Elul, which begins Friday night, is often called chodesh ha’cheshbon – the month of reckoning. It’s when we seriously think about how well we’re succeeding in serving G-d and fulfilling our mission.
Hashem created a world that conceals His presence, and sent into it holy souls – “parts” of Himself – clothed in physical bodies that conceal the souls’ Divine source. A body’s physical needs and desires are in direct opposition to its soul’s yearning to be reunited with its Divine source. In our Sages’ terminology these two opposing forces are called the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara. The constant, lifelong conflict between these two forces is called the milchemes hayetzer.
Kabbalah and Chassidus explain that human beings contain, not just two opposing tendencies, but two separate souls. The yetzer tov expresses our nefesh Elokis, our divine soul, which is “literally part of G-d” (Tanya, chapter 2) and constantly yearns to be reunited with its source by fulfilling Hashem’s mitzvos. The yetzer hara, in contrast, expresses our nefesh habehamis, our animal soul, which is concerned only with its own benefit.
Before our matriarch Rivkah gave birth to Yaakov and Eisav, a Heavenly message told her they represented two opposing nations, “and one nation will struggle to overcome the other nation” (Bereishis 28:23). This verse describes the milchemes hayetzer. The body is like a town over which two kings fight. Each wants to conquer and rule over it so that the townsfolk are subjugated to him and obey his wishes.
The nefesh Elokis wants every limb of the body to express only G-d’s will. It wants our brain to be full of thoughts of G-d and Torah and our heart to overflow with love and awe of G-d until the nefesh habehamis is so overpowered that it, too, realizes that it should love G-d since He is the source of all life. The Torah states, “You should love G-d with all your heart” (Devarim 6:5), and our Sages comment that we should love G-d with our “two yetzarim, [not only] the yetzer tov [but] also the yetzer hara” (Berachos 9:5).
The nefesh habehamis tries to make us sin, but in doing so it fulfills its divine mission. (After all, the nefesh habehamis is a creation of G-d.) The Zohar offers the following parable: A great king had an only son and wanted his character to be stellar. So one day, he decided to test his loyalty by asking a beautiful harlot to tempt him to sin. Clearly, though, the king and the woman both wanted the prince to resist her enticements and prove his strength of character.
In the same manner, Hashem sends the nefesh habehamis and yetzer hara to test us. They were created to give us full freedom of choice – “See I have given before you today life and good, and death and evil…and you shall chose life” (Devarim 30:15-19). Freedom of choice exposes us to spiritual peril, but it benefits by enabling us to reach a far higher level. The nefesh habehamis is like the woman in the parable. It strives mightily to fulfill its royal mission to tempt us to sin – in accordance with the purpose for which it was created – but it wants us to make the right choice.
Our progress in the struggle against the nefesh habehamis is what we assess in Elul. Of course, we make more minor reckonings during the year, too – at the end of every month, every week, even every day. But the entire month of Elul is specifically devoted to self-assessment. We must note where we’re doing well and where we need to improve. And determining to improve actually helps ensure that Hashem will make the coming year a good and sweet one for us all.
(Based on chapter nine of Tanya)