1. There is a longstanding custom concerning the period of the year which we are now entering, as described in several sources:

When one writes a letter to his friend... from Rosh Chodesh Elul onwards...he should express the hope that in the upcoming days of good judgment he should merit to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Good Life. (Mateh Ephraim 581:9)

The moment of inscription in the Book of Life of course, comes at the start of Rosh Hashanah, which is the beginning of the new year. As the Gemara says, the truly righteous are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life.

The Talmud Yerushalmi expresses it this way:

Which nation is like this nation that knows G‑d’s outlook...they dress in white and robe themselves in white...eat and drink and celebrate Rosh Hashanah, for they know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will perform a miracle for them (and inscribe them for a good year). (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 1:3)

By extending the blessings and wishes for a good year starting from Rosh Chodesh Elul, you have the assurance of a good new year while still in the old year, and the good feeling will even influence the concluding year. At the same time it carries over the good forces into the new year.

In Halachah we find that the acceptance of good resolutions in anticipation of doing a good deed, will engender the reward for the deed even before the mitzvah is done.

But here the good wishes are not only preparatory in theory, for the month of Elul has a real connection to the new year as a month of stocktaking for the past and actual preparation for the future. This preparation during Elul for action to be taken in the new year is basic and fundamental, and will affect the future activities.

This Elul, on the eve of the Shemitah year, this is even more evident, as certain laws and rules of Shemitah actually begin 30 days before the onset of the year. It is therefore obvious that during Elul we should emphasize and stress that the coming year will be one of blessing, goodness and sweetness. How much more so is this true on Rosh Chodesh Elul, and especially, when Rosh Chodesh is two days which indicates that each moment, and each day, the theme of Rosh Chodesh is increased.

This is true in all areas of Torah and mitzvos, and much more so in the area of Ahavas Yisrael — in our case, the expression of good wishes to be inscribed and sealed for a good year, sent from one person to another. Not only do we express these good wishes in person, but also in writing, and even to one whom we only know through correspondence. To that Jew, too, send a note of blessing for a “Kesivah VaChasimah Tovah.”

I will begin on this eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul by “grabbing” the first opportunity to bless every Jewish person with the blessing of a good and sweet year in all manners of goodness.

First and foremost — to be inscribed and to be sealed in the Book of the Perfectly Righteous; immediately, at the start of the new year. All of the blessings should continue throughout the year in a good and revealed way, down-to-earth to each and everyone, alive, body and soul.

The blessings, of course, must descend through the conduit of the letters of the Torah; each of the 22 letters of the alphabet being an initial for a different blessing.

It would not be practical to enumerate all the possible blessings represented by each letter. I will therefore mention one blessing for each letter -

A year of light;

A year of blessing;

A year of gladness;

A year of cheer;

A year of majesty and splendor;

A year of good convocation;

A year of great and many merits;

A year of long and good life;

A good year;

A year of great destiny;

A year of abundant economy;

A year of learning with great success;

An uplifted year;

A year of great miracles;

A year of Heavenly assistance;

A year of strength;

A year of salvation;

A year of exultation;

A year of walking with heads held high and a year of holiness;

A year of exaltations;

A year of joy and jubilation;

A year of praise; A year of Torah; A year of teshuvah (repentance); A year of prayer.

First and foremost may it be a year of redemption — in simple down-to-earth terms, with our youth and elders, sons and daughters; the true and complete redemption, through our righteous Mashiach, speedily and truly in our days.

2. Since Rosh Chodesh Elul is two days there are differences regarding the customs which commence on Rosh Chodesh Elul. For example, the custom of reciting the psalm, “By Dovid, the L‑rd is my light and my salvation” (Tehillim 27), begins on the first day of Rosh Chodesh, while the custom of blowing shofar begins on the second day of Rosh Chodesh. In other matters, especially blessing Jews with a good year, it would be logical to say that we start on the first day of Rosh Chodesh.

Blessing Jews is always a good idea, and one who increases this practice is praiseworthy. Our sages present this idea, ipso facto, from the verse “I will bless those who bless you” (Bereishis 12:3). Considering G‑d’s love for the Jewish people and how precious they are to Him, it is obvious that those who bless other Jews will reap rich blessings from G‑d. It was therefore obvious and unnecessary (for the Shulchan Aruch) to mention that the custom of wishing a Kesivah VaChasimah Tovah should commence on the first day of Rosh Chodesh.

The special theme of the month of Elul has been described in Chassidic philosophy as the time when the “king is in the field.” This is based on the parable in Likkutei Torah which discusses the acrostic of the word Elul and connects it with the verse in Shir HaShirim: “I am (devoted) to my Beloved and my Beloved is (devoted) to me” (Shir HaShirim 6:3).

This is analogous to the parable of a king who before entering the city is greeted by the people of the kingdom in the surrounding fields. In the field everyone can, and may, approach the king. The king receives everyone warmly with a kindly countenance and shows everyone a friendly smile, etc.

As the first day of Rosh Chodesh is also called Rosh Chodesh Elul, it follows that this theme applies also on the first day of Rosh Chodesh.

There is also a connection between the Ahavas Yisrael and Jewish unity expressed in the custom of sending New Year greetings, with this theme of the “king in the field.” Unity can be reached more easily when Jews are closer together — in the city everyone lives in his/her own home and there are distinctions between rich and poor which are evident in the size and appearance of the different homes.

When everyone leaves his/her home and goes out into the fields, the barriers and separations and class distinctions are eliminated and the Jews are brought closer together. The king, too, is not sequestered when he is in the field. So, unity and Ahavas Yisrael are close at hand. Which brings us to the other themes associated with the acrostic of the word E’L’U’L’:

1. “[But G‑d] caused it to happen, then I will provide [a place]” (Shmos 21:13). This is the path of Torah which provides a place of refuge.

2. “[For sending delicacies] to one another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). This is the path of charity and acts of lovingkindness.

3. “...From your hearts and from the hearts of your descendants” (Devarim 30:6). This is the path of prayer.

4. “I am (devoted) to my Beloved and my Beloved is (devoted) to me” (Shir HaShirim 6:3). This is the path of teshuvah.

In addition there is another acrostic (in reverse order):

5. “...To the L‑rd, and they declared, saying: I will sing...” (Shmos 15:1). This hints to the coming redemption.

Just as the blessing must come before the new year starts, so, too, we must see the redemption while still in the diaspora.

Actually in the words “I am (devoted) to my Beloved, etc.,” we also discern the theme of Ahavas Yisrael and Jewish unity. Essentially, it refers to the closeness and unity of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the Jewish people, yet, it is also connected to the unity of the Jewish people themselves, who unite as “one person,” since the love of G‑d brings closeness and affection among the Jewish people, as our sages expressed it: “He (a Jew) loves the one whom his Beloved (G‑d) loves.”

On the other hand, the act which evokes G‑d’s love for the Jewish people is our own expression of mutual affection and unity. Consequently, during Elul we must increase our fulfillment of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Our Ahavas Yisrael must express itself truly as “yourself” — a true unity — this will cause, “I am (devoted) to my Beloved and my Beloved is devoted to me” to the point that “the Jews and the Holy One, Blessed be He, are all one.”

Practice is essential. All these aspects of Elul must be enhanced, especially the components of teshuvah, Torah, prayer and acts of kindness, and Ahavas Yisrael and Jewish unity. This includes also influencing others and spreading the wellsprings of Chassidus in all these matters which will bring the redemption closer. In fact, they represent the same theme — Mashiach is the essential soul (Yechidah) of the Jewish people and the esoteric teachings of Torah is the essence of Torah. By spreading the fountains of Chassidus, the “Yechidah” of Torah, you bring the revelation and advent of Mashiach, the “Yechidah” of the Jews; and the whole world is redeemed.

3. In the section of Rambam which we study today we learn of the mitzvah of Korban Pesach Sheni, the second Paschal Sacrifice which was brought on the 14th of Iyar by those who had been disqualified on the first Pesach.

On the subject of Pesach Sheni the previous Rebbe used to say that the theme of Pesach Sheni is:

Nothing is irretrievable, you can always make amends.... (HaYom Yom, 14 Iyar)

This means that even one who was tameh (ritually contaminated), or far away, even if it was done intentionally, he can always correct his shortcomings.

Here we have a clear connection to Elul, the month of teshuvah, when all shortcomings of the past are corrected through the Divine service of Elul.

What was the difference between the first Pesach and Pesach Sheni?

The first Pesach was a mitzvah commanded to us by G‑d. Pesach Sheni came about as a result of the request and demand of certain Jews: “Why should we lose out?” This quality is symbolic of the relatively loftier state of the baal teshuvah (penitent) vis-à-vis the tzaddik.

A tzaddik has his qualities from birth, and his good conduct has become part of his nature. It is similar to being bestowed from above (Pesach). However, the baal teshuvah functions with his own efforts; he tasted the sin and turned from it, by conquering his evil inclination, here we have an analogy to Pesach Sheni.

The baal teshuvah has the added force of transforming the sins to merits, a class of merits not available to the tzaddik.

In the case of Pesach Sheni this would be analogous to the rule that while you eat the Korban Pesach and the matzah, at home you may also have chametz.

Chametz symbolizes undesirable elements, which is why on the first Pesach it must be eliminated. However, on Pesach Sheni you may eat the matzah and still have chametz — because it is uplifted to holiness. Sins converted to merits.

Another subject covered in today’s Rambam section is the special mitzvah of eating the Korban Pesach. When one eats, the food is internalized and becomes part of his being. When one learns about the mitzvah of eating the Pesach, this indicates (in the case of Elul) that the Divine service of repairing the past must penetrate to his essence.

The Paschal offering was eaten at the end of the Seder meal so that the person should be fully satiated. It also had to be roasted in a royal fashion.

Now, in correcting the past during Elul, in addition to working on an inner, essential level, it must also be done in a grand, royal way with joy and gladness.

What do we learn from the portion of Shoftim?

Appoint yourselves judges and police for your tribes in all your settlements (gates). (Devarim 16:18)

This injunction may be understood in a microcosmic fashion, applied to man’s Divine service. The gates are symbolic of the seven “gates” in a person’s body, two eyes, two ears, etc. When proper guards are placed near the gates, then the person, the “mini city,” becomes a “city of G‑d.”

During Elul this is very appropriate as it is the time for account-taking and making judgments to see what must be rectified before the new year. At the beginning of the portion of Ki Seitzei we find a reference to “crying for one month,” which also symbolizes the repentance of the month of Elul. And as the subject concludes with the union of marriage, so, too, the connection of “I am (devoted) to my Beloved,” represents the union of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the Jewish people on Yom Kippur, when the second Tablets were given. This is all revealed later on Simchas Torah.

In today’s study section in Shoftim we learn of the “cities of refuge” which has a direct connection to the month of Elul, which is often referred to as the month of refuge: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, in His infinite Wisdom prepared Elul for one who sins during the year to turn into Elul with repentance, and then he will be accepted.”

There is, however, a question which troubles the five-year-old Chumash student and which Rashi seems to ignore:

You must separate three cities in the land...[The cities in each of these parts] shall be places where a murderer can find refuge. The murderer who seeks refuge [in these cities] shall be allowed to live if he accidentally killed his neighbor.... (Devarim 19:3-4)

A few verses later, the Torah teaches us another rule:

G‑d will eventually expand your borders as He swore to your fathers, and he will give you all the territory that He promised them. (Ibid.:8)

This will include even the land of Keni, Kenizi and Kadmoni. Why?

He will do so because you will carefully keep the entire mandate that I am prescribing for you today, loving G‑d your L‑rd and constantly walking in all His paths. [When your borders are thus expanded] you will have to add an additional three cities to the above mentioned three. (Ibid.:9)

This raises a bewildering question. How can it be that after the Jews will have done G‑d’s will to the fullest degree and are once again in the expanded Holy Land, that they will have to appoint more cities for the accidental murderer to run away and find refuge?! Can it be that in that future, idyllic time there will be so many murderers (G‑d forbid) that the original six cities will not suffice?

Why does Rashi ignore this obvious problem?

The full explanation of this troubling paradox may be reached only through the Kabbalistic interpretations of the AriZal who goes to great length to expound on the esoteric meaning of the future cities of refuge and how they will provide atonement for the seed of Hevel whose sin had to be expiated, etc.

For us, we may explain this rule to the five-year-old Chumash student by keeping in mind that the classic case of an accidental murder was described by Rashi as being “arranged” by G‑d to occur in front of witnesses because previously the parties had been involved in some cases where no witnesses were present. In other words, the five-year-old Chumash student understands that exile may be imposed many years later for a crime committed much earlier.

Consequently, we may explain that the future cities of refuge will be necessary for many people to find ultimate expiation for crimes committed earlier in life, even in previous incarnations. This is so obvious that Rashi need not tell us — for certainly in the time of the ultimate redemption there will be no murder — not even accidental homicide.

All this comprises the Divine service of the month of Elul, and since we must show our Ahavas Yisrael, it also includes influencing others in all these aspects to help him/her improve and move into the “city of refuge,” Elul, and in that way to rectify the past.

By influencing and convincing another and another that nothing is irretrievable, everything will actually be found — “I have found My servant in Dovid” (Tehillim 89:21), and our righteous Mashiach will come.

May all this crystallize in the real world, for us and all who hear my voice, in our activities, which will speed the coming of Mashiach. Then we will see the promise of expanded borders and a complete land, with the whole nation, complete Torah and mitzvos.

May it all happen instantaneously, with joy and glad hearts.