May 25, 2024
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“The Merchant of Death Is Dead!” This was reportedly the headline in the obituary section of a French newspaper, in 1888, that erroneously eulogized Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite. In reality, though, it was Alfred’s brother, Ludwig, who had died. Thanks to some poor reporting, the newspaper mistakenly thought Alfred had died, and the reporters published a scathing review of his life. The paper characterized Alfred Nobel as someone who had grown rich by developing new ways to “mutilate and kill.” Nobel was deeply impacted by this premature obituary and became obsessed with how he would be remembered. He rewrote his will, bequeathing most of his incredible fortune to a cause that would be admired and celebrated by all: the Nobel Prize that—to this day—is offered to leading scientists, writers and peace-makers as a way not to harm but to benefit humankind.

The newspaper’s historic blunder gave Alfred Nobel the rare opportunity to read his own obituary—it gave Nobel a second chance.

This past week began the Hebrew month of Elul, a month some consider the holiest of the year. What is so special about Elul?

The Jewish sages teach that God is spiritually closer to us during the month of Elul. We have a tradition that during this time, God is more receptive to our prayers and to our attempts to draw closer to His presence (Rashi, Exodus 33:11). The great chasidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1813), uses the metaphor of a king whose usual place is in the palace. Anyone wishing to see the king must first travel to the palace, go through all the gates and be meticulously prepared. But there are times when the king leaves the palace and comes out to the field to make himself more accessible, so that even a simple peasant behind his plow can approach him. Elul is the time when the king is in the field.

What happened during this period on the Jewish calendar that made Elul such an opportune time for spiritual closeness? The sages (Rashi, Exodus 33:11) tell us that Rosh Chodesh Elul—the first day of the month—was the day God told Moshe to ascend Mount Sinai again, for the second set of tablets. Earlier in the summer, we observed the fast of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz or the 17th day of the month of Tammuz. That was the day Moshe descended Mount Sinai with the tablets containing the 10 commandments, only to find the Jewish people worshiping the golden calf. It was a terrible moment in Jewish history when the people’s faith and relationship with God seemed to be beyond repair. In response, Moshe broke the tablets and remained in the Jewish camp—praying on their behalf—desperately trying to obtain God’s forgiveness.

Moshe prayed and beseeched the Almighty for 40 days, from the 17th of Tammuz—when he first saw the Jews sinning—until Rosh Chodesh Elul. On the first day of Elul—after 40 days of pleading for forgiveness—God told Moshe to return to Mount Sinai. He was ready to give the Jewish people a second chance. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai to receive the second set of tablets on this very day.

Elul is all about second chances.

Moshe remained on Mount Sinai for 40 more days. He returned to the Jewish encampment with the second set of tablets and on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei—none other than the day of Yom Kippur! Yom Kippur became the Jewish day of atonement because it marked the completion of the process of reconciliation between God and the Jewish people. It represented the culmination of the people’s renewed relationship when the Almighty gave them a second chance, after they had sinned.

God presented a unique challenge to our ancestors during these 40 days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur: fix your problems, deal with your issues and renew your relationship with Me. Every year at this time, that same 40-day challenge presents itself to us. Like Alfred Nobel, we too, are given a second chance to confront our challenges, deal with our demons and reconnect with God and our fellow human beings. Throughout the year we routinely encounter obstacles and spiritual challenges, which disconnect us from our spiritual source—from God and even from the people we love. We all have dreams and goals we have failed to achieve. We have let ourselves down in some way. But these 40 days come to us every year, presenting us with the opportunity to reconnect and draw closer to our unique potential as the new year approaches.

We see this in the very word “Elul,” which is spelled “alef, lamed, vav, lamed,” an acronym for a beautiful biblical verse from King Solomon’s “Song of Songs,” “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li—I am for my beloved and my beloved is mine,” (Song of Songs 6:3). Elul is a month of closeness with our beloved.

“Elul” is also an acronym for another important biblical phrase, “Ish l’reyeihu u’matanot l’evyonim—one person for his friend and gifts to the poor,” (Esther 9:22). This represents another way of spiritually reconnecting during the month of Elul—by helping the less fortunate and being there for our friends.

And so, to take advantage of the power of renewal during this auspicious time on the Jewish calendar, I wrote “the 40 day challenge” with 40 different Torah messages—all aimed at helping us grow closer to God and to the most important people in our lives. The book—published by Kodesh Press (which can be purchased on their website or on amazon.com)—is designed to be read each day from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur. There is also a 40 day challenge WhatsApp group you can join for additional insights on each day’s theme. Email me at [email protected] to join.

My hope and prayer is that these spiritual messages will inspire us to confront our challenges and build our characters in such a way as to draw closer to Hashem—at a time when He is easiest to find.


Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.

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