Elul opens window to emunah, yir’at shamayim


Elul is the time to intensify and enhance righteous behavior in the individual and in society, thus creating an opening for emunah and yir’at shamayim

Elul is the time to intensify and enhance righteous behavior in the individual and in society, thus creating an opening for emunah and yir’at shamayim

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), is read near the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, the last month before Rosh Hashanah. It is viewed as a time to prepare oneself for the process of divine judgment, which begins on Rosh Hashanah and concludes on Yom Kippur.

Despite my excellent early Jewish education, I was fairly ignorant about the significance of Elul until the year I began my post-high school Jewish studies. It was then that a teacher introduced me to the Mussar movement, inspired by Israel Salanter, a charismatic, scholarly, creative Lithuanian rabbi in the second half of the 19th century. He found the religious condition of the Jews of his time to be deficient in several respects. For one thing, he was convinced that people were ignoring the ethical dimensions of our tradition and insisted that one had to be meticulous in his or her ethical behavior and devote extra caution to relationships with other people. He was also concerned with the lack of true faith, the absence of yir’at shamayim, fear of Heaven.

Thus, he developed a comprehensive methodology for achieving faith in the Almighty and formulated a program through which individuals could attain greater sensitivity to their own ethical behavior with regard to their spouses, friends, employers and employees, and neighbors, Jewish or otherwise. He placed special emphasis upon the month of Elul, when Jews approach the impending days of judgment; he realized that these waning days of the Jewish year represent the optimal time to focus on what we would call faith in G-d and one’s duties to our fellow man.


he teacher who inspired me to learn more about Rabbi Israel Salanter and to follow his rigorous program of religious and ethical self-improvement was Rabbi Zeidel Epstein, may he rest in peace. I will reserve a detailed description of this remarkable spiritual mentor for another venue. Suffice it to say that he was, for me and for my peers, a bridge to the lost world of the disciples and followers of Rabbi Salanter.

Rabbi Epstein had a long and distinguished teaching career, which began at the yeshiva I attended in New York and which culminated in the holy city of Jerusalem, where he passed away about ten years ago, at nearly 100 years old.

I was intrigued by one of the central teachings of Rabbi Salanter. For, you see, about the time that I was attending Rabbi Epstein’s lectures, I was also enrolled in a secular university and was taking a course in the philosophy of religion.

One of the questions we explored in that class was how to obtain religious faith. We studied a wide range of techniques ranging from meditation and contemplation to the proofs of the existence of G-d, which were popular even among traditional Jewish philosophers during the Middle Ages. It was then that I was first exposed to William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. We even experimented with methods of cultivating ecstatic mental states in order to directly apprehend the Divine.

Rabbi Salanter suggested a very different approach, one not found on the curriculum of the college course in which I was enrolled. Instead, he preached that the way to achieve emunah, faith, or to use the term he preferred, yir’at shamayim, fear of heaven, was to engage in moral behavior and character refinement.

He emphatically maintained that only when we improve our relationships with others do we begin to connect with G-d.

Permit me to attempt to illuminate Rabbi Salanter’s theory by referring to a passage from one of the literary works we studied in that class on the philosophy of religion. It was from the section entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In it, one of the brothers, Ivan, states that “if G-d is absent, then everything is permitted.” In other words, the basis of ethics and morality is the existence of G-d. Without G-d, there is no reason to be ethical or moral, and anarchy reigns in human life.

Ironically, Rabbi Salanter and the famous Russian novelist were exact contemporaries of each other, although it is doubtful that either of them knew of the other’s existence. But Ivan Karamazov’s words, if inverted, express Rabbi Salanter’s insight very well:

Instead of “If G-d is absent then everything is permitted” invert the words to read “If everything is permitted, then G-d is absent.” Meaning, G-d is absent in a society where men behave as if everything is permitted and there is no distinction between right and wrong. In such a society, it is futile to search for G-d and try to gain religious faith.

On the other hand, if a society acts in accordance with principles of right and wrong, and realizes that not everything is permitted, possibilities of faith in the divine open up. Belief in G-d depends upon righteous behavior.

• • •

Elul is the time to intensify and enhance righteous behavior in the individual and in society, thus creating an opening for emunah and yir’at shamayim. In the words of one of Rabbi Salanter’s disciples, “Emunah can only be achieved through tikkun hamidot (character development).”

This insight, seemingly so simple and direct yet philosophically so profound, is expressed in the wording of one particular phrase in this week’s Torah portion. The verse reads:

“Observe and understand (shamor v’shamata) all these matters that I command you; so that it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the L-rd your G-d” (Deuteronomy 12:28).

The commentator Ohr HaChaim wonders about the first part of this verse. Should it not read “understand and observe?” Why is the observation, the fulfillment, written before the need for understanding? Surely it would be preferable to first understand and only then to obey.

Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik, an ardent devotee of Rabbi Salanter’s movement who survived the Holocaust, wrote an essay entitled “Flawed Character Traits Weaken Faith,” which offers the following explanation of why we must first “do what is good and right in the sight of the L-rd” and only then understand Him:

“From this we gain the following guidance: in order for a person to achieve the precious quality of faith in the Almighty in his life, he cannot do so through intellectual inquiry. He must first rectify his ethical and moral conduct, laying down a foundation of good deeds and charitable acts, and then thereby develop a complete and strong faith.

“Only then can he understand the meaning of yir’at shamayim, only then will faith be revealed to him.”

As we advance from the advent of Elul to the High Holy Days, to the days of awe and judgment, we would do well to remember the teachings of the 19th century Rabbi Israel Salanter, and the teachings of those of his disciples, Rabbis Epstein and Zaitchik, who survived into the late 20th and even early 21st century.

We would do well to focus on character development and self-improvement in our ethical and moral conduct — for to the extent that we grow in our behavior to other persons, we will be granted strengthened faith and a more profound appreciation of the Ribbono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe.