What is the essence of the exalted Hebrew month of Elul, the auspicious 30-day period of time prior to the Days of Awe in which, according to Hasidic philosophy, “The King is in the Field,” when God is, as it were, more accessible to us than throughout the year?
How might we best prepare ourselves to meet the King while He is “in the field”? I believe that the story of Velvel, a Soviet refusenik I met in Riga, Latvia in the month of Elul 5730 (1970), offers an answer to this question.
Due to my intensive involvement on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the late 1960’s, I was summoned to a meeting in Crown Heights (Brooklyn, NY) with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory. The Rebbe, z”l, asked me to be his shaliach (emissary) to establish centers of Torah learning in several cities in the Soviet Union, Moscow, Leningrad, Riga and Vilna, a mission that I felt honored to accept.
I filled my luggage with siddurim (prayer books), tallitot (prayer shawls), tefillin, and other holy objects for the Jews suffering behind the Iron Curtain, and flew, via Vienna, to the lion’s den. During my two-week mission, I surreptitiously distributed these holy items to Jews in Moscow and Leningrad, before arriving in Riga, where I spent Shabbat.
On Friday night, I met a gentleman named Velvel in the city’s main synagogue.* During a long conversation after dinner, Velvel told me with deep sincerity that there was nothing in the world he wanted more than a new tallit, since the tallit that he had received when he turned Bar Mitzvah was in tatters. Armed with my remaining supply of Judaica, I gave one to him discreetly, which brought an ear-to-ear smile to his otherwise forlorn face.
The next day, during Shabbat morning services at the synagogue, Velvel entered the sanctuary proud as a peacock in his brand-new, sparkling blue and white tallit. I was mortified, as the KGB agents who had accompanied me to the synagogue would surely surmise that I, the outside agitator, was the source of this tallit.
As the cantor led the Torah processional through the cavernous, mostly empty sanctuary, Velvel drew near, and lifted the tzitzit (ritual fringes) of the tallit, in order to touch them to the Torah scroll and then kiss them.
The cantor, seeing Velvel, dramatically stopped the procession. A frosty silence overcame the sanctuary. Time seemed to freeze. Vevel’s arm, outstretched in the direction of the Torah scroll, hung in mid-air suspended. The cantor stared at Velvel with disdain. Velvel reciprocated, keeping his arm extended in the direction of the Torah scroll.
The minute-long staring match went on for what seemed forever, with neither the cantor (who it turns out was also a KGB agent) nor Velvel giving an inch. Abruptly, Velvel screamed at the cantor in Yiddish:
“Ich hob nit kein moyreh!” (I am not afraid!) You’ve already taken everything that you can take away from me! When I began to come to shul and I lost my job as a result, my wife left me and she took the children with her. I have no job; I have no family. The only thing I have is my Jewish tradition. The only thing I have is this tallit. Ich hob nit kein moyreh. I am not afraid!”
The cantor, lowering his eyes in acknowledgment of Velvel’s sacrificial position, resumed the procession. Slowly and triumphantly, Velvel touched the Torah with the tzitzit and delicately kissed them. He had made a profound statement to everyone present: ultimately, we have nothing in life except for God, His Torah, and His commandments. Nothing else truly matters.
This unforgettable, chilling story provides an invaluable insight into an enigmatic law of the Torah found in this week’s reading. Shoftim stipulates that the Levites are to have no share in the inheritance of the Land of Israel. This seems rather unjust! In fact, Maimonides (Hilchot Shmittah v’Yovel, 13:12) asks and answers why this should be the case:
Why did the Levites not receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael...like their brethren? Because they were set aside to serve God and minister unto Him and to instruct people at large in His just paths and righteous judgments...He provides for them, as [Num. 18:20] states: "I am your portion and your inheritance."
This is the main lesson taught by my friend Velvel and the fundamental lesson of the month of Elul. This splendid time comes to remind us of our true purpose on this earth, to live a life dedicated to God. In the final analysis, nothing else matters. This does not require that we adopt an ascetic lifestyle alone on a mountaintop; on the contrary, a true life of holiness involves interacting with and relating to others.
Nevertheless, as Velvel demonstrated in Elul 5730 (1970), and as Maimonides wrote, to live a life dedicated to God is to acknowledge that ultimately, all we have is God, His Torah, and His commandments. Everything else is transitory and illusory. It is no wonder that it is precisely during this season that people are more prepared than usual to internalize this message. Perhaps this is because, indeed, “The King is in the Field.” Let us go out to greet Him.
* A full account of the incident involving Vevel and the tallit in Riga can be found in my book, Listening to God (Maggid) pp 249-251.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor Emeritus Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi – Efrat Israel