On this coming Motzoei Shabbos, Jews of Askenazic descent will begin to recite Selichos, joining their Sephardic brethren who have been doing so since Rosh Chodesh Elul.
These are days of contemplation and introspection, of soul-searching and spiritual reckoning. For some it is also a time of doubt.
Is it really possible in a few short days to erase the iniquities and missteps of an entire year? How real can our repentance be this time around, if last year we made the same earnest commitments and then somehow slipped up?
Harav Elimelech Biderman, shlita, relates the following parable:
A zoo once found itself in a quandary after its star attraction, a pair of fierce lions, both died. Unable to procure another pair of these beasts, the zoo hired professional actors to play the role of lions. Two men were dressed up as lions, and while crawling around on all fours they made a convincing show, perfectly imitating a lion’s roar.
All went well until an outraged visitor approached the zookeeper.
“Whom do you think you’re fooling?” he demanded. “Those aren’t lions you have in that cage, but humans!”
“What makes you think such a thing?” the zookeeper, eager to cover up, asked.
“Why, walking by earlier I heard one of the so-called ‘lions’ whisper to the other in a very human voice, ‘until what time will we have to roar today?’”
“I don’t understand you,” the annoyed zookeeper replied. “All day they roar exactly like lions, and because for one minute one spoke like a human, you already assume that he is a person?”
The visitor was hardly amused. “That’s exactly my point. If he speaks for a moment like a man, that shows that the rest of the time he is only acting.”
When a Yid raises himself up a notch and draws closer to Hashem during this month of Elul, he is actually revealing his “real” self. He is proving that essentially, through and through, he is a Yid. It was all the other times — when his evil inclination got the better of him — that he “dressed up” and behaved improperly.
* * *
Another doubt that occasionally niggles at a person is the value of his tefillah. Cognizant of his own shortcomings, he may occasionally doubt that his personal pleas to Hashem can be effective.
One of the many powerful rebuttals to this erroneous thought is a halachah based on a Gemara (Bava Metzia 105b):
A tenant farmer who leases a field with the understanding that he will pay the owner with a set amount of the wheat he grows there must pay even if the crop should be devastated by locusts or uprooted by strong winds, as the property owner can attribute the loss to a lack of merit on the part of the renter. However, if a “general calamity” should occur — i.e., the surrounding fields were equally affected by the devastation — then the tenant may deduct from his rent, as the devastation was a decree aimed at the whole area and it is the field, rather the tenant, that is considered unfit.
But if the understanding was that the tenant would grow wheat, and then he actually planted barley, even in a case of a province-wide calamity the owner is entitled to the full rent. This is because he can claim, “In the beginning of the year I davened that the wheat crop you were growing in my fields would be successful. I did not daven for barley. If you would have planted wheat as we agreed, the crop would have been successful!”
This halachah applies to every Yid, regardless of his spiritual level. A Yid is halachically entitled to believe that even if all the surrounding wheat fields were destroyed by a blight, he could have spared his own field from devastation through tefillah.
The Ribbono shel Olam listens to the tefillos of every single Yid; all we have to do is utter them.