Elul: The Sheep, the Soldiers, and the Bridge
By Rabbi Yonah Burr
It is well known that in previous generations Elul was a time of trepidation. The fear of the upcoming judgement was palpable. It is told that when the Chazzan would merely announce the coming of Rosh Chodesh Elul, Rav Yisroel Salanter would almost faint from the thought of the Days of Awe.
Most of us are not on these lofty levels and we might even have trouble imagining what these great Tzaddikim could possibly fear. Clearly, though, those on a higher level more deeply understand their obligations and shortcomings.
What can we do to optimize our Yomim Noraim experience, ensuring that it be as meaningful as possible?
The Gemara in Meseches Rosh Hashana tells us that on Rosh Hashana we all pass before Hashem one by one - "כבני מרון". What does k’bnai maron mean?
The Gemara gives three parables:
Like sheep being counted for the tithe.
Like soldiers who pass in military formation.
Like a line of people waiting to cross a narrow bridge.
What is the deeper meaning of these parables?
A Practical Approach
Rav Yitzchak Blazzer from Petersburg, one of the prime disciples of Rav Yisroel Salanter, explained based on the teaching that that it is always best to stand on trial early in the day, before the attribute of strict justice intensifies. So how does one merit to be judged first? For this, the Gemara provides three criteria:
Sheep are counted one by one as they pass through the opening of the pen. The sheep that is strongest will push its way through by virtue of its sheer strength. So, too, the utterly righteous will ‘push’ their way first, by virtue of the strength of their deeds.
Soldiers, on the other hand, must blindly obey what their superiors command. They themselves do not always know why they are marching in any particular order. Likewise, at times it is beyond our comprehension why some people are judged favorably while others suffer.
Finally, there is the line of people waiting to cross the bridge. Who goes first? On what basis? There is no mandate or law. It is first come, first served. He who arrives first crosses first! We sometimes hear of the stories of people camping out early to be first in line to purchase the newest gadget, or to be first to view the newest entertainment.
The same applies to the awesome Days of Judgement. Whoever "arrives" first will be served first! Meaning -- those who prepare themselves early on, and use every day of Elul to mentally ready themselves, will have the privilege of being judged early, before the "intensity of the day" sets in. The preparation itself is the merit, and our efforts will be rewarded with an easier trial.
Elul is a time of closeness to Hashem. Hashem is waiting for us and ready to accept us with open arms! Let us utilize Hashem’s gift -- and show Him we want to be first in line!
May we all be inscribed in the book of life, health and happiness!
Have a wonderful Shabbos.