By Daniel Keren
Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, Rav of Khal Ateres Yeshaya in Lakewood and grandson-in-law of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, spoke at the Irgun Shiurei Torah lecture series at the Bostoner Kollel in Flatbush on Rosh Chodesh about the importance of Chodesh Elul.
He began by asking “What happened that nobody [in America] today is afraid of Chodesh Elul.” He noted that less than a hundred years ago it used to be in Europe that when even a pashute Yid, a simple unlearned Jew heard that Elul had or was about to come, he would either sigh deeply or even cry. Most of these Yidden were unlike most frum Jews today in America incapable of learning the Gemora.
Where is Our Pachad of Hashem?
Today we take for granted making a siyim on a mesechta or even the entire Shas. But where is our pachad, fear of Hashem, especially in comparison to our forefathers in Europe not so long ago.
Rav Elazar Shach, zt”l, the world renowned rosh hayeshiva of Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak recalled when as a young yeshiva bochur he would on certain days of the week eat with a simple family in Slutsk. It happened that some members of the family began talking seemingly harmless words, certainly not forbidden lashon hora. Nevertheless the woman of the house cried out, “How can you speak like this when it’s Elul?”
An old woman in Lakewood once told Rabbi Cohen that when she was just a little girl she smiled and her father admonished her by asking how she could behave such when it was the serious month of Elul.
How Can We Be So Calm as We Come to the Awesome Day of Judgment?
On the other hand, Rabbi Cohen wondered out loud, How can we be so calm when we are coming to that awesome day of judgment in which our very lives for the coming year are being weighed in the balance whether for continued life or the opposite.
At least he suggested, can’t we at least try and tell the Abishter that we do feel bad that we are unable to be scared as our ancestors were who worried very much about the outcome of the judgment for them and their entire families.
Rabbi Cohen said part of the problem is that too many of us might recall that last year we didn’t quite get around to doing a real teshuvah before and even on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And obviously we are still around today. Some of us even had the zechus and pleasure of greeting new grandchildren who were born this past year. And many of us have continued to enjoy a good parnassa and nothing very terrible happened.
The reason for that, Rabbi Cohen explained, is that if Hashem would punish a sinner immediately for his transgressions, then we would lose that precious gift of bechirah, free will, for which we will receive great reward in Olam Habah for the righteous performance of Torah mitzvahs.
The Dreaded Machla is a Taste of Gehinom
Rav Shach asked why did Hakodesh Baruch Hu in recent times inflict upon so many Yidden the terrible machla, a disease that never before had been so prevalent in Europe before the War. The explanation was to give us today in the more politically freer and materialistically abundant societies the ability to gain a taste of Gehinom.
Rabbi Cohen declared that if one doesn’t begin to learn during the month of Elul at least for five minutes each day from Shaarei Teshuvah or some other mussar sefer about the importance of repenting from our sins and failure to perform mitzvahs properly, how can one expect to benefit from the advantages of the days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?
If you think that just by learning Gemora you are going to be spared from the punishments of Gehinom, you are making a great mistake. You have to learn seforim on teshuva in order to take advantage of the Asira Yemei Teshuvah.
In America [unlike the generations of our great grandparents who grew up in Europe] we are so comfortable that we just don’t worry [about being persecuted for being Jewish or] about suffering the punishments of Gehinom from Hakodesh Baruch Hu.
Many Valuable Ways for Us to Lessen or Eliminate the Punishments of Gehinom
There are still many valuable ways we can even in this comfortable galus we find ourselves living in gain merits to lessen or perhaps eliminate the horrors of Gehinom. Imagine that you find yourself caught having to listen to a shiur or a lecture by someone you don’t admire. If nevertheless, you behave properly and give kavod to the Torah learning in this manner, your act can be a kappora for your avonim, sins.
If you’re wife is late and you are really furious at her for making your waste your time, rather that enunciate your true feelings, think to yourself that you have to really thank your rebbetzin for giving you a precious kapporas avonim that will save you from some of the painful punishments of Gehinom that you otherwise be deserving, especially if you actually said some mean remark to your spouse. The same, of course, applies to the wife if she controls her temper when her husband acts not nicely.
So many frightening things are happening today. Hashem is waking us up big time, Rabbi Cohen emphasized. Thousand of dangerous and deadly rockets have been shot by our enemies against our brethren in Eretz Yisroel. And here in the United States, there are those terrible and life threatening “knock out” games against Yidden in Crown Heights by those who hate us. And now the United States Government is worrying about those terrible enemies that are promising to bring their war of devastating bloodshed to our shores and attack us brutally, civilians included. These are wake-up call from the Abishter, especially now as we are in the Chodesh Elul leading up to the awesome Yomim Noraim.
Learning the Secret from Shlomo Hamelech
Rav Shach said that we can learn from Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest man who ever lived. We know that there is an Abishter. Yet there is also the world at large that is so inviting with its many physical and material pleasures. The only way Shlomo teaches one can overcome and conquer the Yetzer Hora is to think about mishpat, judgment and consider the ravaging fires of Gehinom.
Every night, especially in this last month of Elul before the Yomim Noraim, we should make an effort to do a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual accounting of our day. Rabbi Cohen said for most of us it would be too difficult to reflect on the spiritual merits or failures of the complete day now ending at night. Instead reflect on your last Shemona Esrai in Maariv. What were your thoughts? Did you even have slight kavanahs on some of the words you recited?
A Yid doesn’t and mustn’t get depressed when things get tough. That according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, is just a cop out. Yes, you are allowed to become afraid of the Day of Judgment. But this fear should inspire you to act more meritoriously in order to deserve a better judgment.
Every day in Chodesh Elul, Rabbi Cohen suggested, one should take out a small notebook and write about one of the countless kindnesses that the Abishter is constantly doing for your benefit and that of your family. And in that spirit of gratitude that this exercise should generate, take upon yourself to do something extra for Hashem such as learning for an additional five minutes a day or with more enthusiasm or more dedicated efforts. And in this merit may everyone in Klal Yisroel be bentched with a chasima v’chasiva tova.