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Elul: Frustration or exhilaration?

This past Shabbat was Shabbat mevarchim, a time when we publicly announce that the month of Elul begins this coming week. When we hear the word, “Elul,” we think teshuva, or repentance. For some of us, thoughts of teshuva invoke feelings of exhilaration and inspiration. For some of us, thoughts of teshuva invoke feelings of dread and trepidation. For many of us, however, thoughts of teshuva invoke feelings of frustration. Here we are again. Another Elul. Last Elul we put in so much effort to do better and to be better and we offered heartfelt prayers to God to help us. Then we return to another Elul and we wonder if we were successful at all or whether all of our efforts were in vain. How do we deal with the frustration of not being entirely sure if we’ve actually succeeded in our teshuva efforts over the past year?

Rav Lichtenstein wrote an article where he distinguished between teshuva for the mediocre and mediocre teshuva. His thesis was that in the world of halacha, objective results are important, but effort has great religious significance. If someone engages in “mediocre teshuva,” then there is little emotional or spiritual exertion to succeed and to aspire to greater heights. This type of teshuva is seriously inadequate. However, if we are characterized as a beinoni, as someone who struggles religiously, and we try our best with our own talents and own powers, but the results are lacking, then our teshuva is wholly acceptable. For Rav Lichtenstein, the effort must be extraordinary even if the results are not and that is what God expects from us.

What, then, are the elements of extraordinary efforts for teshuva? Rav Soloveitchik identified two steps in this process. First, we must have the strength to accuse ourselves and that’s not always easy because we tend to always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and excuse our behavior. However, step number one is to have the courage to say that we need to be better. Step number two is that we have the confidence that we can be better. Perhaps the stringencies of the aseret ymei teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, such as only eating Pat Yisrael at this time even though we know that we won’t continue to do so afterwards, underscore this theme. Engaging in a stringency during this time expresses confidence to ourselves that we can be better and we can live a more meaningful life and it provides us with the confidence throughout the year to engage in extraordinary efforts for teshuva.

How will we know if we have been successful in the teshuva process during this time period? How will we know if what we did wasn’t simply a waste of time? How can we avoid the frustration that is often associated with this time period? I will answer this question with the following story. Each evening before he went to sleep, it was the custom of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to take a heshbon hanefesh, that is, to examine his thoughts and deeds for that day. If he found a blemish in them, he would say to himself, “Levi Yitzchak will not do that again.” Then he would chide himself, “Levi Yitzchak, you said the same thing yesterday.”  Then he would reply, “Yesterday, Levi Yitzchak did not speak the truth. Today he speaks the truth.”

If every morning when we wake up we resolve that our efforts will be extraordinary even if our results are mediocre and that we will follow Rav Soloveitchik’s two steps process of serious reflection and confidence, then, with the help of God, this time period will be characterized not as a time of frustration, but as a time of exhilaration and inspiration.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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