Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The year is coming to a close, and we now find ourselves in the final month before Rosh Hashanah – Elul. As we know, each month has its own avodah – its own distinct way in which we are supposed to serve Hashem for its duration. Let’s begin our journey and see if we can learn the lessons of Elul and thereby become better and holier people.

We are taught that each month is aligned with one of the 12 mazalos. In other words, there are messages we can learn if we make each month’s constellation our role model during that month. Regarding this idea, the Arizal teaches that Elul matches up with Besulah (known in English as Virgo the Virgin). Ostensibly, it should be very easy to make besulah our role model. A virgin is a symbol of purity, as she is chaste and untouched. Similarly, one should make it one’s goal in life to be pure and clean of sin.

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On the other hand, one could make a fair argument that the Virgin is not a good role model for life. While purity is appropriate initially, Judaism doesn’t idealize remaining a besulah throughout one’s life. At some point, one is supposed to move on and get married. There is a positive aspect to being a besulah, but isn’t there also a positive benefit of moving on and being a wife and mother? If this is the case, then perhaps Besulah is not really a good role model for us. So how can we learn from this mazal?

Before attempting to answer this question, let’s add another. In his analysis of Elul, the Bnei Yissaschar notes that the words “Mazal Elul Besulah” have the same gematria as “Eim Habanim Semeicha Hallellujah.” That is, the Hebrew words which mean “Virgo is the constellation aligned with the month of Elul” have the same numerical value as the Hebrew words from Psalms which mean “A joyous mother of children, praised be G-d!” The Bnei Yissaschar’s discussion of this gematria is deeply kabbalistic, and we will not delve into it. However, even without doing so, one should still be astonished by it. After all, we know that gematrios indicate equivalence between the words or phrases that share the same numerical value. But how can a besulah be equated with a joyous mother of children? Aren’t they physical opposites?

In order to answer these questions, we will have to take a detour to analyze the well-known avodah of Elul – teshuvah. Our Sages teach that the 40 days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur are days when Hashem is especially gracious and accepting of our teshuvah. We find this in the Torah when Moshe pleaded with Hashem for mercy for the Jewish nation – which was culpable for having worshipped the Golden Calf. The appeasement process began on the first of Elul, and full forgiveness was finally granted on Yom Kippur when Hashem stated, “I have forgiven because of your words.” But how is teshuvah done? What must we do to achieve forgiveness for our wrongdoings? Let’s continue with this detour; we have a way to go.

The Shaarei Teshuva writes (Gate 1, paragraph 19) that although there are 20 different aspects to a full and complete teshuvah, there are three ingredients which are absolutely essential: a) Vidui – recalling something we did wrong and admitting it (mentally, verbally, in written format, etc.); 2) charatah – regretting and feeling pained over having sinned; and 3) azivas hacheit – making plans for how to cease committing the sin henceforward.

Now, the first and third ingredients are very logical. When a person wrongs his friend, he admits that he did something wrong and then commits to never do it again. But what is the explanation of the middle step – charatah? Why is it so essential for us to be pained over our past deeds? Why does Hashem require that we be pained in order to get back into His good graces?

The Shaarei Teshuva provides the answer in a different part of this chapter (Paragraph 13). He writes that charatah is essential because it is the detergent which washes away the sin. You see, if we would only admit that what we did was wrong and accept not to act wrongly in the future, we would still be stained by the past action. Charatah is the tool Hashem provides through which we can wash away the sin from our record. Shaarei Teshuva writes, “The sin is lightened in direct proportion to the amount of regret one feels over having committed it.” Is it not a great kindness that Hashem allows us to wipe away all we have done?

Now we can backtrack and answer our questions. Of course it is not proper to avoid life in order to maintain one’s purity. One must occupy oneself with life and interact with others in order to accomplish the most one can. It is far better to engage in life and become a joyous mother of children than it is to avoid life and retain the purity of a virgin. If, because of the holy work one does one becomes sullied, one must accept this as an unfortunate consequence.

But what if it were possible to retain the positive aspects of both the joyous mother and the besulah? What if it were possible to engage in life, accomplish great things, get sullied as one inevitably does, and then clean away the filth and return to purity – with all one’s accomplishments in hand? Wouldn’t that be ideal? Well, my friends, that is the secret of teshuvah. Teshuvah is the tool through which we can wipe away all the wrongdoings that come from our everyday life. We don’t have to avoid a life of accomplishments to be pure. Through teshuvah it’s possible to be both a besulah and a joyous mother of children.

May we all merit utilizing the gift of teshuvah that Hashem gave us, and may we grow to accomplish great things while simultaneously retaining the purity with which we began.

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Shaya Winiarz is a student of the Rabbinical Seminary of America (a.k.a. Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim). He is also a lecturer, columnist, and freelance writer. He can be reached for speaking engagements or freelance writing at shayawiniarz@gmail.com.