Chodesh Tov everyone! As of today, we start the big push towards the High Holidays. Can you believe it? Seems like only yesterday I was nervously wondering whether I should be shaking elbows at my festive Purim meal. Little did I know, I would be celebrating a solitary Passover, then a solitary Shavuos, and I certainly wasn’t expecting an outdoor, socially distanced, Rosh Hashanah! But here we are, at the outset of Elul, the month of preparation for the holiest time of the year.
Elul is really special for me as I’ve written about in previous years. It’s a window when Hashem makes his presence felt more and more, and from that He assists us in whatever ways we want to self improve. Though we all have no shortage of things to improve upon, (if you don’t just know, ask your friends or your parents) this week’s parsha Shoftim, gives a crucial recommendation of what that focus could be.
Just a heads up, this post is pretty much plagiarized from Rabbi Noach Light’s Shoftim lecture from last year. Please listen to the original because it is much better.
When It Is Okay to Chicken Out
At the beginning of chapter 20, the book of Devarim starts detailing mitzvahs concerning war. Within these verses the Torah commands no less than three times to not be afraid.
When you go to war against your enemy, and you see horse and chariot, people who outnumber you, do not be afraid of them for Hashem, your God is with you. (Devarim 20:1)
Then the kohein (priest) will say, Do not be faint hearted, or intimidated, and do not panic, and do not be crushed before them… (Devarim 20:3)
Then the officers speak to the soldiers and list off people who can leave battle due to obligations (1st year marriage, having planted a vineyard, etc) and it ends that section with Whoever is afraid or faint hearted, let him go and return home and let him not destroy the resolve of his brothers like his own resolve. (Devarim 20:8)
The Torah is going out of its way to make sure that the army has such good morale that it commands us to leave the battlefield if that morale is threatened! Wouldn’t anyone be terrified in war? Do you think half the men on D-Day could have met this standard? And as inspiring as the scripture is, most of us are lucky enough to not have to fight a war, so is this even important for us to know?
Everyday is War
The ultimate Jewish self-help text (aside from the Torah itself) is a book known as Mesillas Yesharim, or in English, The Path of the Just. It’s a step by step guide to how one overcomes their character flaws and ultimately becomes as holy as humanly possible. In its first chapter, the author (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto aka the Ramchal) details mankind’s purpose on this Earth, that is, to become as close to Hashem as possible. But then he says this…
The Holy One, blessed be He has placed man in circumstances where many factors can distance him from God… The result is that one really finds himself planted in the midst of a fierce battle. For everything in this world, whether for good or bad, there is a test… If he is valiant and wins a total victory in this war, he will have perfected himself and he will be able to cleave to his Creator.
What the Ramchal is saying, in no uncertain terms, is that virtually every moment, on some level, is a test of war with our yetzer hara (the evil inclination). If we take him at his meaning, then we can understand how the verse from Devarim is now applicable to us. However, what does this mean about fear? Are we never allowed to be afraid? The parsha tells us if we are, we should go home. I guess I should continue this Covid quarantine indefinitely!
Obviously, that’s not the Torah’s point. In Rabbi Light’s lecture, he uses an example. Let’s say you are in a packed elevator on the 60th floor and suddenly the car comes to a screeching halt. If the passengers are able to keep calm, there may be some murmurs of dissatisfaction, but soon enough everyone will be fine. If, on the other hand, someone warns that the air will run out after not long, then another person worries they’re beyond the weight limit and that the elevator is moments from crashing to the basement… before you know it there will be a full blown panic. His point: emotions are infectious. The rabbi’s specific words are “emotional contagion.”
We all understand this on some level. Likely you know someone who is always mad or angry, or almost seems to be looking for a reason to complain. Just being around this person can make your mood plummet. When they freak out, you freak out. However, there are other people who have a calm demeanor no matter how drastic or unexpectedly crazy things get. They never seem to lose their centered, grounded control on the situation, and some of them are able to juggle all the insanity with a smile on their face. When you’re around those people, you can’t help but feel their security. And their smile finds its way onto your lips.
The Most Powerful Arsenal
When the rabbis talk about might, they use the Hebrew word, gevurah. But the rabbis are clear; they’re not talking about how many weapons you have or how much you can bench press. They say emphatically that power comes from self control. Mastering your emotions is the core of gevurah. But how do we do that? Rabbi Light mentions two tools, and I have a third.
The skill of mindfulness has become a very popular notion in recent years. It is defined as the practice of paying attention in the present moment, and doing it intentionally and with non-judgment. But the way Rabbi Light puts it is that we can recognize that our feelings don’t have to be us. Where one might say, “I am angry,” someone practicing mindfulness would say, “I feel angry.” There is a tremendous difference. One equates yourself with the feeling. The other creates a distance between yourself and the emotion as if it were from a 3rd party perspective. From this shift alone we can start to analyze what caused the feeling and we can identify that letting the feeling continue is a choice.
- Victim or Captain
You’re going to feel the feelings. You can’t stop that. But you can recognize that there is a choice between being at the mercy of the feelings or letting the feelings serve you. When things aren’t going our way, we can make the decision to be a victim to the circumstances and moods around us. But if we make the decision to rise above those set backs, we can change the tide.
- Bitachon – It’s happening for a reason.
In the quoted section above from the Mesillias Yesharim, the thought might have occurred to you, “Why is God going to throw me into all these tests to get close to Him?” It seems rather abusive. However, what God is trying to do is instill in each and every one of us a character trait that we will tap into by default when we are tested. But in order to get there, we have to see these tests as opportunities opposed to irksome frustrations. That’s what bitachon, trust in Hashem, is all about.
No Victories In Isolation
Now we can understand why the Torah would prefer to have the fearful go home rather than infect instability among ranks. But clearly the real battle is at the store, at work, and most importantly, in the home where our emotions are tested incessantly. If we are able to master our emotions, it can result in optimism, accomplishment, appreciation, and bliss. That will be a beacon to others. But to allow the negativity of the world to permeate our lives and fester, it will corrode our heart, mind, and soul. Are you going to be the beacon, or are you going to be the victim? It’s certainly a battle to get there. But every effort makes a difference. And during Elul, Hashem is here for us, helping us a little more. Which emotion are you going to have be contagious?