In Parashat Nitzavim, a Parashah which is crucial for our understanding of Chodesh Elul, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael, “Ki Karov Eilecha HaDavar, BePhicha U’Vilvavcha La’asoto,” “When the thing [Torah] is close to you, it is in your lips and your heart to perform it” (Devarim 30:14). Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik explains this Pasuk through the lens of the famous Gemara in Masechet Niddah (30b). The Gemara teaches that a baby is taught the entire Torah, only to forget all of it when it is born. Why would a baby need to study the entire Torah in order to ultimately forget it? Chazal learn from this Gemara that every Jew has an affinity for the Torah. Even if a person has never been exposed to it before, when he accepts the opportunity, he will be inspired with what the Torah has to offer, since he is a Jew at heart. It will not be something foreign, but something that he will inexplicably be familiar with. The Torah is not something that is hidden or distant from us; rather, it is something that is always in a Jewish mouth and heart.
For a Jew who is already devoted to Talmud Torah and the performance of Mitzvot or feels any type of connection to Judaism to the point where he or she is constantly thriving and progressing, then coming close to the Torah is an easy matter. But what about those who do not feel this connection even after trying time and again to become closer to Hashem?
Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah (3:4) describes the effect the blowing of the Shofar has on the individual. Rambam states that, “The sleepers shall awake from their slumber, those who have fallen asleep should arise from their drowsiness, they shall look within their dreams, do Teshuvah, and remember their Creator.” The lofty idealism presented by both the Rambam and Rav Soloveitchik must be explained further, especially given the many problems Jews face nowadays with this issue. How is it possible for someone to wake up if he believes that he has been sleeping for too long? How can one remember his Creator if he cannot see Him in the first place?
The Ba’al HaTanya explains in Likutei Torah (Devarim 32:1) that there are two stages of divine inspiration that manifest themselves during two portions of the calendar year. The first of these stages occurs during Chodesh Elul, the time of Teshuvah. This is the time where the source of divine inspiration comes from within the person himself. The key to beginning the process of awakening ourselves and facilitating a connection with Hashem is to walk beyond our limits and actively reach out to Him. It is imperative that we understand that our King always has been and will continue to wait for us, regardless of our previous actions. Closeness to Hashem and the Torah is not about Hashem pulling the individual closer, since He was there the whole time; rather, the individual must bring himself closer to God. The process of Teshuvah and the Pasuk of Ki Karov stress the value of a person and emphasize that God is right here—one just has to come closer to see it.
This Motza’ei Shabbat, Ashkenazim will join Sephardim in reciting Selichot until the end of Yom Kippur. In reviewing the year and looking back on our actions, we should not fall into a state of severe and utter despair on account of the mistakes we have made. At the end of the day, even despite these apparent mistakes, we must remember the things we did correctly and use them as a stepping-stone toward creating a relationship with Hashem. If we do so, there is hope for us to improve and to have a year with great Yir’at Shamayim and closeness to Hashem.