There are forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur during which Hashem forgives the Jewish people for their sins. The power of these specific forty days dates back to the time of Moshe Rabbenu.
After the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai for a third and final time. The day Moshe climbed the mountain for the third time was on Rosh Chodesh Elul. Moshe descended forty days later with the second set of Tables on Yom Kippur. On that day, God said that He would forgive the Jewish people (Rashi Eikev, 10:1).
Ever since then, these forty days, between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur, have been set aside as days of compassion during which God forgives the Jewish people for their sins throughout each generation.
This Divine sympathy that we receive at this time of year is because of the special closeness with Hashem that we enjoy during this period. The Avudraham (tefilas Rosh Hashanah) says that this closeness is hinted to in the name of this month, Elul. Elul, spelled aleph, lamed, vov, lamed, serves as the acronym for, "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li", (I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me; Son. 6:3).
This teaches us that there is a certain friendship and an intimate relationship that exists between God and His people during this month. Therefore, specifically at this time of year, God opens His hands (so to speak) to receive and accept our repentance.
The B'nei Yissaschar (Elul, 1:15) adds that if we take the last letters of the verse, "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li," we will find that there are four yuds which are numerically forty, hinting to those forty days that Moshe stood on Mount Sinai. Those forty days, hinted to by the four yuds, are days of friendship and compassion as we found in the acronym of "Elul," "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li." As such, the last letter of each of those words compliments the acronym of those words.
The Sforno (Ex. 24:18) adds another dimension to the forty days. He quotes the Gemara in Bechoros (chap. 3, "Halokeyach Beheimah", pg. 21b, Rav Chisdah) which says that it takes forty days for an embryo to take shape inside its mother's womb. This can teach us all a lesson. That is, a person can reshape himself over a forty-day period of time.
What better forty days to recreate ourselves than between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur?! During these forty days, the Jewish people underwent a complete makeover. They were transformed from an idolatrous nation (after the Golden Calf) to a nation of Torah (after they received the Torah).
We can also take advantage of these forty days to resculpt ourselves into a nation of God, becoming an entirely new creation.
There is another meaning behind the name "Elul" which complements this idea about becoming a new creation during this time of year.
When the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) went into the Kodesh Hakadoshim (Holy of Holies) on Yom Kippur, he sprinkled the blood of the bull and goat sin offerings in a peculiar way. First, he sprinkled the blood once in an upward direction, and then seven times in a downward direction (Lv. 16:14-15).
The Mishnah (Yoma, chap. 5, "Hotziyu Lo", Mishnah 3, pg. 53b) calls this, "Achas L'ma'alah V'shevah L'matah" (once upward and seven downward). The acronym of these four words spells "Elul." The Shvilei Pinchas says that this shows us that already from the beginning of "Elul", our eyes are focused on this sprinkling Avodah (service) of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur because it completes the process of our becoming new creations.
The question is, "How does this specific way of sprinkling the blood complete this mission? What does it mean? Why sprinkle specifically once upward and seven downward? Why not three upward and ten downward? Why upward and downward? Why not to the right and to the left?"
Not only that, but the Kohen Gadol also counts these sprinkles in a strange way. When sprinkling upward he says, "Achas" (one). That I can understand; however, when sprinkling downward, he does not just say, "Achas, Shtayim, Shalosh (one, two, three) etc. until seven. Rather, he says, "Achas V'achas, Achas V'shtayim, Achas V'shalosh (one and one, one and two, one and three, etc.) until seven (Mishnah Yoma, ibid).
Why add the word "Achas" which refers to the upward sprinkle to all seven downward sprinkles? To address all of this, let's turn to a fundamental teaching.
The Rema (Toras Haolah, vol. 2, chap. 26; vol. 3, chap. 59) teaches us that the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) has seven names (Succah, chap. 5, "Hachalil", pg. 52a, Rav Avirah or Rebbi Yehoshuah ben Levi) which shows us that he draws upon the seven physical forces of the world (that were created during the seven days of creation) in order to bring us down spiritually. This means that the Yetzer Hara has seven methods or seven traps to trip us up.
However, the Yetzer Tov (good inclination) has only one name. This represents single mindedness. The Yetzer Tov's one objective is to serve Hashem.
Hashem instructed the Kohen Gadol to sprinkle the blood specifically once in an upward direction and seven times in a downward direction in order to elevate the seven forces of the Yetzer Hara and join them to the Yetzer Tov so that a person can serve God in totality.
The Kohen Gadol kept this very thought in mind when he counted "Achas" with every downward sprinkle. The intention was to join forces with the Yetzer Hara, harnessing even it to the service of Hashem.
The Shevet Sofer (parshas Nitzavim, by Rabbi Simchah Bunim Sofer, grandson of the Chasam Sofer) adds that by sprinkling and counting in this unique fashion, the Kohen Gadol also wanted to defend the Jewish people. His claim was that the Jewish people only have one shot at doing things right. That is, by using the Yetzer Tov. However, they have several chances of ruining themselves. That is, by using the Yetzer Hara. In other words, there is a greater chance of being unholy than being holy. It's an unfair and uneven battle. The odds are stacked against us. Therefore, Hashem should have compassion on us and forgive us.
The Shelah (Derech Chaim, Tochachas Mussar, based on the Sefer Hayetzirah, 4:12) takes this to the next level by saying that there are seven gates on a person's body which lead to the soul. They are: the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils, and the mouth. We must protect our souls by not letting any spiritual filth through these seven gates.
Protecting these gates is hinted to in the opening sentence of our parsha which says, "Judges and law enforcing officials "Titen Lechah" (you must appoint for yourself) in all your gates" (Dt. 16:18). This refers to the communal responsibility to establish a judicial system with a police force.
However, the verse does not say, "Titen Lachem" (appoint for yourselves) in the plural, rather, it says, "Titen Lecha" (appoint for yourself) in the singular. Why?
The Shelah says that the Torah is also teaching us that each individual person must be a judge and police officer over his own personal gates. We must use our brains to "judge" what material we bring into our gates and what material we reject.
If we already brought unhealthy material into our systems, then we must penalize ourselves as "police officers" do. For example, we should give Tzeddakah (charity) to atone for sin. We should give an amount that hurts a little. Just as we must pay the price for speeding, we must pay the price for sinning!
The Avodas Yisrael (parshas Shoftim) says that this explains why parshas Shoftim falls out on the first Shabbos of Elul. It is because Elul is the month of repentance where we try to recreate ourselves into even better people. One of the primary ways of Teshuvah (repentance) is to watch over our gates by directing all our senses to serve Hashem. This is precisely what parshas Shoftim is calling out to us to do. Therefore, parshas Shoftim kicks off the month of Elul.
Now the sprinkling and counting of the Kohen Gadol takes on new meaning. The seven sprinkles below are intended to activate the seven gates that the Yetzer Hara tries to ruin, and direct them towards the service of the One God represented by the one sprinkle above.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds that the seven gates correspond to the seven days of the week. The order of the gates from top to bottom are: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and the mouth. Therefore, the two eyes correspond to the first two days, Sunday and Monday. The two ears correspond to Tuesday and Wednesday. The two nostrils correspond to Thursday and Friday, and the mouth corresponds to Shabbos.
Since Shabbos is the most beloved day, the mouth is the most beloved gate. Therefore, our mouths are supposed to increase the praises of Hashem on Shabbos with a longer davening and with songs at the Shabbos table.
May I just add that not only do the seven gates correspond the seven days of the week, but they also correspond the seven shepherds of Israel (Segulos Yisrael, Ma'areches Ayin #9, quoting the Mareh Yiladim in the name of the Sefer Eretz Hachayim). The order of the seven shepherds are: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe, Aharon, Yosef, and Dovid. Dovid is the seventh. Is it surprising that on the seventh day we increase our praising of Hashem with the seventh gate by drawing from Sefer Tehillim (Book of Psalms) written by the seventh shepherd, Dovid Hamelech!
We are also supposed to increase our Torah learning on Shabbos which is also done by using the mouth (Tur Orach Chaim, chap. 290).
Now, Shabbos is not just the seventh day, but it is also mashpiah (impacts) the following six days (Zohar). This demonstrates to us that the seventh gate can also impact the other six.
Therefore, on Motza"sh (Motzai Shabbos - Saturday night), the Sages instituted the Havdalah service which utilizes all seven gates. We use our eyes to see the candle, we use our ears to hear the words, we use our nostrils to smell the spices, and we use the mouth to recite the blessing. We are attempting to draw upon the energy of Shabbos and positively impact the other six days and gates in a holy way (Shvilei Pinchas).
Practically speaking, may I suggest an exercise for the month of Elul. There are five Motza"shs in Elul. During the Havdalah ceremony of each Motza"sh, let us privately and quietly pray to Hashem in our hearts that He give us the strength to control and sanctify our five senses which include the seven gates.
Then, during each of the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, let's focus on improving one of the five senses.
During the first week, let's try to improve our two eyes. Some examples of this would be as follows: At least once a day, look away from something impure and unholy. At least once a day, look at something holy with the intention of purifying our eyes. This also includes seeing the positive qualities in another person, even if we don't particularly care for him. Also, look at a person when being spoken to instead of being involved in thirty-five activities at the same time. Giving other people our undivided attention is also a mitzvah. It demonstrates respect.
During the second week, let's try to improve our two ears. Some examples of this are as follows: Each day, at least once, try to block our ears from hearing negative talk. This might require walking away from the scene. At least once a day, listen to something holy with the intention of purifying our ears. This also includes listening to another person who is talking to us. This means to take the ear phones out of our ears when being spoken to, even if nothing is playing at that time. This also includes becoming more of a listener than a talker. Maybe the other person just needs to be heard.
During the third week, let's try to improve our two nostrils. Each day, take besamim (spices), recite a beracha (blessing) over them and appreciate God's creation. Or, just breathe in deeply, at least once a day, and appreciate Hashem's air and His supplying us with a working respiratory system. Additionally, the nose is connected to detecting a problem. For example, we often say that something, "Doesn't smell right" or "Something smells fishy." So, if we are in doubt about the permissibility of something, abstain, especially during Elul.
During the fourth week, let's try to improve our mouths. For example, at least once a day, don't make that comment. At least once a day, compliment another person and lift his spirits. There is another positive use of the mouth. That is, smile at other people. Our faces do not belong to us. Our faces are a reshus harabim (public domain). We have no right to give another person a sour face, even if we are having a difficult day. I do not mean a plastic smile, but a sincere smile indicating that it's so nice to see you.
During the fifth week, let's try to improve the sense of touch. For example, most people are going through challenges in life, in one area or another. Therefore, give somebody a hug. A hug is a huge way of communicating to the other person that we are there for them. Obviously, we are talking about hugging people we are allowed to touch.
So, this Elul, may we all be blessed that our Yetzer Tovs sanctify the seven forces of the Yetzer Hara by controlling the seven gates of our bodies throughout the seven days of each week, thus becoming proper judges and officers over our actions, which will transform us into new creations, bringing us even closer to our Beloved One, Who will sprinkle upon us the holy waters, Achas L'maaleh V'sheva L'mateh, which will be mavdil (separate) us as Hashem's beloved holy nation.