The holy month of Elul is upon us once again. The Chassidic masters taught that this is the month when the Gates of Heaven are open to our prayers more than any other time of year, and we have the capacity to bring down blessings of peace and plentitude into the Lower Worlds. This is the month of t’shuva–correction of our “animal soul,” and eventual sublimation into a new, hereto unexplored reality. We’re promised that if we only hearken to the words of G-d and His holy Torah–if we listen closely to the world around us and glean its truth, we will merit abundance not only in this world but in the World to Come.

Women saying prayers over Shabbat candles:

Women saying prayers over Shabbat candles:

T’shuva, Spiritual Correction, Physical and Spiritual Ascent

For many of us, our soul’s correction passes through a burning furnace. We face trials and tribulations every step of the way. Those who did not grow up in a Torah environment sujourn on an adventure (perhaps “adventure” isn’t the right term as our path towards a new, better reality involves much suffering) similar to that of our Forefather Avraham when he leaves his “native land, (his) home and (his) father’s house to a land that (I) shall show you.” We’re leaving our pasts behind and making a physical ascent to the Promised Land–a higher, more pure reality closer to the Source of all Being.

We need to not only grasp the difference between “right” and “wrong,” but also internalize the idea that every one of our actions brings us either closer to the Creator or draws us away. We need to strive to emulate Him by not only following his mitzvot, (commandments) but also setting an example for others with our behavior. We need to lead by doing what’s right–this is what being the “Chosen People” is all about: we are considered “Chosen” not because we’re superior to anyone else, but because we were “chosen” by the Almighty to spread His message in the world.

A finite existence

Even when Gentiles or Jews who are cut off from mitzvah observance ponder life on a very basic level, they realize we’re finite beings who don’t always control our destinies. Life is extremely unstable. We’re healthy and happy one day–mired in depression and medical problems the next. We have wealth and what appears to be stability, but before we know it, life takes a turn for the worst. We are flesh and bones. We all leave this world as suddenly as we arrive. This world is but a corridor; a narrow bridge to the World to Come.

This is why we need to set priorities and learn to differentiate between those things that truly matter and the rest–minor details that get left out when we start seeing the “bigger picture.” Is your tasty meal going to stay with you when all’s said and done? Are people going to praise your “trophy wife” at your funeral or will they recount how you were kind to strangers and donated to charity? What really matters and what is just “background noise?”

The purpose of life

Strangely enough, the greatest purpose of Creation was to allow man to reap pleasure from life. But what kind of “pleasure” are we talking about here? If we internalize the point that we’re finite creatures here to do the bidding of our Creator, we will come to the conclusion that our mission is about enjoying our connection to G-d. We’ll enjoy getting up in the mornings to utter praise to Him who allowed us to see another day, we’ll enjoy delving into the secrets of the Torah–secrets not easily available to just anyone but within reach of those who make an attempt to truly get to know and understand the “bigger picture.” We’ll begin to value the “little things:” the chirping of birds, the breeze upon our face, the voice of a dear friend…the simple pleasures of life. We’ll become grateful for being here rather than wanting more. And eventually, we’ll learn to lead a healthy life; a life of meaning.

The process begins when we learn to separate the “yikar” from the “tafel“: the essential from the trivial. Physical pleasure is important only in so far as it’s done right and leads to greater results. We utter a blessing before commencing on an act of physical pleasure–before tasting a fruit or witnessing the strike of lightning. We do so in order to elevate the profane; to connect between the physical and spiritual realms of existence.

Man’s place in the world

Man’s place in this world is ambiguous. On the one hand, we’re physical creatures mired in physical needs and bodily urges. On the other, we’re unlike any other creation in that we have the capacity to reason. We’re essentially “stuck” between the world of angels who serve the Creator with one specific mission in mind, and the world of plants and animals who serve the purpose of allowing us to elevate them to higher spiritual levels. Man has the greatest capacity of all creatures in all worlds because we can change the very essence of Creation with our thoughts and actions. And any given individual has the capacity to change the Universe, bringing salvation to all mankind.

Our place in the world order is unique in that we are the only ones in a gigantic selection of living beings that can affect the course of history. As we head towards a new year and a clean slate, let’s try to internalize the lessons the Almighty has provided for His People. Let’s live our lives with a greater purpose and realize our mission to be a “Holy nation, a kingdom of priests.”