Chazal tell us in numerous places that our fates for the upcoming year are predetermined on Rosh Hashanah. Therefore, it is appropriate to approach this Day of Judgment with trepidation. Indeed, R' Yisroel Salanter recalls how many Jews in Europe would tremble when they heard the word "Elul" mentioned. Unfortunately, as time wore on, it may be said that, the general sensitivity of people declined steeply, and the word "Elul" no longer carries the significance that it once had.
There is a concept in accounting called “zero-based budgeting.” Under zero-based budgeting, no department within a company receives automatic allotments from the CFO based on past performance. Rather, every department has to prove to the CFO on a yearly basis why they should be entitled to receive a given amount of funding. Otherwise, they receive nothing. On Rosh Hashanah, our situation is the same. Just because we received certain blessings in the past year doesn't mean that we will receive them again in the following year.
On Rosh Hashanah G-d decrees whether we will live or die, whether we will be rich or poor, whether we will be healthy or sick, and whether we will experience any type of joy or pain in the upcoming year. Therefore, there is obviously a lot at stake on this auspicious day. R' Eliyahu Dessler points out that the existence of the Jewish people is under constant threat by anti-Semitic governments. The purpose of those threats is to stimulate us to do teshuvah. When we feel too secure in our lifestyles, we tend to forget about G-d and seek to satisfy our physical desires.
The Chofetz Chaim emphasizes that even natural disasters are predetermined on Rosh Hashanah. In the early 1900s, two deadly earthquakes struck Eretz Yisroel and Russia. In a letter that he wrote addressing the catastrophe, the Chofetz Chaim attributed the disaster to a message from G-d to do teshuvah. The Chofetz Chaim stressed that everything that happens in this world is directed by G-d and nothing happens by mere chance. The Rambam espouses the same view in Hilchos Ta'anis. In fact, the Rambam writes that someone who attributes natural disasters to "mother nature" demonstrates cruelty.
When a massive tsunami struck Southeast Asia in 2004 and claimed a quarter of a million lives, R' Aharon Leib Shteinman warned people to be more careful with their speech. The Mashgiach of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, R' Dov Keilson, offered the following explanation for Rav Shteinman’s words: A person's faculty of speech is supposed to be governed by certain boundaries. Similarly, the water in the ocean is not supposed to flow past the boundaries of the dry land. However, when people abuse their faculty of speech and disregard those boundaries, so too does the water in the ocean overflow its boundaries and brings massive destruction to the world.
The name "Elokim" for G-d refers to G-d's role as an Omnipotent Being. No power exists outside of G-d. We also know that Man is created in G-d's image. But how can Man be perceived as being omnipotent? The Nefesh HaChaim explains that Man influences all the events of this world through his actions. When Man is righteous, good comes to the world. When Man sins, he brings death and destruction to the world. Therefore, Man is omnipotent in the sense that he can influence all the events of this world through his ethical decisions.
In the book of Yonah, the captain of the ship that Yonah the Prophet was traveling in found Yonah sleeping in the ship's cabin as the ship was in danger of sinking. Thereupon, the captain asked Yonah why he was sleeping and not praying to his G-d for salvation. The Chofetz Chaim writes that every Jew today is like the captain of that ship. It is our job to ask ourselves why we are not paying attention to the awesome judgment that we will be facing on Rosh Hashanah.
The sound of the Shofar is supposed to awaken us to the call for teshuvah. However, as R' Yisroel Salanter zt"l noted in his generation, people have become completely desensitized to the sound of the Shofar. Today we need mussar to direct us on the right path. Therefore, it is crucial that every Jew set aside time every day to study mussar.
The Rambam writes that the avodah of a Jew during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is to do teshuvah. R' Itzele Peterberger asks why the Rambam singles out teshuvah from all the other mitzvos in the Torah. If the purpose of doing teshuvah is simply to tip the balance of the Scale of Judgment in favor of our mitzvos, why shouldn't any mitzvah suffice?
In his sefer Shaarei Teshuvah, Rabbeinu Yonah answers that rejecting the opportunity to repent for our past misdeeds demonstrates that we don’t really believe in G-d’s system of reward and punishment. Such a demonstration is in itself cause for severe punishment.
R' Aharon Kotler alternatively explains that the mitzvah of teshuvah is unique, since it has the ability to change the past. When a person does teshuvah, he transforms all of his past sins into mitzvos. However, all other mitzvos only accord a person merit for the future.
When we repent for our sins, there are two forms that our repentance can take: repentance out of fear and repentance out of love. Repentance out of fear requires that one regret his past misdeeds, completely reform his behavior, and break his negative attitudes and habits. This is a very difficult form of repentance to do. Repentance out of love, on the other hand, is motivated by our appreciation of the miracles that we experience. When G-d performs a miracle to give us a new lease on life, we should be inspired to mend our ways and to thereby atone for all our past misdeeds. When a person reaches the recognition that everything he has in life is a G-d-given gift, he will undoubtedly repent out of love for G-d.
R' Moshe Bamberger related that he once witnessed a large black SUV skid on a patch of ice and slam into six cars. There was broken glass everywhere, and car parts littered the entire street. R' Bamberger was amazed when the driver of the SUV walked out of his vehicle a few seconds later and called his employer using his own cell phone. Unfortunately, the driver was completely unfazed by the miracle that he experienced.
During “Elul” the doors are wide open for us to mend our ways through the vehicle of teshuvah. When we do teshuvah, we declare that our real desire in life is to be servants of G-d.