News as Mussar

Elul’s here, and that means two things: Our children are returning to yeshivah, to their learning, their chavrusos, their beloved rebbeim, and the rest of us begin the countdown to Rosh Hashanah.

Ideally, we’d all like to join our sons in returning to yeshivah, for at least this month. Reb Elchanan Wasserman used to return to Radin to be with the Chofetz Chaim for Elul. But inspiration and mussar can be found everywhere, even in mundane news stories.

Last week, for instance, a newscaster on Israel Radio couldn’t contain his excitement as he reported on a local swimmer competing in Europe who had shaved half a second off his previous record. At first glance, those of us who don’t follow such competitions can’t understand the big deal being made over half a second. But it is a big deal — not in the trivial matter of swimming competitions but in the context of life.

The half-seconds add up. And when we waste one of them and then another and another, we give up significant portions of our lives. Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, who was known to be meticulous about punctuality, used to say that people who were constantly late or wasting time were committing suicide in installments.

We can learn something from competitive swimming: That every fraction of a second is significant and important.

We live in an era when the temptation to waste time is greater than ever. Once, people worked from dawn to dusk just to put bread on the table, and recreation, as we know it today, didn’t exist. Then people worked 9 to 5 and began facing the challenges posed by leisure time. But once they made the decision not to bring “the box” into their living room — a decision that took strength and conviction — they had gone a long way toward winning the battle.

Today, technology makes wasting time easier and more tempting than ever. It can happen at work — which of course involves serious issues of stealing from our employers — in transit, at home, everywhere and anywhere. Putting aside the devastating spiritual dangers posed by these technologies, there is the element of wasting enormous amounts of time that could be put to learning and other pursuits that advance our goals as frum Jews.

Another news story with a message comes from last week’s business pages. Sodastream, an Israeli company that makes products that transform tap water into carbonated soft drinks, announced that its second-quarter net income jumped 36 percent.

The company is generating lots of excitement among investors because it’s showing growth. On the other hand, a company that is worth 10 times as much, but not showing growth, or is even earning less than the previous year, disappoints shareholders and scares away investors.

In other words, it isn’t necessarily how much money you made, but whether you’re on a trajectory of growth.

Applying this lesson to our spiritual holdings, the question has to be not how much we are (l)earning, for instance, but how much more than last Elul? This attitude is key to overcoming the complacency that keeps us from growing spiritually. It isn’t enough to be doing better than most of the Jewish world; we have to be doing better than our selves of a year ago.

And if we conclude that it is impossible to increase our learning because there’s no time, then perhaps we need to go back to the swimmer’s lesson and ask ourselves if we are taking maximum advantage of the half-seconds in our day.

Elul is the time to reevaluate whether we are leading our lives in a way that allows us to focus on the important things. Are we doing things today just because we’ve always done them that way, even though circumstances have changed? Are we spending too much time and resources on maintaining a particular size home, when it’s no longer needed?

Have we given enough thought to ways we could change our schedules to free up more time and resources for learning, tzedakah, chessed, community involvement?

Stories that make the news every day are of criminals and terrorists caught in the act on camera. With today’s technology, it’s easy to grasp the notion that we’re always being watched. The deathbed message of Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai to his students — “May the fear of Heaven be upon you, like the fear of mortal man” — takes on additional meaning.

Of course, the top story of this month — and the best news of all — is “Ani l’dodi v’dodi Li — I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to Me.” Harav Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l, offers an insight into these words that sets the agenda for these days.

He says that to the extent that we are ani l’dodi, to that same extent is Hashem dodi li. It is middah k’negged middah. If we care about our relationship with Hashem, and invest time and effort in improving it, then Hashem reciprocates.

We can find inspiration everywhere, even if we can’t make it back to the yeshivah this month. The starting point is to understand that Elul is opportunity. It is about a relationship with Hashem, and trying to figure out what that means to each of us individually.

May we merit siyatta diShmaya to take proper advantage of Elul and arrive at Rosh Hashanah in a position of spiritual strength.