Shoftim 5778

Elul: the month of refuge[1]

ואשר לא צדה והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה
If he didn’t plan to kill [his victim], but G-d caused it to happen, then I will provide for you a place for you [the killer] to find refuge[2]

We have now begun the period leading up to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This period is the entire month of Elul. There are many allusions to Elul and its significance throughout Tanach. One famous example is the verse אני לדודי ודודי לי, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me[3]. In Hebrew, the first letters spell the month of Elul. Another allusion is ומל יקוק אלקיך את לבבך ואת לבב זרעך, Hashem will remove the barrier in your heart and the heart of your offspring[4]. The first letters here as well spell Elul[5]. These allusions aren’t just cute discoveries. We can learn about different aspects of the month of Elul from the verses which allude to it. We see from the first allusion that during Elul there is a special relationship and closeness between us and Hashem. This comes from our desire to repent from our wrongdoings, and Hashem’s willingness to forgive us[6]. As well, during Elul any barriers between our innate desire to do good and our willingness to carry it out are weakened.

There’s an allusion to Elul from a topic that appears in this week’s parsha. The parsha discusses the dangers that face someone who accidentally killed another person[7]. The Torah is aware that the deceased’s relatives may take the law into their own hands, and murder the accidental killer. To protect this individual, the Torah mandates the establishment of six cities of refuge for them to flee. There, the deceased’s relatives can’t kill him. This mitzvah appears in different places throughout the Torah. In one instance[8], the Torah provides another allusion to the month of Elul. והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה. If G-d caused [the mishap] to happen, i.e. the killing was unintentional, then G-d provides a place for the killer to flee. The first letters of the words “caused it to happen”, and “I will provide for you”, spell Elul[9]. What can we learn about Elul from this seemingly random allusion?

The cities of refuge weren’t just average cities. It was where the Leviim lived. The entire city was full of scholars with outstanding character traits. One of the goals with sending the accidental killer to these cities was to also improve their behavior. Although the killing was an accident, there must be some reason this mishap happened to them[10]. Maybe this was a wakeup call to get them to become a better person. Perhaps they weren’t as careful as they could have been. There’s always room to improve. Being surrounded by these outstanding individuals was a guaranteed way to leave a lasting impression on them. However, this was only while the accidental killer remained in the city. If he left even momentarily, not only was he putting his life in danger, but he was weakening the influence others could have on them. This is why the Torah is stringent that they must stay in the city of refuge[11]. The exact same is with the month of Elul. It’s a month of refuge from all the things in our life which distract us from our purpose. It’s a chance to improve as individuals; to get a new lease on life. The lessons gained from Elul can be brought with us to the rest of the year. However, this is only accomplished by those who are fully in Elul. If someone is only haphazardly committed to improve, it’s like momentarily leaving the city of refuge. There won’t be lasting success.

However, this lesson is only learned from the second half of the allusion, which speaks about G-d giving us a city of refuge. The first half of the allusion describes that the killing was unintentional. It’s as if G-d caused it to happen. What does this teach us about Elul? One explanation is[12] that a person might think that this month is all a farce. Throughout the year a person naturally commits errors in judgement; they have slipups in their spirituality. Now, during this month of Elul, they’re going to be on their best behavior. Who are they fooling? This isn’t the real them…These are the thoughts that could go through someone’s mind. However, this allusion is teaching us that it’s the exact opposite: during this month, we are our real selves. The slipups throughout the year, weren’t really us. No Jew intrinsically wants to sin[13]. Looking back on our failures, we think: “How could I have done that? That wasn’t me”. This is just like the accidental killer of the Torah. His mishap is looked at as not his fault. It’s as if someone else caused it. We need to look at Elul as the opportunity to be our real selves. Hopefully then, we will have a better year than the previous.

Good Shabbos

 

[1] Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Reznick to parshas Shoftim in 5774

[2] Exodus 21:13, translation loosely based on The Living Torah ad. loc. For a different piece on this particular verse, see http://parshaponders.com/mishpatim-shekalim-5778

[3] Song of Songs 6:3. The last letters also have the numerical value of forty, corresponding to the forty days between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur

[4] Deuteronomy 30:6

[5] Mishnah Berurah 581:1. He presumably got this from the Abudraham Chapter 25 (Tefillas Rosh Hashanah), who quotes these allusions from the “Darshanim”. I only found earlier sources regarding the first allusion of אני לדודי ודודי לי, which are Rabbi Yehoshua ibn Shuaib at the end of parshas Shoftim, quoting a Midrash, and Derashos Maharach Ohr Zaruah § 32 (parshas Ha’azinu)

[6] Mishnah Berurah loc. cit. I saw this explanation in the Bach ad. loc. § 2, although it could come from an earlier source

[7] Deuteronomy 19:1-10

[8] Exodus loc. cit.

[9] Pri Etz Chaim Sha’ar Rosh Hashanah § 1, brought by the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:1. The latter also brings the previous two allusions, and provides a third one regarding sending gifts to friends (Esther 9:22).  He says the latter three allusions correspond to the three ways to annul a bad decree: (1) teshuvah / repentance (ומל יקוק), (2) tefillah / prayer (אני לדודי), and (3) tzedakah (gifts to friends). See the Unesaneh Sokef prayer in the Rosh Hashanah Machzor and Rosh Hashanah 16b

[10] See Rashi to Exodus loc. cit.

[11] Rabbi Reznick quoted this explanation of the cities of refuge from the Avnei Nezer

[12] Rabbi Reznick quoted this explanation from Rav Tzvi Mayer Zilberberg

[13] See Mishneh Torah Hilchos Gerushin 2:20