M eteorologists may have their own theories for the timing of hurricane season, but the juxtaposition of Irma and Elul drive home many fateful lessons for the thinking Jew 

Just four weeks ago I wrote about two figurative hurricanes on a collision course in the Pacific Ocean, namely Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and Donald J. Trump of the USA. I discussed the global fear generated by these two capricious political leaders, who seem ready, in their recklessness, to push the world over the brink of destruction. And I quoted Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav MeEliyahu, who explains that this existential fear carries within it the seeds of Geulah, in accordance with the Maharal’s interpretation of the gemara that says, “The Mashiach sits at the gates of Rome.”

Then, before anyone could foresee how that standoff would end, the region got another painful wake-up call. This time, it wasn’t just a vague fear, but very real destruction threatening millions of people. I’m referring, of course, to Hurricane Irma, which left utter devastation in the Caribbean and strewed fear and panic even before it made landfall in Florida. Millions were forced to abandon the homes that could no longer be relied on for shelter. As they headed north, taking just enough possessions to get them through the storm, they took along the painful realization that material acquisitions ultimately afford no protection.

A picture of Trump’s cabinet sitting and praying made a poignant statement. Here were the most powerful people in the world — keenly aware of their helplessness. However proud a human being might be of his achievements (and certainly Mr. Trump is not deficient in vitamin P), there comes a time when he must know his limitations and turn to the One Who truly holds the power.

Things were different in the past. There used to be a lapse between a natural disaster’s impact and the spread of the news to other parts of the world. Today, though, I can sit at home in Jerusalem and watch raging rivers flooding the streets of Miami in real time, while the palm trees lining its handsome avenues wave in the wind like the lulavim of an enthusiastic congregation on the first day of Succos. This immediacy affects all of us. No matter where we live, we can all taste the terror of oncoming disaster, the helplessness of knowing that fate is barreling toward us whether we are ready or not.

And all this just before Rosh Hashanah.

No doubt, meteorologists can explain in their own terms why nature goes berserk precisely at this time of year (hurricane systems tends to peak from late August through early September). But I can explain it, too, in my terms, and my explanation is no less valid than theirs. More valid, I believe.

The mussar giants of the prewar generation asked what is the purpose of the King of England, if he no longer has any real authority? They answered that the monarchy remains in place for our sake, to give us some notion of malchus, so that by extrapolation we can get an impression of what it means that Hashem is King.

A hurricane plays a similar role at any time of the year, but especially during Elul. It’s at this time that we prepare for the Day of Judgment; and it’s at this time that these ferocious storms drive home the meaning of “who by fire and who by water,” which we will recite in shul.

Contemplate the phenomenon of a hurricane’s approach, impact, and effects, and you’ll find clear parallels:

As the storm approaches, meteorologists warn the people in the affected regions to take every available precaution against harm. In Judaism, the warning before the coming storm is Elul, the month of mercy and forgiveness.

If the people living in those regions are sensible, they use that grace period to batten down the hatches and do whatever they can to protect themselves, their families, and their property from the ravages of the expected storm. Our means of defense are blowing the shofar, improving our deeds, working on our middos, learning mussar, and giving more time and attention to prayer.

When the hurricane strikes in all its fury, leaving heavy damage, those who took the weather forecasts seriously and got themselves out of harm’s way can breathe a sigh of relief. Although their property may have suffered, at least their lives were saved. Similarly, if we make a real Elul for ourselves and taste the genuine teshuvah, we will be saved from harsh judgment on Rosh Hashanah, and, in the words of the navi, “eat our bread in joy.”

May we all get through the coming “hurricane” with merit and mercy on our side.


The Big Fear

I’ve shared the following thought with you before, but just as we repeat the same words every Rosh Hashanah, striving to find new meaning, the words of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Boston bear repeating as well, especially in the current climate of fear.

An eminent psychiatrist once told Rav Yoshe Ber that he wished he could abolish the passage uv’chein tein pachdecha from the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Fear, he said, is the main cause of all mental illness. Why pray to be afflicted with it?

“I am not a psychiatrist,” Rav Yoshe Ber commented, “but his words helped me to understand the meaning of this prayer, instituted by our Sages. And so I answered the psychiatrist, ‘I see many people, and they all have various fears. They fear losing their money or their status, or not achieving enough fame. Some fear illness and weakness. In past generations, people were terrified of leprosy; today they fear cancer. If they’re feeling pain, they’re afraid to go to a doctor for fear that he might diagnose them with ‘that disease.’

“ ‘Man is full of small fears. But I know there is one big fear that chases away all other fears. What is this fear that a person can accept on himself in order to remove all other fears, such as fear of failure, of poverty, of old age, of lack of popularity, of illness? It is fear of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. And this is why we pray, Uv’chein tein pachdecha — And therefore, Hashem our G-d, place Your fear upon all that You have made, and Your dread upon all that You have created.’ ”

May this great fear indeed enter us and liberate us from all other fears that crouch at our door and undermine our lives.

That is to say, that “big fear” is nothing to fear; rather we should embrace it, so that we will no longer fear things that should not be feared.

True Preparation
A rosh kollel in Jerusalem retold the following anecdote, which he heard from his father. When the father was still a young kollel scholar, he once met the gaon Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz in the street. They exchanged greetings, and the great Rav asked the young man, “Are you truly preparing for Rosh Hashanah?” 

The yungerman answered as he deemed appropriate. But Rav Chaim repeated the question:

“Are you truly preparing for Rosh Hashanah? For Yom HaDin?”

The talmid realized that his Rav meant to teach him something, so he was silent and waited.

“This year, Rosh Hashanah is immediately followed by Shabbos — meaning, there are three consecutive days of Yom Tov meals,” Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz said. “That’s a lot of hard work for your wife. Wouldn’t it be fitting for you to take the little ones out so that she can get the cooking done in peace?”

In the eyes of the great gaon, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz ztz”l, that was what proper preparation for Yom HaDin looked like. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 678)