The concept of time is of utmost importance to Klal Yisrael. Rav Soloveitchik explains how we can see this from the very first mitzvah that Hashem commanded the B’nei Yisrael. Right after Makas B’choros, the final plague of the killing of the first born, Hashem gives B’nei Yisrael their first commandment as a nation. HaChodesh hazeh lochem rosh chadoshim – This month of Nissan should be for you the first of the months. The very first mitzvah was Rosh Chodesh, a mitzvah concerning time!
This strongly points out the transformation the B’nei Yisrael were undergoing at that point in our history. A slave has no concept of time. Each day was just like the day before. There was no difference from one day to the next, one week to the next, one month to the next. And the B’nei Yisrael were suffering from avodas perech. One of the meanings of perech is from the word paroches – a curtain. Pharoah diabolically separated the men and the women by keeping the men in the fields to sleep. Thus, the men never came home from the fields. They spent twenty-four hours a day in the fields, working and sleeping in the fields. Time, to them, was just one long period of drudgery, never changing, always the same.
But at the time B’nei Yisrael became a nation, Hashem introduced them to the concept of time so they would understand its importance. The days are not all the same, the times are not all alike.
Different times of the year represent different actions. In order to succeed in life, one must learn the art of the times. The posuk tells us, “Uv’nei Yisochar yodei binah l’itim – The wise children of Yisochar knew the meaning of time.” In our Shabbos davening, we say “Limnos yomeinu kein hodah v’navi l’vav chachma.” Literally translated, it means that if we count our days it will bring us to a heart of wisdom. Everyone can count his days. Even the most simple-minded people know how old they are. But if a person counts not the days of his life that have passed, but the days he has left, he will then come to a heart of wisdom. If a person realizes how limited his days on this earth are, then he will come to a deep understanding of life.
There is a deeper meaning within this tefillah as well. The word limnos has another meaning besides ‘to count.’ It also means to appoint, to designate. The wise man knows how to appropriately designate each day. He has to fill his time with the proper qualities. During the year, there is a time for mourning the Bais HaMikdash, there is a time for being mesamei’ach, there is a time for zerizus in the Torah, and there is a time for working on relations bein adom l’chaveiro, and so on.
We are coming now to a critical period in our year. The month of Elul is arriving once again. The Rosh HaYeshiva in Nevardik would give a loud clap on the table and announce, “Only 33 days to Elul.” That would be enough for the talmidim to get the message and return to their studies with greater vigor.
The thirty days of Elul actually extend into the first ten days of the month of Tishrei. In actuality, there are forty days. The first letters of the posuk, Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, stand for the month of Elul. The last letter in each word is a yud, which has a gematria of ten. Four yuds equal forty, the days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur. Thus, the Shlah HaKodosh tells us how important it is that we start counting the time from the first day of Rosh Chodesh, the last day of Av, so that we have forty complete days.
What is the purpose of these forty days? To do teshuva. Why are these forty days designated as the z’man teshuva? During the forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur, was at a time of fasting and repentance, to atone for the sin of the golden calf. This time is fixed in the calendar as a time for repentance. Mi’shenichnas Elul marbin b’teshuva – Once Elul arrives we increase our efforts at introspection and repentance. For all generations, this is the time of the year reserved for atonement.
The Talmud tells us a rule: Hakol holeich achar hachosom. Everything goes according to the end. If the end action was good, then the result will be good. If, however, it was not good, then the result will be bad as well. In the same vein we are taught, if the three steps after Shemoneh Esrei were taken hurriedly (showing a gross disrespect of Hashem), then the whole tefillah is torn up and thrown away. The aforementioned rule is the reason why some people are careful to do teshuva every night before they go to bed. In that way, the whole day is considered good and the slate is clean. There are those that repent every Friday night for the week (also so that when the Kiddush is recited, he is an eid kasheir). Then, there is Rosh Chodesh, which gives us a chance to atone for the whole month. And, of course, there is Elul, which gives us the opportunity to do teshuva for the whole year. And at the end of a lifetime is another opportunity so that we may enter Olam Habah. “Yesh koneh olomo b’sha’ah achas – There are those who have earned their share in the World to Come in one hour,” for in the last hour of their lives, they repented for all their bad deeds.
So now we stand at this critical juncture of the year. That is why we start blowing the shofar, so that we will wake up and do teshuva. We have to make this time count for good, so that we will be judged for the good.
What is the significance of having forty days in which to repent?
(To be continued next week.)