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Elul: Island of Refuge

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

There are many passages in the Torah that hint to the month of Elul. The Arizal cites the verse, “V’ha’elokim eena l’yado v’samti lecha makom.” Hashem arranged it should happen and gave you a place to run to safety. This is a reference to the cities of refuge, which sheltered unintentional murderers from avenging relatives. The first letters of the four words of this verse spell Elul. What is the connection between the arei miklot and Elul?


Parshat Shoftim usually ushers in Elul. The end of the parsha discusses the laws of egla arufa. What is the link between egla arufa and Elul?


Rav Brizel expounds the Gemara in Ketuvot. Rav Ami taught, one can keep a book of scriptures with errors only up to 30 days because it says, ‘Let not injustice dwell in your tent.’  There is a danger that a person may pick up the book and learn something incorrect. Similarly, the Mishna in Eilu Metziot says that if you find a scroll you must make sure to read it at least once in 30 days so that it doesn’t deteriorate.  


The Tiferet Shlomo says these halachot relate to all of us. In Bereishit the Torah says, “This is the book of the chronicles of man on the day Hashem made man, in the image of Hashem He made him.” We are all writing the book of our lives. Even more than we must check a book for errors, we must make sure the book of our lives is in proper order. If a person engages in introspection and teshuva he will receive the siyata dshmaya to avert evil decrees.


The Zohar states every new day is like a blank sheet of parchment and whatever we do is inscribed on it. When small segments of time end we are given the chance to rewrite our transcript before it becomes permanent. Each night, every Erev Shabbat and Erev Rosh Chodesh, are periods of soul searching. We are given the opportunity to deal with small chapters at a time rather than a large book at the end.


The Meshech Chochma in Netzavim writes that by nature we are born holy with straight middot. As we grow, negative habits set in. Ben Azai said, “Zeh sefer toldot adam.” Intrinsically everyone is connected to their sacred point of origin. With this realization we have to introspect, pinpoint the places where we’ve gone off course, and get back on track. The 40 days beginning in Elul and ending with Yom Kippur parallel the creation of a fetus. We have the potential to return to our point of origin, to who we can and should be.


When the Torah mentions the topic of egla arufah it refers to the dead person as a chalal, a vacuum, someone whose soul has been emptied out of its body. This depicts ourselves when we are empty and not living up to what we should be. Doing a soul accounting does not just mean looking at where we went wrong but getting to the root of evil.  It’s inspecting our toldot, our point of beginning and where in life we tripped off. Then we can proceed to correct it.


The Torah says that when Yaakov saw the wagons Yosef sent his spirits were revived. The Midrash says the word for wagon (agala) is similar to egla, a calf. The last section Yaakov learned with Yosef was egla arufah. Yaakov realized that Yosef was living the lesson he had taught him. He was busy introspecting, improving, and utilizing opportunities and that meant he was still alive. When a person can see what he did wrong and what opportunities he missed, he can utilize his awareness to prompt himself towards further growth.


Rav Wolbe says Elul is a time of reflection. We should take an hour a week to really think about ourselves. Elul is about entering into a city of refuge. It is time to gain the right perspective. We must see the emptiness in our lives and think how we can fill it and create opportunities for growth.  


Rav Wolfson teaches that the way we prepare for Shabbat affects our experience of Shabbat. The way we prepare for Elul affects the year.


May it be an Elul filled with spiritual growth, ascension, and fulfillment in avodat Hashem. May the year that follows be the same.

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