Parashat Ki Tabo: Elul and Faith
We are all familiar with the notion that Elul is a time for introspection and self-assessment as we prepare for the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. However, we can perhaps gain new insight into the significance of Elul, and our obligation during this month, from a remarkable comment of the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909), in his work Ben Yehoyada (Berachot 61).
The Gemara there tells the famous and tragic story of Rabbi Akiba’s execution. Rabbi Akiba defied the Romans’ ban against teaching Torah, and was tortured to death. As the executioner tore off Rabbi Akiba’s skin with iron rakes, the Gemara relates, he explained to his student that he had waited his entire life to fulfill the Torah’s command to love G-d "with all your soul," and now he was fulfilling this Misva by avowing his unwavering, unlimited commitment to G-d, even as he was being killed.
The Ben Ish Hai comments that this conversation between Rabbi Akiba and his students could not have taken place as he was dying. At the moment his soul was departing, it is inconceivable that he could have been conversing this way with his students. Rather, the Ben Ish Hai writes, Rabbi Akiva was imprisoned during the month of Elul, and his execution took place on Yom Kippur. (This is why, incidentally, we recite the verse, "Or Zarua La’sadik U’le’yishreh Leb Simha" at the onset of Yom Kippur – because the last letters of the words of this verse spell "R Akiba.") He was tortured each and every day, by having his skin torn by iron rakes, and finally on Yom Kippur he was killed. And each time he was tortured, he told his students that He was fulfilling the command to serve G-d "with all your soul."
If so, then we arrive at a new understanding of what the month of Elul is about. This is a time to follow Rabbi Akiba’s example of faith, of trusting Hashem even during difficult times, of reinforcing our belief that everything He does is for the best, even if we cannot possibly see how.
The history of the month of Elul goes back to the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. On Rosh Hodesh Elul, Moshe ascended to the top of Mount Sinai one final time, to receive the second tablets, signaling the renewal of the covenant with the nation after their grievous sin. It was during this month that G-d revealed to Moshe the 13 "attributes of mercy," which of course stand at the center of our Selihot prayers during this month. Moreover, the Rabbis teach that during this period, Moshe was given the clearest understanding of G-d’s governance of the world ever revealed to a human being. He came closer than any person ever did to seeing how everything Hashem does is really good, how even the seemingly tragic events are, in fact, for the best. Significantly, this revelation took place during the month of Elul.
As we prepare for the new year, we generally compile in our minds a "wish list," a list of things we feel we lack in our lives and which we want for the coming year. We probably also have a list of complaints to G-d, of unfulfilled wishes, of things that happened during the previous year that caused us disappointment and angst. But Elul is actually the time to do just the opposite – to reinforce our faith that everything Hashem does is for the best. This is the month when Moshe was shown this very clearly, and the month when Rabbi Akiba showed us how to live with this belief. As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, we should be focused not only on our hopes for the new year, but also on our gratitude for the previous year, and on our faith in Hashem’s goodness which is always showered upon us, even when it is difficult to see.