By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
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 of the year before Rosh Hashanah. It is viewed as a time to prepare oneself for the process of divine judgment.
I became aware of the significance of Elul during my post-high school Jewish studies. It was then that a teacher, Rabbi Zeidel Epstein zt”l, introduced me to a spiritual approach known as the Mussar movement, which was inspired by a charismatic, scholarly Lithuanian rabbi in the mid-19th century namedIsrael Salanter. He was convinced that people were ignoring the ethical dimensions of our tradition. He insisted that one had to be very meticulous in one’s 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, true “fear of heaven.” He also formulated a program through which individuals could attain greater sensitivity to their own ethical behavior with regard to other people, Jewish or otherwise. He placed special emphasis upon the month of Elul, when Jews approach the impending days of judgment; he realized that these days of the Jewish year represent the optimal time to focus on what we would call faith in God and one’s duties to his fellow man.
Rabbi Salanter suggested that to achieve emunah, faith – or to use the term he preferred, yir’at shamayim, fear of heaven – one must engage in moral behavior and character refinement. He maintained that only when we improve our relationships with others do we begin to connect with God.
To illuminate Rabbi Salanter’s theory I refer to a passage from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In it, one of the brothers, Ivan, states that “if God is absent, then everything is permitted.” In other words, without God, there is no reason to be ethical or moral, and anarchy reigns in human life. But Ivan Karamazov’s words, if inverted, express Rabbi Salanter’s insight very well: Instead of “If God is absent then everything is permitted” invert the words to read “If everything is permitted, then God is absent.” Meaning, God is absent in a society where men behave as if everything is permitted and there is no distinction between right and wrong. 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 God 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 (faith) can only be achieved through tikkun hamidot (character development).”
This insight is expressed in the wording of one particular phrase in this week’s Torah portion: “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 Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 12:28).
The commentator Ohr HaChaim wonders about the first part of this verse. Should it not read “understand and observe?” Surely it would be preferable to first understand and only then to obey. Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik, a devotee of Rabbi Salanter’s movement, 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 Lord” 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.