The month of Elul has arrived. Since last Sunday in daily minyan we have heard the sound of the shofar. The shofar blowing this month is our wake up call. Another apt metaphor relates to spending time on the beach (something many of us did yesterday to bring in Shabbat). Sometimes the water gets choppy and there is an undertoe. The lifeguards tell the swimmers to come back in. During Elul, when we hear the sound of the shofar, it’s like a lifeguard calling to us that it’s time to come back in. It is time to begin the process of taking stock of ourselves and preparing for the New Year.
In this light, our Torah portion this week, Shofetim, contains a simple statement that speaks directly to this theme:
“You shall be whole-hearted with the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 18:13).
The context of this verse is a description not of things that create whole-heartedness with God, but things that detract from it. The text specifies use of divination, soothsaying, sorcery, consulting ghosts, necromancy or other attempts to use magic as a means either to determine God’s will or usurp it. According to the text, these actions are abominations that are done by the other nations and should not be imitated by Israel.
The text says to avoid all of these things in order to be whole-hearted with God. However, it does not give us any positive instructions here on what that entails. Therefore, I would like to examine some Hasidic statements that do explore what it means to be whole-hearted with God.
Pinhas of Koretz, an 18th century student of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, notes:
There are only two commandments in the Torah that must be performed “with the Lord your God.” One is “You shall be perfect with the Lord your God, while the other is “Walk humbly with your God.” The reason why the Torah stresses this in these two commandments is because in both it is very easy to fool others. A person can act as purely innocent, and yet be involved in all types of devilish schemes, or he or she can pose as the most humble of all people, while pride rages within. The Torah stresses that in both the cases God Himself, as it were, tests you, and while you may be able to fool others, you cannot fool Him.
Pinhas’s teaching closely parallels another famous Hasidic teaching by R. Simcha Bunim, an early 19th-century Chasidic master. He suggests that every person carry in his or her pockets two pieces of paper. On one should be written, “For my sake was the world created,” while the other should contain the words Abraham recited when calling upon God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: “I am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27).
Just as R. Pinhas teaches we can’t fool God, R. Simcha Bunim teaches we can’t fool ourselves, or at least we shouldn’t try. When we are honest with ourselves, we have a sense of wholeness that brings us closer to God.
Each paper should enter our minds at the appropriate time. When we are feeling arrogant, we grab hold of the paper bearing the words, “I am but dust and ashes.” Remember, it was none other than Abraham who said that, and we are certainly no greater than he.
On the other hand, during moments of despair, it is helpful to meditate on the words, “For my sake was the world created.” There is always some special mission in the world that any one of us has the ability to accomplish.
I would like to suggest a simple exercise. Print out the attached photo and separate take two discs. Place “I am but dust and ashes in your right hand. Place the other disc, “The world was created for me,” in your left hand. The left hand is regarded as the hand of receptivity and passivity. So, we put in each hand the message that may be opposite that hand’s natural inclination. Hold them in front of you and meditate for just a few moments on which message you need most in your life as you prepare to enter the new year. For some of us, we may strive for more assertiveness and others for more humility. The statement that you need more now, clutch it a little tighter and raise that hand a little higher. Close your eyes and reflect silently for a few moments on which of these values will help you in achieving wholeness with yourself and with God.
May the new month of Elul inspire us to examine our hearts so that we begin the new year Tamim im Adonai, whole-hearted with God.