An old man sat on the train as it rumbled peacefully along the countryside. He was enjoying the view and the quiet atmosphere of the train car until, at one stop, a young man got on the train and sat across from him. The man was sweating visibly, gripping his knees, and occasionally stealing nervous glances out the window. Concerned, the old man asked if there was anything he could help with. The young man looked at him, sizing him up, before apparently deciding to trust him.
“I’m not sure that you can help me, but I guess I may as well share. I grew up just a few miles from here… In fact, my parents still live there. My parents blessed me with an incredible childhood – love, support, and every opportunity I could ask for. Unfortunately, I gave them the exact opposite in return. I was ungrateful, selfish, rude, and oppositional, causing trouble wherever and whenever I could. I eventually left them, deciding to strike it out on my own, free of them. They were heartbroken, and tried for years to reconcile with me. I ignored their every effort, working to build a new life for myself. I began making connections and cutting deals, slowly building a life for myself that looked nothing like the honest, giving, value-based life that my parents lived. I cut any corner I needed to if it would get me ahead, using people in ways that I should have been ashamed of.
“However, things did not go as planned. Eventually, everything fell apart. Those whom I considered ‘friends’ were quick to abandon me as soon as our friendship stopped benefiting them. My financial plans turned sour, with my shady deals being exposed for what they were. I borrowed, I begged, but things just kept taking turns for the worse. I soon found myself friendless, penniless, and feeling completely alone and abandoned. With nowhere to turn, I contemplated ending my life.
“Then, I thought of my parents: how they had spent years writing to me, pleading with me, saying how much they love me, before eventually giving up. ‘No,’ I thought to myself. ‘There’s no way they would take me back. How could they, after everything that I’ve put them through?’ I debated back and forth for weeks before finally mustering up the courage to pen them a letter. In it, I apologized for what I had done, explaining how low I’ve sunk, and begged them to take me back. I then made a deal with them. On Tuesday, I would take the train that passes right by their home. If they were willing to accept me once again, they should hang a white flag on the tree in front of their house. And if not, I would keep riding the train. I would understand that I had simply gone too far, that they no longer had a place for me, and that I was completely on my own.”
The young man, now crying, looked up at his older seatmate. “We’re two minutes from their house. I can’t bear to look,” he said, as he broke down completely.
The old man nodded with compassion and kindly assured him that he would look out the window and check if there was a white flag. The young man whispered his thanks, as he sat with his head in his arms, softly crying.
Two minutes later, the old man gasped. The young man, unable to look, frantically asked what was going on. “Is there a flag hanging?” he asked, with an air of panic to his voice. The old man just slowly shook his head, gazing out the window in awe. The young man finally gathered up the nerve to look, and his entire body was flooded with warmth. There wasn’t a flag hanging in the tree – the entire tree was covered in white flags.
This beautiful and heartwarming story relates to a deep theme that is central to both this week’s parshah, Parshas VaEschanan, and the transition between Tish’ah B’Av and Elul.
In Parshas VaEschanan, we read about the topic of Ir Miklat – the city of refuge for one who accidentally kills. This parshah always falls out immediately following Tish’ah B’Av, and, consequently, right before Elul. At face value, these themes do not seem to share a connection. The Ir Miklat is a city of refuge, a safe haven, for one who unwittingly kills. Tish’ah B’Av is a day of sadness and destruction, as klal Yisrael mourns the loss of the Beis HaMikdash and the tragedies that have occurred throughout Jewish History. And, Elul is the month of t’shuvah – repentance. What links these three topics together? In order to answer this question and understand their deep, underlying connection, we must first delve into each of these three seemingly unrelated ideas.
Tish’ah B’Av: The Death of the World
Tish’ah B’Av was not simply a day of churban HaMikdash – the destruction of the Temple. That was merely the physical surface-expression of this day’s tragedy. Tish’ah B’Av is a day of mourning, and one does not mourn the destruction of a building. We have discussed in the past how the Beis HaMikdash was the most potent makom of connection between Hashem and this physical world. When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, that powerful connection between us and Hashem was broken, resulting in a cosmic spiritual chasm, a shattered world. True, Hashem is still manifest in this world, but it is infinitesimal compared to what it once was. The death of a person reflects the process of one’s spiritual soul leaving one’s physical body. Death is the concept of disconnecting the spiritual life-force from its physical vessel.
On Tish’ah B’Av, we go through aveilus, the process of mourning a loved one. This seems to be an excessive response to the loss of a building – the Beis HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. However, the destruction of the Temple itself was only the physical expression of a much deeper tragedy. As we have discussed in the past, the Beis HaMikdash was the locus – the makom – of connection between Hashem and this physical world. The Beis HaMikdash was destroyed as a result of the disconnect that we, B’nei Yisrael, created between us and Hashem, between us and each other, and between us and ourselves. We lost sight of the spiritual root of this world, shattering the connection between us and Hashem. As the Nefesh HaChayim explains, once this was broken, the physical vessel that represented this connection – the Beis HaMikdash – was reduced to an empty vessel, and could easily be destroyed.
The death of a person reflects the process of one’s soul separating from his or her body. The concept of death is the disconnect between a spiritual life-force and its physical vessel. When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, the world died.
Elul: Returning Home
This is why Elul directly follows Tish’ah B’Av. Tish’ah B’Av is the time of breakdown, exile, and death; Elul is the time of rebirth, creation, and redirection. As we transition from Tish’ah B’Av towards Elul, we pause, stop the downward momentum, recalibrate, and begin building anew. The low of Tish’ah B’Av becomes the impetus for growth throughout the month of Elul, and in this way it becomes a y’ridah l’tzorech aliyah – a breakdown for the sake of ascension. Elul, in the deepest sense, represents our journey back home to our proper makom, back to our unbreakable bond with Hashem. The goal of Rosh HaShanah is to genuinely and completely anoint Hashem as our King; this follows only from a month spent bridging the gap that we have created between us. Elul is our voyage back home, as we reconnect Hashem to this world, the Soul of the world to its proper place. The definition of t’shuvah is “return,” and that is our goal at this time. We yearn to return the world to its proper, higher state, to return the Jewish People back to our elevated status, and to return each and every one of ourselves back to our higher and true selves.
The process of return is a sweet one, but it is also a difficult one. We feel as though we are fighting an uphill battle, and we struggle to maintain momentum. Every year as we approach Elul, there is an underlying sense of dread as we prepare ourselves for another year of “New Year’s commitments,” writing down the same list of goals, only to be forgotten two weeks later. For many, this is the unspoken terror of Elul – the feeling of despair and loneliness as we grapple to rebuild ourselves and our connection with Hashem. This is why Hashem created the Ir Miklat.
Ir Miklat: A Place for Those Without a Place
An Ir Miklat, a city of refuge, is a place for those without a place. When one loses his physical makom, he feels lost, abandoned, hopeless. Specifically at this point does he receive a sense of hope. He may have lost his place, but even so, there will always be a place for him in the interim until he can return. This is what the Ir Miklat represents: hope for the hopeless, home for the homeless, stability for the unstable.
Elul As Our Makom
This is the purpose of Elul. Tish’ah B’Av reminds us about how broken life can become, about the genuine difficulty and challenge of life. But there will always be an Elul, an ir miklat, a makom. We will always have a place to stay until the chaos fades away. But when that happens, we mustn’t remain in this way station; we must arise and journey back to our true makom, to our true destination. Elul is our shelter amidst the storm, a lighthouse in the mist. It helps protect us during the madness, but it also helps guide us back to our true destination.
Whenever we pass by the month of Elul, Hashem covers millions of trees with white flags. Elul is Hashem’s way of saying, “There will always be a place for you.” But we must then make sure to dig our feet down, and spring forward towards our true destination. When you get the opportunity to grow, to create momentum, and to progress, you have to run after it!
This is the very first step of t’shuvah: recognizing that we are not where we need to be, but that, through constant effort and the help of Hashem, we can get there, we can return to our true makom, we can ascend to a true Rosh HaShanah. The foundation for this is the fact that we still have a makom in the interim, an Ir Miklat, an Elul, a place for those without a place. This allows us to gain our footing, create clarity and purpose, and strive forward on our journey back home. May we all be inspired to pause, find our footing, and use this Elul to strive forward back to our true makom, Hashem Himself!