he days of Elul are days of journeys, inner spiritual journeys as well as journeys of miles and kilometers traversed across the hills and highways of America and Israel.
The journey to the Tzaddik that was often not easy, and it required great mesirus nefesh (self sacrifice) on the part of the Chassidim as well as their families. The path from Warsaw to Gur, was often full of barefooted Chassidim walking through the fields in order to save their shoes to wear for the honor of Yom Tov. Some Chassidim were gone for a month or more, and their families were left to provide for themselves. Yet many wives and families urged and blessed their husbands and fathers to make the yearly pilgrimage for the month of Elul, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos.
The trip to the Tzaddik in times past had a special Ta'am (flavor or ambiance). Chassidim would travel for days and weeks in the company of their brethren to reach their destination. The trip was usually made in the company of one's friends; often Chassidim of the first order and highest caliber, all traveling together in a bond of unique and unwavering friendship. Chassidim used to say, that in the company of such seekers, it was possible to attain a Tikkun HaNefesh (a healing of the soul) even before they reached the Rebbe.
Those early Chassidim would quote a verse from Jeremiah (2:2) when reflecting on their experiences traversing the dirt roads of Eastern Europe on the way to the Tzaddik. I remembered the kindness of your youth when you went after Me in the desert; through an unsown and desolate environment.
R' Elimelech of Lizhensk used to comment that this kindness, the willingness of the Chassid to take to the road to visit the Rebbe/Tzaddik in his youth, during the years when he was in full strength, will stand for him in his later years. Hashem will remember him when his physical strength has waned, remembering his joy and enthusiasm and how he dropped all his worldly pursuits to travel so to speak, in an unsown land as he traveled to be with the Rebbe, cut off from all worldly pursuits. Hashem will remember him and grant the Chassid the strength to make the journey yet another year.
The question is by now obvious. Why undertake the expense of time and money to make the journey to the Tzaddik? Is it not possible for one to study in his own home from books of Chassidus and Ethics? Cannot one accomplish spiritual growth on his own without the trouble of the arduous journey?
R Elimelech of Lizhensk pointed out that the classic Torah commentator, Rashi, asked
the same question in his commentary on Parshas Yisro.
The verse states, Yisro, the father-in-law of Moshe heard about all that Hashem had done for Moshe and his people Israel when he brought Israel out of Egypt. . ..Yisro came together with Moshes wife and sons to the desert where Moshe was staying near Hashems mountain. (Shemos 18:1,5)
Rashi answers that Yisro heard about the Exodus from Egypt and its accompanying miracles, and Amaleks war against the Israelites. The miracles of Hashem surrounding the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea was known to the whole world. But Yisro also heard about the war against Amalek, and how when Moshe raised his arms in towards heaven, the nation prevailed and was victorious. Yisro understood that the war against Amalek was really the war against the Yetzer Hara (the negative inclination). It is a battle that one cannot wage without assistance; the assistance of a Tzaddik. Therefore, Yisro made the journey to his son-in-law, Moshe Rabbenu; the to Tzaddik of the times.
R Yisroel of Modjitz, in his classic work Divrei Yisroel explains the journey of Yisro to Moshe in a different way.
Yisro studied Torah and ethics alone at home, absorbing the wisdom that was available at that time and weaning himself further and further from idol worship, and coming closer to the service of One G-d. Nevertheless, Yisro didnt come immediately when he heard about the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea. He waited. What did he hear that now caused him to come to Moshe?
As Rashi says, he heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and about the war against Amalek. He understood that miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea was a result of the intense connection that the nation had to their leader, the Tzaddik, Moshe Rabbenu. (. . .vayaminu baHashem uvMoshe avdo. And they believed in Hashem and his servant Moshe. Shemos 14:31)
During the Splitting of the Sea, even a maid servant, the member of society least likely to be highly spiritually developed, experienced a prophetic vision more profound than even the prophet Ezekiel ever saw.
When the Red Sea split, all the waters in the world split, including a cup of water sitting on the kitchen table. The whole world therefore knew about the great miracle that had taken place. Despite this, the rogue nation of Amalek had the chutzpah to attack Israel, even though Israel was clearly now enjoying Hashems unique favor. In stark contra-distinction to Israel, Yisro understood the result of having no connection to the Tzaddik and no connection to Divinity. That realization caused him to take up his walking staff and to put himself at the side of the Tzaddik of the generation.
A story is told of the Chassid whose neighbor once asked him about the necessity of his travels to the Rebbe. Isnt it enough, asked the neighbor. To pore over the Chassidic and mussar literature in your own home?
Answered the Chassid, When I sit in my house with a book and begin to learn, the Yetzer Hara eventually gets up and begins to dance on my table and finally kicks my book open to the chapter that speaks about the inherent weakness of man and how he must exert himself to overcome the Yezter Hara. I am instantly become forlorn, overcome with uncertainty about my ability to best the Yetzer. When I travel to the Tzaddik, he knows exactly what I am lacking and what need to repair my faults. He strengthens me and gives me the Tikkun that my soul needs.
The desire to travel to the Tzaddik is really the intense longing of the soul to shake off its impurities and empty husks and to return to a state of purity. It is the light of the Tzaddik which cleanses and straightens out the soul of the Chassid.
The journey to the Tzaddik is just as relevant today as it was in previous generations. The Torah states in Parshas Shoftim, concerning bringing a case to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, "And you shall come to the Cohenim and the judges who will be there in those times, and you shall inquire of them and they will instruct you what to do". (Devarim 17:9)
On the words, "in those times", Rashi asks, "Would it occur to you to go to ask judges who are not there? Rather, ones should not say, 'The judges (read: Tzaddikim, sages) in this generation are not of the same stature as thoise of previous generations, therefore I needn't inquire of them'. In each generation we have the judges who are right for our times."
The meaning is clear. Even in our generation there are Tzaddikim and teachers who are right for us. One shouldn't think, "There are no spiritual leaders today, so I'll do the best I can according to what I feel is best." No!! The Rebbes, and teachers and Tzaddikim are out there, and the Torah bids us to seek them out.