The new month of Elul begins on Wednesday evening, August 19th. During this month, we prepare for Rosh Hashana – the New Year – which is only four weeks away. This is a season of “teshuvah” – spiritual return; thus, during Ellul, it is customary to blow the shofar at the end of the weekday morning service. The sound of the shofar serves as a reminder to all of us to begin the journey “home” – to our Creator, to our own souls that were created in the image of the Creator, and to the Torah path of our Creator which enables us to fulfill the life-giving purpose of the Divine creation.
The sound of the shofar is a wake-up call, and it is not just a wake-up call to become aware of our personal and collective weaknesses which are preventing us from fulfilling our mission on this earth. The sound of the shofar is to also serve as a wake-up call to become aware of our personal and collective strengths which can enable us to fulfill our mission on earth, as individuals and as a people. In this spirit, I will share with you the following teaching of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, a leading sage of the 19th century who emphasized the formal study of “Mussar” – Torah teachings regarding ethics and character development:
It is sad if a person does not know his weaknesses, but far more tragic is the failure to recognize one’s strengths, for those strengths are the primary tools of one’s Divine service.
You all have special strengths which are valuable tools in your Divine service. In this letter, I would like to mention two special strengths which relate to our Torah study program, Hazon – Our Universal Vision. The first strength I would like to mention is your universal spiritual concern. You have chosen to explore the universal vision of the Torah, as well as the path of the Torah which enables us to fulfill this universal vision. In other words, you are not just interested in the redemption of your own individual souls; you are also interested in the redemption of all Israel, all humankind, and all creation! This universal concern strengthens your ability to understand the universal goal of the Torah, as well as our universal role as the people of the Torah.
A second strength is your willingness to explore an “eternal” vision. In order to better understand this strength, I would like to review the following teaching from the Mishnah which we cited in an earlier letter of this series, titled, “The Secret of Lasting Love”:
“Any love that depends on a temporary cause will cease when the cause is no longer there; but if it does not depend on a temporary cause, it will never cease.” (Pirkei Avos, 5:16, Siddur edition – translation of Rav Ovadiah M’Barternra)
Maimonides, in his commentary on the above teaching, states that if the cause of a love has a Divine reason, it is impossible that such a love should not last, because its cause has eternal existence. If we apply this insight to our vision, we can state the following truth:
“Any vision that depends on a temporary cause will cease when the cause is no longer there; but if it does not depend on a temporary cause, it will never cease.”
A dear friend of mine who was active in the influential Labor Zionist division of the World Zionist Organization shared with me the following insight: The main vision of the secular-dominated World Zionist Organization was to establish a state for the Jewish people in the Land of Zion. This vision was a source of inspiration for all those who struggled to achieve this goal; moreover, this vision gave the diverse factions within the W.Z.O. a unifying goal. Once the State was established, however, the W.Z.O. failed to develop a new vision which would inspire and unify the people, especially the new generation which did not participate in the struggle for the State. As I discussed with my friend and others, the lack of a meaningful vision is the major reason why a growing number of young Israeli Jews from a secular background are spiritually searching.
You, my friends, are not limited by a temporary vision, for you have chosen to connect to the eternal vision of the Eternal One. Through this process, you strengthen your own connection to eternity, and there is no greater strength than a spiritual strength which lasts forever.
Our tradition encourages the asking of questions in order to increase our understanding and wisdom; thus, the following question can be raised regarding the above comments:
Is not the universal vision of the Torah also a “temporary” vision? For example, will not this vision be fulfilled in the messianic age? If so, then what will inspire and unify our people during this new age?
The beginning of an answer can be found in the following Divine message regarding the messianic age:
“They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem as water covering the sea bed.” (Isaiah 11:9)
As Maimonides indicates in his Mishneh Torah, this refers to the beginning of an ongoing process of spiritual enlightenment, and he writes:
“The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know Hashem.” (The Laws of Kings 12:5)
Hashem, the Compassionate and life-Giving One, is the Infinite One; thus, the process of knowing Hashem is an ongoing process. In fact, the enlightenment of the messianic age will bring new prophecies and visions, as Hashem proclaimed to our people:
“And it will happen afterwards that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy; your elders will dream prophetic dreams, and your youth will see prophetic visions.” (Joel 3:1)
I will conclude this letter with a related teaching from the Mishnah regarding the ongoing study of Torah – the eternal Divine wisdom. According to some of the commentaries, the great sage who cites this teaching was a convert to Judaism:
“Ben Baag Baag says: Occupy yourself with it over and over again, for everything is in it, and through it, you will envision.” (Pirkei Avos 5:26 – Siddur edition)
“Occupy yourself with it over and over again.” – As Rashi explains, the ongoing involvement in the study of Torah leads to new insights. A similar idea is expressed in the commentary of the Vilna Gaon, and he refers us to the following parable in the Book of Proverbs which poetically describes the benefits of ongoing Torah study:
“Her breasts will always sate you” (Proverbs 5:19).
The Talmud explains this parable in the following manner: Through the ongoing study and review of Torah, one will gain nurturing new insights. (Eruvin 54b – See the commentary of the Maharsha.)
The above Mishnah from Pirkei Avos also states: “Everything is in it.” One possible explanation is that Torah relates to all areas of our existence, for Torah is “a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18); thus, one can find within the Torah Divine guidance for every area of life!
In addition, the above Mishnah states: “And through it, you will envision.” As the commentary of the Vilna Gaon on this phrase reminds us, “Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23). The Torah provides us with an ongoing vision which lights up the darkness and enables us to find the path of life. If we allow ourselves to be guided by this ongoing, light-giving vision, then all humankind will be inspired by our example. This idea is expressed in the following prophecy of comfort to the people of Zion regarding the dawn of the messianic age:
“For, behold! Darkness will cover the earth, and a thick cloud the kingdoms; but upon you Hashem will shine, and His glory will be seen upon you. Nations will walk by your light, and sovereigns by the brilliance of your shine.” (Isaiah 60:2,3)
Have a Good and Comforting Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen