The previous portion, Eikev, begins this trend by alluding to the upcoming days of repentance in its first verse: “And it shall come to pass (eikev) if you listen to these judgments and keep and do them” (Deuteronomy 7:12). The word “eikev” also contains the Hebrew root for the words “heel” and “footsteps.” The heel, at the end of the body, represents the upcoming end of the year. If we listen carefully and are in tune with the change of the seasons and the inner dimensions of the Jewish calendar, we can already faintly hear in the distance the “footsteps” of a new year.
The portion of Re’eh begins: “See – I put before you this day a blessing and a curse. A blessing if you listen to the commandments of your God, which I command you this day; and a curse if you do not listen to the commandments of your God” (Deuteronomy 11:26). The Torah instructs people to keep their eyes wide open, to clearly examine the choices life presents them with, and to accept responsibility for the consequences of these choices. As we begin the month of Elul and start preparing for the Days of Awe we must do so fully aware of what is at stake.
The next portion, Shoftim, begins with the following words: “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all your gates” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Although this injunction clearly applies to society at large, Chassidic thought relates it to the private realm as well. At this time of year when introspection is called for, the Torah is reminding us to appoint internal judges and officers and to begin judging our own thoughts, speech, and action by appointing internal officers to enforce discipline and undertake pragmatic change when necessary. The “judges” are the soul forces within us that recognize the truth and provide us with a plan to change ourselves for the better, while the “officers” enforce discipline and spur us on, providing us with the fortitude necessary to truly improve ourselves.
In order to bring about change we need to be ready to go to “war,” to confront those internal stumbling blocks preventing us from advancing spiritually. Fundamental change does not come easily and only great determination will enable us to attain our personal goals. Therefore the next portion Ki Teitzei begins with the following injunction: “When you go forth in war against your enemy and God, your God, has delivered them into your hands….” (Deuteronomy 21:10). Here again, Chassidic thought transfers the commandment from the sociopolitical realm to the private one, emphasizing that on an individual level the enemy is the “evil inclination” and those character traits in need of rectification. When we make a real effort to confront our enemy, the evil inclination, then God comes to our aid.
Ki Teitzei, continues by discussing how to treat a beautiful woman, captured in the course of a war, whom one is strongly attracted to. The Torah explains how to deal with this situation and how a man can successfully control his physical desires in a holy way, and likewise, the possible consequences if he does not handle the situation in the purest of ways possible. On a personal level when we break the spell of complacency and confront our inner shortcomings there is always the possibility of success or failure. War is war, not fun and games. We must be aware and careful when capturing our internal enemies and be prepared to deal with the issues that come up in a sincere and realistic manner. When we do so in the name of true rectification, Divine assistance is forthcoming.
Even though the teshuvah process we are describing requires serious spiritual work, Chassidut reminds us not to lose sight of the fundamental sense of joy that should pervade all Divine service. Furthermore, it reminds us not to become so involved in the process that we lose sight of where we are heading. The next portion, Ki Tavo, reminds us of this by beginning with the following descriptive passage: “And it will be (vehayah) when you come into the Land which God, your God, gives you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 26:1). Our Sages have noted that when a book or Torah portion begins with the word “vehayah,” this signals great joy. The Jewish people’s greatest joy is entering and taking possession of the Promised Land. On a private level, this entering the Land, figuratively represents the great joy found in attaining one’s goals, especially when they are pure and holy. Chassidut teaches that we need to approach Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance with joy as well as with awe.
On the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we always read the portion of Nitzavim which begins with the stirring words, “And you are standing today, all of you, before God” (Deuteronomy 29:9). The Zohar states that this verse is actually referring to Rosh Hashanah. We can only stand before God on Rosh Hashanah with an undivided heart and a clear conscience if we maximize the opportunity provided by Elul. The portions leading up to the Days of Awe carefully instruct us in how to maximize these days and perform the essential spiritual work that must be undertaken. If we listen and internalize their messages, we fulfill the dictum of “living with the times” in its highest form.