Question: How should one properly do teshuvah during Elul as we approach the Days of Awe, the Yamim Nora’im?
Summary of our response up to this point: A sure key to unlock the door to the gates of repentance during the month of Elul is to try to do everything lifnim mishurat ha’din – above and beyond the requirements of the law. The Talmud (Berachot 7a) explains that this trait is greatly valued by Hashem. The Gemara tells us that G-d says the following prayers: “…that I deal with My children according to the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, go lifnim mishurat ha’din – stopping short of the limit of strict justice – namely, [acting] mercifully, beyond the letter of the law [in forgiving them their transgressions].”
The Gemara recounts an incident in which G-d asked R. Yishmael b. Elisha for a blessing, showing the greatness of our relationship with G-d. G-d yearned to solidify His closeness by requesting a blessing from a mere mortal of flesh and blood; this is a sign of His love for us and should also serve as a sign of the boundless opportunities for closeness with Him.
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Years ago my uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, discussed the topic of lifnim mishurat ha’din and the profound meaning our Sages found in this trait. A part of that discussion is adapted below:
“In reference to the matter of lifnim mishurat ha’din, we find the following statement of R. Yochanan in Bava Metzia (30b): ‘Jerusalem was destroyed because they issued judgments therein in accordance with the Biblical law.’
“The Gemara questions this statement: How then were they to judge others – not according to the Torah, but through physical force?
“The Gemara concludes: Jerusalem was destroyed because they based their judgments strictly upon Biblical law and did not go beyond the requirements of the law.”
My uncle continues: “The Gemara provides many incidents where the Sages went beyond the requirements of the law to do a good deed. In the Gemara (Bava Kamma 99b) it was taught: If a dinar [a coin] was shown to a money changer who recommended it as good, but it was subsequently found to be bad, he would be exempt from damages if he was an expert but if he was an amateur he would be liable.
“The Gemara continues: There was a certain woman who showed a dinar to R. Hiyya, who told her that it was good. Later she returned and said, ‘I showed it to others and they said it was bad. In fact, I couldn’t pass this coin.’
“Thereupon R. Hiyya said to Rab: ‘Go and exchange the coin for a good one and write it down in my register as a bad debt.’
“The Gemara then asks why he had to pay when he could have been exempt because he was known to be an expert? It concludes that he did it because he ‘went beyond the requirements of the law.’
“Another case is found in Bava Metzia (24b), where it tells about the father of Shmuel who once found asses in the desert and returned them to their owners although they had been lost for over 12 months. He only did so because he ‘went beyond the requirements of the law.’ ”
Yet another case cited by my uncle illustrates this point (Bava Metzia 30b): “Once R. Ishmael, the son of R. Yosi, met a man carrying a load of wood. The man put it down, rested and then said to R. Ishmael, ‘Help me pick up the load onto my shoulders.’
“Instead, R. Ishmael purchased the wood from him and made it hefker [ownerless – free to all] so that the man wouldn’t have to carry such a heavy load.
“The Gemara then asks, ‘Wasn’t R. Ishmael an elder [an elderly sage] for whom this was undignified work [and thus wasn’t he exempt from the commandment of aiding others]? The reply is that he acted ‘beyond the requirements of the law.’
“For R. Joseph taught: ‘And you shall show them the way they must walk therein and the deeds they shall do’ (Exodus 18:20). This refers to a way of life [the means of a livelihood, or the life of a Jew, that of study]. ‘The way’ is also the practice of loving deeds [gemillut chasadim]; ‘they must walk’ refers to visiting the sick; ‘therein’ refers to burial [providing burial to the poor who cannot pay for it]; ‘and the deeds’ refers to strict law; ‘they shall do’ – this refers to acts beyond the requirements of the law.”