Elul is here. The Day of Judgment is coming. If our minds and hearts are awake, we should presently be thinking about how we can prepare ourselves for the big court case. As we all surely know, the avodah of Elul is teshuva. We will make no pretensions about trying to compress what needs to be said on that topic into 1,200 words. To learn that process one needs a Shaarei Teshuva and a rebbe. However, we will try to gain a Torah-true perspective that is specific to this time of year which will hopefully inspire us to take the next step of actually working on doing teshuva.
For those of you who follow this column regularly, you are already aware of our modus operandi of looking for hints in the tribes of Israel and in the mazalos. Since each month is aligned with a particular shevet and constellation, we can inform ourselves of the qualities of the month through them.
The mazel of Elul is Besulah – Virgo the Virgin. Let’s make the fair assumption that the maiden is the icon after whom we should model ourselves. What is special about a besulah? Well, we do find that our Sages use a besulah as the symbol of purity. She is the untouched maiden, pristine in her innocence. However, one could ask a fair question. Does Judaism really put chastity up on a pedestal? Other religions might view it as an ideal, but the Torah believes that while purity is commendable for a particular time and stage, it is appropriate and even praiseworthy to move on at a certain point. Nobody wants to remain a besulah her whole life. So what precisely is the message we are supposed to learn from the maiden?
Before we answer this question, let’s analyze Elul’s tribe – Gad. The Midrash describes that one of Gad’s unique qualities is that he was the only one of the shevatim to be born circumcised. Ostensibly, this fact would immediately catapult Gad to sainthood and make him a prime candidate for role model of the month. However, if we take a look at the Sefer HaChinuch’s understanding of the mitzvah of milah, we may be more hesitant. “(Why did Hashem make man incomplete [i.e. uncircumcised] in the womb? Is Hashem’s handiwork deficient?) The reason Hashem created man deficient is because He wanted the perfection to be made by the hand of man himself.” We see from the Sefer HaChinuch that there is a great benefit of being born without a milah. So is there really any lesson that we can learn from the alignment of the circumcised baby with the month of Elul?
In order to answer our questions let’s tell a little story. There was once a great sculptor who was world-renowned for his beautiful sculptures. From animal statuettes, to larger-than-life busts of historical figures, to intricate carvings of flowers, there was nothing he couldn’t make. His son wanted to join the business, but nothing he sculpted had the precision or exactitude that his father’s work contained. The boy asked his father “How do you produce such beautiful work, while I seem to be completely inept?” The sculptor explained “When you work, you try to carve the marble until it takes on the shape you desire. But I look inside the marble, and when I see the image that is trapped inside, I chip away at the blockages it until it is revealed.”
The nimshal is as follows. The definition of a human being is his soul. The neshama is hewn from beneath G-d’s holy throne and is replete with spiritual beauty and splendor. Each and every one of us is made in the image of Hashem and we consequently have innumerable holy traits. So why don’t people appear that way? Why do most people (ourselves included) seem to be base, materialistic, and self-centered? The answer is, our essence is covered over with all sorts of blockages. We have sunk into the ungodly world of self-service and done aveiros which create thick, dense barriers between us and our Creator. If we would only clear away these obstructions, our beautiful neshama would shine forth and cleave to Hashem in the most sublime fashion.
Now we can answer our earlier questions. It may be true that the besulah has yet to fulfill certain positive mitzvos. But the focus of Elul is not so much about building on our initial holiness as it is about restoring ourselves to that original level. Since Elul is the month of teshuvah, we must make the pure maiden our role model as we remind ourselves that we have a pristine beginning. Although we may not avoid life in our struggle to remain pure, we can always work to return to that initial purity with which we were all created.
By now we can answer what it is we should learn from Gad. Although it is true that we are enjoined to perfect ourselves, it is essential to recall that a human being already has some intrinsic perfection within his person. While there may indeed be a foreskin covering over our holy selves, it is only ever an appendage and not an intrinsic flaw. While we must indeed search for our flaws, we must also recognize that all we need is to scrape them away to reveal the godly image hovering beneath the surface.
Let’s sum it up as follows. Teshuva is often translated as “repentance.” This word has the connotation of feeling sorry, as it is related to the word “penitent.” However, a more accurate translation would be “returning to the original and rightful place” (as in hashavas aveida – returning a lost object to its original and rightful owner). When we say Elul is the month of teshuva, we mean that it is now the time to erase our sins so we can return the original and rightful level at which we began. Somewhere beneath all the grime there is a tzelem Elokim, and if we can keep our eye on the beautiful image within, we will be able to clean away the blockages until the image is revealed.