Elul is Ebbing Away
I suspect I am not alone in experiencing a rising panic at the thought that Elul is ebbing away and the necessary work of preparing for the Yamin Noraim has not yet begun. Rabbi Doniel Frank's How Can I Change For Heaven's Sake? begins with an even more frightening scenario. The narrator listens to the pre-Neilah drashah, in which the rabbi encourages his congregants to make "commitments" and "sincere confessions," as the gates of repentance are closing.
And it suddenly occurs to him that such confessions and commitments require "focused energy and lots of hard work," and that he has done neither. Filled with regret at having wasted the preceding forty days, he nevertheless comes to another frightening recognition: "I really have no idea how to change; I would not know what to do even if I could take the time to do it!"
He finds himself with nothing to offer Hashem, in return for another year's extension, other than a commitment to find a mentor who can offer him a practical plan to discover what most needs fixing in his life and a roadmap for integrating the desired changes into his actual behavior.
(Yes, I have mentioned Rabbi Frank's work before, but I did so in January before most of us were intensely focused on the necessity of improving our ways -- or at least feeling guilty about our failure to be so focused. At the time, I noted that the entire roadmap could be read in little more than an hour. And on account of the panic described in the opening sentence above, I reread How Can I Change for Heaven's Sake? this week.)
The roadmap is conveyed in the form of a series of meetings between the narrator and his wise mentor beginning Erev Rosh Hashanah and continuing to Erev Yom Kippur. At the first meeting, the mentor opens the Rambam's Hilchos Teshuva and asks the narrator to read the first halacha and identify the steps of teshuva. The narrator identifies three steps in the words of the Rambam: "Please G-d! I have sinned; I have transgressed; I have committed iniquity before You by doing such-and-such. And behold. I regret and am ashamed for what I have done. And I am committed never to repeat this act."
Those three steps that will be familiar to all Mishpacha readers: acknowledging wrongdoing and specifying its nature; expressing regret, and resolving not to repeat it. But the mentor insists that he has left out an important step hinted to in the Rambam's first two words: "Ana Hashem." As a further hint, he notes that the two days of Rosh Hashanah are also part of the Ten Days of Repentance, even though they contain no individual confessions or few mentions of sin.
The answer is that Rosh Hashanah establishes the fundamental pre-condition for the process of teshuva. Just as Chazal describe "Bereishis" as the first of the ten ma'amoros with which the world was created and "Anochi" as the first of the ten dibros, because they establish the basis for the other ma'amoros and dibros, respectively, so feeling a connection to Hashem is the prerequisite for teshuva. The Mabit famously defines teshuvah as the process of seeking to restore closeness to Hashem after the distancing caused by transgression.
To achieve that connection on Rosh Hashanah, the mentor instructs Rabbi Frank's narrator to "empty" himself of all thoughts, predispositions, of anything that distracts from the main purpose of the day – like flipping through one's Machzor to see how many pages are left – so that he can be fully "present" to let the words of the prayers and thoughts of the Creator and his desire for a close relationship with Him to penetrate him thoroughly.
IN TRUTH, DEVELOPING A G-D-CONSCIOUSNESS is the central challenge of our lives as religious Jews. As the Ramchal states in Derech Hashem (I:4:6), "the root of all Divine service consists of man turning constantly to his Creator, in order that he know and understand that he was created solely to cleave to his Creator." The achievement of that state is not guaranteed even by the most punctilious observance of mitzvos, or by thrice-daily davening, or even Torah study, though all are essential for deveikus.
One way of developing our G-d-consciousness is to recognize that the difficulties that we face in life are tests from Hashem. Dealing with struggling teenagers, for instance, strikes parents at their most sensitive and vulnerable points: their aspirations for their children and their own self-image. But, writes Rabbi Uri Zohar in the concluding paragraphs of his forthcoming English work on parenting such teenagers, parents must keep constantly in mind that what their children are going through is "not some kind of sad coincidence, but something planned from the six days of Creation, for as the Ramchal writes in Mesilas Yesharim (Chapter I), "to withstand tests" is one of the principle reasons for our existence in the world.
Sometimes what we view as a diversion or barrier to fulfilling our real purpose in life may in fact be our principal mission. Helping our wayward child connect to Hashem is one such example. Adopting such a perspective allows us to "remove" ourselves from the situation in all the ways that are counterproductive – e.g., worrying what the neighbors are thinking of us and our parenting – and focus exclusively on what our child needs.
Other times, if we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that our children's struggles are a reflection of struggles that we had, or still have, intensified by the process of yeridas hadoros. In such situations, the first step is to acknowledge that Hashem in His infinite mercy, has provided us, through our child's struggles, with an opportunity to correct our own faults. The development of our middos needed to deal with our child's situation is the means of doing so.
In any event, how we relate to struggling children is only an example, of the larger point. There is no time like the beginning of Selichos (for those of us of Ashkenazi ancestry) to devote real energy to thinking about Hashem and the kind of relationship with Him that we seek.
Rabbi Dovid Landesman, zt"l
I did not know Rabbi Dovid Landesman well enough to write a full appreciation. But I read enough of his writing at Cross-Currents and in a collection There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven to know that with his sudden passing Erev Shabbos parashas Shoftim deprived the world of a distinctive and important voice.
What I did not know, however, was what a remarkable mechanech he was over many decades in both Israel and the United States.
Reb Dovid was thoroughly rooted in the world of the yeshivos. He was sent from his native McKeesport (a suburb of Pittsburgh) to Torah Vodaath as a teenager. After marriage, he and his wife Nechama, the daughter of Rabbi Yitzchok Chinn, the rav of McKeesport, made aliyah. Reb Dovid learned for a number of years in Bais HaTalmud under Rabbi Berl Schwartzman.
He always was full of stories of his interactions with the Torah giants of his formative years in the United States: his rebbe Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, and the Satmar Rebbe.
But the yeshiva world of his youth was not that of Eretz Yisroel, where he lived most of his adult life. His was the world Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky, whose watchword was, "Men darf zein normal – Just be normal." Though Reb Dovid learned for many years in kollel and was a talmid chacham, he came from a world in which earning a parnassah was an accepted and normal part of life.
The Israeli chareidi world is very different. A rav whom I respect greatly told me recently, "Yonoson, the problem with you is that you see things in shades. But that doesn't go in Eretz Yisrael: Everything here is black and white." That was not Reb Dovid's world.
Although he was outside the Israeli chareidi mainstream, he was in no way estranged. He was extremely medakdek in all halachic matters, and would not tolerate anyone speaking dismissively of a gadol b'Torah's "chumros." He knew who he was, who the gedolim to whom he had been close were, and that knowledge gave him the confidence to remain independent without any bitterness.
That independence is likely what made him so effective with a wide variety of teenagers outside the chareidi mainstream: Sephardim in Rechasim, where he lived for over two decades, Russian-speaking teenagers in Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman's Migdal Ohr institutions; modern Orthodox high school kids as principal of YULA in Los Angeles; and in recent years with raw American kids in Israel for post-high school yeshiva studies.
A self-described "troublemaker" was cutting class early in his first year at YULA high school when he ran into Reb Dovid in the hallway. Reb Dovid greeted him and started chatting. An hour later, Reb Dovid looked at his watch and commented, "We are both going to get into trouble if we don't head back to where we belong."
In that hour, Reb Dovid won over that teenager by showing him that "he was genuinely interested in me, my opinions, and the things I cared about."
"He was willing to talk about anything, any time. No issues were off limits," that student remembered. He liked nothing better than stirring up the students in heated debate. Those classroom arguments, wrote one student, "made my brain hurt, but I loved it."
Aaron Katz, who was in the first class at YULA high school to have Rabbi Landesman as principal for four years, attests, "I know for a fact that every single member of our class had a personal relationship with [him]." Katz spent every single Shalosh Seudos his senior year at the Landesman's, and he learned with Rabbi Landesman for four summers after graduating. When he and his wife later moved close to the Landesmans in Ramat Beit Shemesh, the Reb Dovid's first questions were: "Can I take you shopping at the local supermarket?" and "When do we start learning?"
The breadth of his Torah knowledge gave him a wealth of tools with which to connect. He taught Jewish history, and besides his two volumes of essays produced a series of seforim on TaNaCh, several books to help those just entering the world of Gemara learning, co-authored a biography of Rabbi Yosef Breuer, and translated Rabbi Eliyahu KiTov's monumental Book of our Heritage and the Netziv's commentary on Shir Hashirim.
He was comfortable with every Jew, from whatever camp, without being confined to any. Such Jews are a disappearing breed, and he will be deeply missed by his large family, hundreds of students around the globe, and thousands who knew him from his many essays.