Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, the Alter of Slabodka, would repeat the following parable every year at the beginning of Elul to prepare for the Yemei Hadin, the Days of Judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
A merchant plans to smuggle some goods across the border. He hires a wagon driver and hides the goods beneath a pile of hay. As they see the border in the distance, the smuggler starts to fret. He is worried that the customs officers at the border will catch him. The wagon driver is thinking about the road and is unconcerned about the prospect of being caught. After all, the goods are not his own; he is but an accomplice. When they reach the border and the driver sees the border officers up close, though, he also begins to worry. As for the horse, he trots right through!
There are three types of people when it comes to approaching of the Yemei Hadin: Those who worry ahead of time, as they see the holy days coming; those who are startled by the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah; and the horses — those who don’t even realize what the shofar is all about.
The goal is to see Rosh Hashanah up ahead and to prepare. There are two requirements. First, one must understand what he needs to prepare for. If the smuggler does not know what the border officer is doing, why does he need to worry? If we don’t understand Rosh Hashanah, why worry ahead of time? We need to comprehend the purpose of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We need to think about the joy of Sukkos following them. We need to realize that the rest of the year depends on attaining a good judgment.
Second, we need to prepare. We need to be ready to deal with border control!
We need to get our affairs in order before the shofar takes us by surprise.
If one asks a child what he would like to become when he grows up, he is likely to respond in accordance with his environment. If he is surrounded by Torah scholars, he will say he wants to be a talmid chacham. Even if he does not understand what this means, he will say, “This is what adults do!” If he is surrounded by slanderers and scoffers, he will think that this is the ideal. If he is surrounded by those who put money above all else, this is what he will aspire to.
We need to surround ourselves in speech and in deed with the subjects of the Yamim Noraim, studying the laws, the prayers, the awesome thoughts of the Days of Awe. Just as the merchant in the parable does not stop worrying, we must keep our attention focused on this.
The Days of Awe are not just an end unto themselves. They are the beginning of a new year. Everything depends on the beginning. We need to prepare for the entire year. We don’t want to be like the traveler who forgot to pack food and
water. Or who remembered, but did not pack enough for the length of his trip.
Rav Yeruchem Levovitz, zt”l, of Mir would relate the following parable: The old coal-powered trains would stop in the stations and load up on coal. After the allotted time, they gave a whistle or blew the horn and left the station. If the engineers were lazy about loading coal, they would have to leave — no matter what — with an insufficient supply.
Rosh Hashanah does not wait. It cannot be rescheduled and one cannot make any excuses. The court date is planned way ahead of time; in fact, last Rosh Hashanah we already knew when the holiday would fall this year. Maybe we will be ready for this Rosh Hashanah, to prepare for next Rosh Hashanah!
We have a month. Elul. We can do this in an orderly fashion. But we must start now. PJC
Rabbi Shimon Silver is the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.