Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz: The Way We Were, The Way We Can Be


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yated new.jpgNochum, a seven-year-old boy from Lakewood, came to shul on Shabbos and was looking for the “lolly man.” The gentle soul who usually hands out lollypops to the children was nowhere to be found. The little boy returned to his father and told him that the lolly man wasn’t giving out lollies that day. “It can’t be,” the father said. “Go look for him again. Why wouldn’t he be giving out lollies for the kinderlach this Shabbos?”

With the innocence children are graced with, Nochum turned to his father and responded, “Maybe he doesn’t give out lollies in Elul!”

We have been hearing about the solemn importance of Chodesh Elul ever since we were children Nochum’s age. We hear about Elul kindling the special closeness between Klal Yisroel and Hashem – Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – yet how many of us take it truly to heart? How many of us consider the possibility that during Elul, the lolly man might think it appropriate to take a break?

With all that we read and hear and speak about Elul and teshuvah, somehow it doesn’t touch us deep down at our core. Many of us struggle to truly internalize the meaning of Elul and the Yemei Hadin. We seek inspiration, but come away unsatisfied. 

We don’t necessarily have to stretch back to our lollypop days for the feelings of inspiration we yearn for.

During the first night of selichos, I found myself thinking that people make a point of seeking out a good baal tefillah or chazzan for this auspicious night. They look for that special something that will put them in the mood of teshuvah. For me, that sensation came as everyone around me began saying Ashrei, and memories were triggered of the sounds of selichos night in the Philadelphia Yeshiva.

Actually, those sounds echo in my mind every year at the time of selichos and the Yomim Noraim. No matter where I am, as I say selichos and daven on the Yomim Noraim, I hear the voices of the roshei yeshiva and Bnei Torah thundering out those ageless words.

I hear the voices of my rabbeim – Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky davening for the amud and Rav Elya Svei – leading the chorus of response. I hear Rav Shmuel crying out, “Vaya’avor Hashem al ponov vayikroh,” in that beautiful, haunting yeshivishe nusach, and I hear Rav Elya shouting back the spine-tingling words, “Hashem Hashem Keil Rachum Vechanun.” Their tefillos are more moving and powerful than anything any professional chazzan can utter.

Though it is many years since I davened there, their voices are as fresh and poignant in my mind and on my heart as if I were standing there today.

I was but a small boy, 4’ 10″, barely three days after my bar mitzvah, when my parents drove me to Philadelphia. It was Elul zman. I had no idea what Elul was before I got there and I never experienced selichos or Rosh Hashanah like I did that year. Since leaving, it’s never been the same for me, as I’m sure is true for the many hundreds and thousands of talmidim of that yeshiva.

I came to shul on selichos night tired and weary, but when I began saying those eternal words and the melody played in my head, I shrugged off my fatigue. Suddenly, as those words came back to me, I got lost in their meaning and those petty worries and concerns that had been plaguing me were washed away.

I pray that I be transported back to that state of innocence when I had not yet sinned and all was so fresh, pure and holy to me.

Chadeish yomeinu k’kedem.

When we were young, we were more sensitive and more receptive spiritually. We were untainted by the cynicism that creeps up on us as we go through life. In order to trap us with sin, the Yeitzer Hara causes us to become jaded and dismissive of important messages. If we retained our youthful convictions and passion for the truth, we might heed those messages and seek to mend our ways.

The root of the word teshuvah means to return; we seek to return to the innocence of our childhood before we sinned. We attempt to return to the way we learned Torah in our younger years before we clogged our brains with narishkeiten that disturb our concentration and rob of us our childlike enthusiasm for learning. We cleanse ourselves from the chatoim which drag us down and defile us. We return ourselves to our original pristine state before sin made inroads. We return ourselves to the pure innocent beings we used to be.

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that Rosh Hashanah is the day on which Yosef was freed from the Mitzri jail and the day that marked the end of crushing slavery for the Jews in Miztrayim. Thus, in addition to being a day of judgment, Rosh Hashanah is also a day of redemption.

The redemptive power of the day also frees us in a spiritual sense, enabling us to break out of our shackles of sin. Cheit overwhelms us, plugs up our hearts and minds, and causes us to become sluggish. Chatoim not only cause us to sin more and remove our urge to do good. The chatoim we do cause illness, sickness and death. They are the reason we suffer so many hardships and tragedies.

Cheit leads to onshim, punishments, and by their very nature trigger disease and ill will between people.

Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, when we hear the shofar and engage in teshuvah, we are setting the wheels of our own personal geulah in motion. As we begin to purge ourselves of our sins, we are engaging in our own as’chalta d’geulah.

Chazal teach us that the sound of the shofar is “me’arbeiv haSoton,” it confounds the Soton. Rav Tzadok Hakohein explains that the Soton is confused when the shofar is blown, because the sound of the shofar kindles a Jew’s yiras Shomayim and the desire to do teshuvah. The Soton’s job is to cause man to sin. When the shofar is blown, he is thrown off balance and is distracted from carrying out his function.

As the Jewish people gather in shul and hear the stirring call of the shofar, the Soton fears that he will be put out of business.

Perhaps we can also say that the shofar is a symbol of the coming of Moshiach, for as the posuk states, “Vehaya bayom hahu yitoka b’shofar gadol,” on that great day that Moshiach will arrive, the shofar will be blown. [See Tosafos Rosh Hashanah 16b, s.v. Kidai.]

Additionally, the Rambam writes that Klal Yisroel will be redeemed by Moshiach through the merit of their having done teshuvah. When the Soton hears the shofar being blown, he is reminded of Moshiach and rushes to instigate the Jews to sin, in order to delay Moshiach’s arrival.

But if the call of the shofar has confounded the Soton, it has rallied the Jewish people. As the posuk states, the shofar awakens fear of Heaven in the Jewish soul, and feelings of remorse for one’s chatoim. Upon witnessing this process, the Soton becomes even more bewildered, for he knows that our teshuvah will hasten the redemption – and will ultimately seal his defeat. 

As we begin seriously getting ready for the Yom Hadin, we realize that we’ve been given a gift – a present from Above. We’ve been granted an opportunity, each on our own level, to make commitments to be better and make the coming year a fulfilling one.

We can seize the opportunity we’ve been given for reinvigoration and for a fresh start. It’s a priceless opportunity to gain renewed energy to overcome our complacent attitudes and the accompanying feelings of inadequacy and lethargy that grow more pervasive with time. 

Chadeish yomeinu k’kedem.

We beseech the Almighty not to let us fall into the lethargy of old age when everything is difficult. We say, “Ahl tashlicheinu l’eis ziknah, kichlos kocheinu al ta’azveinu;” keep us fresh and vibrant. Bring us back to the days of our youth when we were so innocent, enthusiastic, energetic, vigorous and full of spirit.

Let us pray that this year we merit a pure and complete teshuvah so that we will be blessed with a year of geulah and yeshuah together with all of Klal Yisroel. Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

© 2007 Yated Neeman.