The Essence of the Month of Elul

Rav Itamar Shwarz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Download a number of Drashos on Elul

Elul – The Month of Maaseh\Action

With siyata d’shmaya, we are nearing the month of Elul, may it come upon us for good tidings. Let us try to understand a little, with the help of Hashem, the avodah upon us during these days, and hopefully we will each merit to also act upon these words, each on his own level.

Each month contains a special power that is connected to the particular time of the year that it is found in. The power of Elul is called maaseh, action. The power in man to “act” is especially manifest in Elul.

The Sages state (according to one opinion) that the world was created on the 25th of Elul. The Creation is called the “handiwork of Hashem”, His maaseh (action), thus the month of Elul is rooted in the original maaseh of Creation. Hashem revealed the power of His maaseh in Elul, so to speak; He “made” the heavens and the earth, which is all in terminology of “maaseh”.

When Elul arrives each year, the power of Hashem’s maaseh returns each year, as it were. Being that man has an avodah to resemble Hashem (as the Sages say, “Just as He is merciful, so should you be merciful; just as He is compassionate, so should you be compassionate”), there must also be a power of maaseh on man’s own level, in some small resemblance to Hashem’s power of maaseh. What exactly is that maaseh, though, that we must perform?

The Gemara says that “the purpose of Torah is teshuvah (repentance) and maasim tovim (good deeds).” The simple meaning of this is that these are two different things the Torah leads to: repenting, and good deeds. It seems as if these two matters bear no connection; simply speaking, if a person commits a bad deed, he must repent over it, and thereafter he must perform good deeds. But the depth of the matter is as follows.

When Hashem created the world, He made it over the course of six days. This was an utterly pure and holy action, but even more so, Hashem created it with His ten expressions; His dibbur (word). He said “Let there be light” and there was light. He told the heavens to be created, and they were created. All of Creation is thereby powered by His word. When people perform an action, we usually attribute it to ourselves, thinking that it is our hands which do things. Our hands are the symbol of human action. But the symbol of Hashem’s actions are His word, for it is His word which created each thing.

Elul are days of maaseh, but it is hard to understand how exactly these days are days of maaseh. The Tur says that Moshe Rabbeinu stood for 40 days to receive the Torah, and the first 30 days of this were in Elul. The 40th day was Yom Kippur. Where is the ‘action’ in these 30 days of receiving the Torah? Moshe stood there for 40 days to receive the Torah, but how was this “action”? In truth, however, it shows that Elul is both a time of action and a time of receiving Torah. It is just hard to understand how exactly it is a time of action. What we need to understand is that these days are of a different kind of action that the usual kind of “action” that we are familiar with.

This is a deep concept, so we will need to explain it very thoroughly.

Action\Building In Elul: Using Our Power of Speech In Selichos

The Gemara says that Torah scholars are called builders[1], for it is written, “And all your builders are those who learn [the Torah of] Hashem”. How is something built? The power to ‘build’ [in the spiritual dimension] is not like how we build physically, which is through our hands, but through speaking words of Torah. A Torah scholar spends his day speaking of Torah, and that is how he builds the world.

This power is also given to all of us as well: we can build and perform deeds, through our power of speech. Just as Hashem created the world through His word, so did He give us the power to build, through words.

Where do we see this kind of ‘building’ take place, though? In Elul and in the Ten Days of Repentance, we make heavy use of our power of speech. There is Selichos, where we repeatedly ask Hashem for mercy. This is surely connected with the fact that we must increase our good deeds during Elul; but we just need to understand what exactly the connection is.

The way we know the answer to this depends on knowing what our soul’s power of maaseh is. What does it really mean to ‘do’ something? In the spiritual dimension, how can we ‘do’ something? We can understand that our body ‘does’ something, but how does our soul “do” something? If we understand what it is, we can understand what the avodah of “maaseh” in in Elul, but if not, then perhaps we will be able to increase our good deeds in Elul, but we will not have succeeded in developing the soul’s power of maaseh.

Let us reflect into the soul’s power of maaseh. The body performs actions, and it is our words which execute actions. Man is called “nefesh chayah” (living spirit), and Targum translates this to mean “ruach memalelah”, a talking spirit; man’s power of speech is essentially his spiritual power to “do” things. Thus, our power of dibbur (speech) is the source of our power to perform deeds (maaseh).

To illustrate this [on a deeper level], a Torah scholar lives in the realm of Torah words. He is constantly accessing his spiritual power of maaseh. In contrast, someone who does not live in the realm of Torah is not making use of the spiritual power of maaseh; the only maaseh he performs are physical actions with his hands,

Being that dibbur (speech) is identified with man’s title of nefesh chayah (living spirit), dibbur\speech is the source of all our spiritual actions. In Elul where we use the power of dibbur a lot [through prayer and Selichos], we are thus involving ourselves in a dibbur that leads to maaseh; we are involved with a kind of dibbur that is all about maaseh. Soon we will explain what it is, but this is the outline of the concept.

Action Is About Completion

What exactly is the soul’s power of maaseh\action that is contained in the power of dibbur\speech?

The Gemara says that one should perform that which he says. Otherwise, he has not completed that which he spoke about. We can learn from here that an “action” implies the completion of something. [On a deeper level], the “world of action” we live in is the finalized and completed form of all the higher worlds which precede it. What we “do” here on this world is the last step of everything that emanates from the higher worlds; it all ends here. Hashem intentionally created an imperfect world – and it is “completed” in the world of action we live in. We were created imperfect, and it is our task to complete ourselves, here on this world, this world of action.

A person thinks, then he says what he is thinking, and then he acts upon what he says. The action is the final step of the thinking process; it is the final step of everything. So action is not just an action – it is the completed and final step of a process.

What is the soul’s power of maaseh, then? It is essentially the completion of the soul. Our body completes an action when it finishes “doing” some kind of labor or work, and our soul “does” something when it has completed its spiritual work on this world.

The Depth of Teshuvah: Uprooting The Reason To Sin

Let us try to understand a little more about the concept of maaseh.

Elul is the time where the world began (according to one opinion in the Sages, as mentioned earlier), but in the order of the months, it is the final month of the year. This shows the connection between Elul and maaseh: because Elul is the completion of the year. This is not because it is the ‘last month on the Jewish calendar’; it is the time of the year where our soul has finished its work for this past year.

Teshuvah (repentance) includes regret and confession, and the Ramban famously writes that Hashem knows what the person is really thinking as he does teshuvah, if he is earnest or not. The depth of his words is because teshuvah is about putting an end to the sinful action. If one continues to sin, his “action” continues, thus he has not reached completion. If one confesses the sin but he continues to sin, he has not yet ended his sinful action. He is missing his soul’s completion. But if he does teshuvah, that means he has put an end to the sinful action; he has reached completion.

Thus, the soul’s power of maaseh is to put an end to things; for one to place boundaries and limitations on himself that he will not cross.

Elul, the days of maaseh, are also days of teshuvah. The connection between these two facts lies in the understanding of the earlier-quoted statement of our Sages, “The purpose of Torah is teshuvah and good deeds”. It is because when we do proper teshuvah, we access the power of maaseh. The concept of teshuvah is thus connected to the soul’s power of maaseh, which is essentially the idea of putting and end to things, to place boundaries and limitations on any sinful acts which we were doing, so that the sinful actions won’t continue to spread any further.

There are some parts of the soul which do not need boundaries to be placed on them. The desire in our soul to learn Torah, to daven, and to do mitzvos are all holy desires, which should only be increased, not decreased. But there are parts to the soul which we need to place limitations on. That is the idea of teshuvah.

Teshuvah is about returning the soul after one has sinned, not just to stop sinning. In order to do teshuvah in which one will not return to the sin, it is not enough to do teshuvah over the act itself, but to do teshuvah over the reason that motivated the person to sin. Often we are used to doing teshuvah over the sinful act, but not over the reason that caused us to sin. For this reason, the teshuvah of many people does not last. The depth of teshuvah is to stop the particular aspect in the [external layer of the] soul that is being motivated to sin.

Whenever our Sages said their words, they were not speaking to our bodies. They were speaking to our souls. The language of the soul is different than the language that the body understands. Of course, our body is a factor; much of keeping Halachah affects our body, not just our souls. But teshuvah is about returning the soul, not just to stop sinning. When one sins, the action is no longer here, but the motivation to sin is still here. We aren’t supposed to do teshuvah just on the mere actions that we did; we are meant to do teshuvah on the motivations to sin, which remains on this world long after the sin is over. That is how we return our soul when we do teshuvah – and that is the depth of teshuvah.

To Feel Complete

Let’s attempt now to explain this in clearer terms. We will ask: Why does a person sin? What is the internal source in the person that causes a person to do the opposite of Hashem’s will, chas v’shalom?

In the blessing of Borei Nefashos, we say, “Borei Nefashos rabbos v’chesronam” –the Creator of many souls and their deficiencies.” A person sins when he feels deficient about something and he seeks to fill that deficiency. If he would feel filled, he would not seek to fill himself with anything from the outside, and he would never commit the sin.

Thus, we can now understand better how the depth of teshuvah is not merely about stopping to sin, but about uprooting the reason that caused the sin in the first place.

For example, if a person spoke lashon hora about someone, why did he speak lashon hora? He was jealous of him, or doesn’t like him. What is his teshuvah? To stop talking lashon hora about the person? Or to uproot his negative emotions towards him? The only reason why he spoke evil speech about the person was because he had an evil ‘eye’ towards the person. Every sin stems from some deficiency in the soul. That is where the main aspect of the teshuvah lies.

The main avodah of a person in doing teshuvah, besides for avoiding the sin, is to do “complete teshuvah” – to uproot the inner reason that caused one to sin. Incomplete teshuvah, by contrast, is to repent over the evil deed that was committed, without regretting the evil motivation that caused it. Teshuvah is therefore about returning the soul’s abilities to their pure source, after they had been used for evil.

For example, when a person steals 100 dollars, not only should he return the money; his teshuvah should be about regretting the desire he had to steal. If he would have been “happy with his lot” as the Sages teach, then he wouldn’t have come to steal. He only stole because he felt deficient about himself. Had he felt complete within himself, he never would have come to sin. The main part of the teshuvah is thus to return the soul from its deficient state into its original, complete state.

This is the meaning of “complete teshuvah” which we daven for in Shemoneh Esrei, and this is also the idea behind the soul’s power of maaseh.

Now we can understand better what the power of maaseh is. Maaseh is to feel complete and to feel that we lack for nothing; to feel complete within ourselves.

Of course, this is a power that needs to be used in its proper time and place. It does not mean that one should not have aspirations for holiness. If one learned a page of Gemara, he must certainly want to learn more pages of Gemara and he must not remain satisfied with the page of Gemara he learned. The power of maaseh, to feel complete, is only referring to being at peace from avoiding materialistic desires, not spiritual desires.

If a person is jealous of another person, if a person lusted after something, it was because he felt deficient about himself. The root of sin is always about some kind of deficiency the person felt. Thus the depth of teshuvah is to nullify the very desire for the sin, not just to regret the act of sin itself.

The days of Elul are called yemai ratzon, “days of will” – for it is the time to get in touch with our innermost will; to uproot the negative desires we have. This is what lays in the power of maaseh. When I don’t feel a necessity to pursue a desire, because I feel complete within myself, this is called maaseh – the “action” is complete.

The Deep Source of Teshuvah

This is a subtle and deep approach towards teshuvah. We all know we must do teshuvah, we all resolve to be better this year, but there is much more to teshuvah than this!

Chazal say that teshuvah was one of the things that existed already before Hashem created the world. Why was there a need for teshuvah if nothing was missing at that point from Creation and there was no possibility of sin? It is to show us that the level of “complete teshuvah” is only when one connects to his deep inner source which lacks nothing.

If we do not know this deep source of teshuvah, it is very hard to actually do teshuvah. We all know what teshuvah is, we all want to teshuvah, but if we do not understand the deep source that it comes from, we cannot really do teshuvah.

The Sages said (concerning physical action): “The eyes sees, the heart desires, and the actions complete.” Not only does the body complete and “do” action that begins in the eyes and the heart (this was said in the context of physical desire), but so does the soul contain the power to “do” actions that complete: by feeling complete within itself, with no need for anything else outside of it. In this way, a person will never feel deficient, and he will never come to sin.

On Rosh HaShanah, it is brought in Halacha that one must rejoice[2]. How can we rejoice on Rosh HaShanah, when Hashem is judging the world? It is because if one doesn’t rejoice on Rosh HaShanah, it is because he feels deficient. If he is incomplete, he cannot come to do real teshuvah.

So we must really know what teshuvah is about. Teshuvah is not only about regretting the sin and resolving not to sin again. The depth of teshuvah is to reach the deepest part of our soul, where we feel complete. When we feel that completion, we will find there that we have no desire to sin.

“One who is greater than his friend, has a greater yetzer hora than him.”[3] Why is this so? Compare this to a person who has a hundred dollars, who wants two hundred dollars. The more one has, the more he wants. But how indeed does one get rid of all his extraneous desires? By accessing the power of teshuvah that came before Creation. (In spirituality, we must aspire endlessly and always want more. But when it comes to materialistic desires, we must nullify all of these desires.)

That is complete teshuvah: to return to the deepest part of ourselves, where there are no desires. In that place in our soul we find the deeper power of teshuvah that has been around before Creation.

The teshuvah in Elul leads to Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the year; thus the teshuvah in Elul leads to a new beginning. It is not simply leaving this past year and entering the new year. It is about reaching an entirely new beginning.

Elul are days of maaseh. It is not about simply doing more good deeds, although that is also true that we must increase our goods. It is about reaching the completion of our soul, where we feel complete inside ourselves, where we are so attached in closeness to Hashem that we feel the greatest sense of completion from this.

Elul is depicted as “Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li” (“I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me”)– one who does not feel this in Elul cannot feel completion, and then he will be missing the true depth of teshuvah. But if one feels the meaning of “Dodi” (“my Beloved”) in Elul – that Hashem is our Beloved companion Who fills all of our life – this enables him to feel completion at this, and from that place in himself, he is spurred on to do “complete teshuvah”.

The Deep Source of Our Completion

Thus, we can now understand that “Torah scholars are called builders” in the sense that they build from a place of completion in themselves, not out of deficiency. They build the world through their words of Torah, and the Torah is complete; thus they are building the world from a complete source.

The more a person is attached in closeness with Hashem, he is connected to completion and perfection, and he lacks for nothing. It won’t be possible for him to sin, because there is no more reason that motivates him to sin. Of course, we are human and imperfect. But when one is close to Hashem, he receives a special spiritual light of completion, which makes him feel complete and doesn’t allow him to sin.

In the days of Elul and Yomim Noraim, we should know that these are not just days to increase Torah learning and to do more mitzvos, although that is certainly truthful to do; it is not the purpose. The purpose of these days is to enter the depth of this time, to enter the deepest part of our own souls, where our soul is connected to the reality of Hashem. It is a place in the soul which is attached to perfection, and when we connect to this place in our soul, we are connected to completion and perfection, and there is then no possibility of sin there, with the more we are connected to that place. It is there that we can do complete teshuvah.

In Conclusion

We ask Hashem in Shemoneh Esrei, “Return us, in complete repentance, before You.” To do teshuvah “before Hashem” is to do teshuvah and become closer to Hashem through it. If the teshuvah doesn’t bring one closer to Hashem from it, it is not “complete” teshuvah.

May the Creator merit us to reach this perfection in our souls and to connect ourselves to the reality of the Creator, and to do His will always, throughout every day of the year.

[1] Berachos 64a

[2] Tur: Orach Chaim 597:1

[3] Sukkah 52a