean other people are blameless, but Hashem will judge them. What happens to me, however, should not make me angry. If it does, then I am causing myself, as well as other people, unnecessary anguish.
- Do you believe everything is “l’tovah– forthe good”? My wife once spilled salad on a distinguished rabbi who was eating at our house. It seemed as if the world had collapsed, but that crazy incident became the catalyst for a beautiful friendship.
- When we say “Shema Yisrael,” do we pause on the word “Echad”? Hashem is the sole Source of all existence; everything emanates from Him. It is very important to focus on that. That is our entire perspective on life.
- The Jewish people have a world of troubles, but we are not supposed to be afraid. Fear destroyed the miraglim, the biblical spies, and from that came the tragic events of Tisha B’Av. As we say in Maariv, “Hashem…delivered [Jacob] from a power mightier than he….” If we focus on the fact that Hashemis running the world and that we have an eternal relationship with Him, it is possible to overcome fear.
- Do you have low self-esteem? Is that wrong? Maybe you just have the correct perspective. King David said, “I am a worm and not a man,” but he was the king of Israel and the father of Mashiach. Moshe Rabbeinu was the most humble of men. But Dovid haMelech and Moshe Rabbeinu knew their stature came from Hashem, as it says, “He raises the needy from the dust, from the trash heaps He lifts the destitute” (Psalm 113). We should know that all our abilities come from God, as we say every morning, “Not in the merit of our righteousness do we cast our supplications before You. What are we?…. All is vain, but we are Your people….”
- Do you think about how the Torah is real? I once heard someone say it’s all an allegory. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis’s father once said that, even in English, Hashem shows us the Truth: for example, “Israel…is real.”
- Are you worried about yourself? That’s OK. We all have plenty to work on. Don’t be afraid to make a list of problems. Hashem will help with all of them.
- Do you become angry or have bad thoughts? Say you lose something, or spill gravy on your new suit. Say you get angry at your husband or wife. If you dwell on the occurrence it will eat you up; your anger will increase. But we say, “You shall love Hashem your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources. Let these matters…be upon your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way and when you retire and when you arise.” I think we are literally supposed to have Torah on our mind at all times. If we must think about other things at times, it is a compromise. Torah heals all things, and a mind occupied with Torah is in the right place.
- Do you have the right chavrusah, someone with whom you feel comfortable? This is like a marriage; it’s vital to find your “bashert.” Don’t give up until you find the right person.
- Discuss with your wife or husband and children and friends how all the things we see around us in the world are signs of the realization of prophecy. Try to put things in the perspective of world history. I told seventh grade children in Israel recently that every word of Torah they were learning was saving the world, bringing Mashiach, and guarding them so they could greet Mashiach. They were so excited. The menahel told me, “No one ever speaks to them about these things.”
- Do you try to assimilate your learning into your life? If you learn a halacha, do you “put it to work”? We should immediately try to fit it into our lifestyle. Once, in the car, my wife and I were listening to a tape on “asking mechilah.” My wife told me I had to ask forgiveness of a certain person. It wasn’t easy, but I finally did. Believe me, there were tears of joy on both sides.
- When you daven, are you focusing on the Beis HaMikdash? After all, we are facing Yerushalayim. I once heard from Rabbi Yaakov Hillel that it is advisable to focus on the place of the Shechinah, which“rests” underneath the wings of the Cherubim, who stand over the Holy Ark. This is the location of ultimate sanctity in the world. We daven every day for Hashem to “restore His Presence to Zion.” That means the Shechinah. We can have that ideal state in mind every day in our tefillas.
- Stay in shul until the end of davening. I heard that Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was leaving shul after “aleinu” because he thought there were no Kaddish-sayers present. But when he heard someone start to say Kaddish, he turned around and went right back to his shtender until Kaddish was over. We shouldn’t run away from Hashem’s Presence.
- As we complete the Forty Days of Repentance, I can think of no better conclusion than the following from Parshas Va’eschanan: “You who cling to Hashem, your God, are all alive today.” That sums it up. That’s all we need to know.
About the Author: Roy Neuberger’s latest book, “Working Toward Moshiach,” is now available in Israel and the U. S. His book “2020 Vision” is available in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian, and Georgian. Roy is also the author of “From Central Park To Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul,” available in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Georgian, and “Worldstorm: Finding Meaning and Direction Amidst Today’s World Crisis.” Roy and his wife, Leah, speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.2020vision.co.il.
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