It is told that the Apta Rebbe, Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta, once traveled all the way to see the sister of Rav Shmelke of Nikolsburg, who had passed away, because he wanted to hear a story about the great kabbalist.
This is the story she told him:
“My brother would study, pray, and meditate all day and night, and never sleep in his bed. Once, while he was studying in the middle of the night, he became very tired, and as he fell asleep, the candle he was using went out. He woke up a half hour later, around two or three o'clock in the morning, and was very upset when he saw that the candle had gone out, because without that light, he had no other way to study. He looked all over his quarters, and there was no fire or any way for him to re-light his candle. He lived in the attic of the house at the time, which was on the third or fourth floor, and was so upset that he took the candle and ran onto the roof so that he could somehow climb down to a lower floor to find somebody to light it.
“As he got to the roof, before he even had time to climb down, a man came up to him with a candle. However, the man was on the street level, and had somehow gotten his hand to extend all the way up to the roof and light the candle. After the candle was lit, Rav Shmelke of Nikolsburg went back and continued studying. He started to recount what had just happened, realizing that the roof was much higher than the ground; it made no sense that the man from the street was able to light his candle. He started thinking, ‘Who was that guy? Where did he come from?’ It really bothered him, so he asked the Creator to reveal to him what happened, from the supernal world.
“And from the heavens they explained to him that when Rav Shmelke of Nikolsburg’s candle went out, there was a tremendous tumult in the Upper Worlds, because in that moment, he stopped studying, praying, and meditating, and the Upper Worlds needed his Light, the Light of his prayer and his study. As such, they saw they had to do something to help him light his candle, so they sent Elijah the Prophet to do it. When Rav Shmelke heard this, he started crying, and for months was in pain and did teshuva because he felt so awful that they had inconvenienced Elijah the Prophet to come and light his candle.”
When Rav Shmelke of Nikolsburg’s sister finished telling the story, the Apter Rebbe got on his feet and started yelling to the people around him, “This great kabbalist, Rav Shmelke of Nikolsburg, thought it was a sin on his part that the heavens sent down Elijah the Prophet so that he could continue to study, and he accepted upon himself to do teshuvah for the inconvenience that he caused Elijah the Prophet. From his holy actions, we have to realize that if this was a sin he thought he needed to correct, imagine how much we have to correct!”
I hope this story awakens the understanding that none of us truly appreciates just how much we actually do have to correct. And especially, as we are in the month of Elul, the month in which we do teshuvah and make corrections, how can we awaken this appreciation for how far we truly are from being corrected, and, therefore, push ourselves to correct and change?
It is actually simple. If a person is corrected, it means that he is, in every moment, inspired and filled both with joy and with what the kabbalists call chiyut, or life. Any moment, therefore, when we are not feeling tremendously excited, connected, and with “life,” is a clear indication of the degree to which we still have to correct. Because when a person is corrected, he lives his life at 100 percent of inspiration and fulfillment.
As such, the question to ask ourselves is: what percentage of my day, week, or month is not filled with complete excitement, inspiration, and chiyut? And if we are honest with ourselves in answering, maybe it is only a few moments in the day when we are that inspired at the ultimate level. Why do we feel unhappy? Why do we feel uninspired? Why do we feel depressed? Because the weight of our uncorrected negativity has pulled our soul down to what the kabbalists call “the depths of the negative side."
Either our soul is completely corrected and, therefore, connected - the experience of which is of a never-ending, constant feeling of inspiration, of chiyut, life force - or we have some percentage of our day or week that is not filled with that excitement, inspiration, and sense of connection to the Light of the Creator. And that is an indication, as the kabbalists write, that our soul is being pulled down into the depths of the negative side.
When we think about correction, yes, we think about specific negative things that we need to correct, and that is important to do, but it is bigger than that; it is understanding what a life corrected looks like. And the way to be clear about how far we are from that life is in seeing what percentage of our day is actually filled with inspiration and chiyut.
And then, when we truly go through the process of teshuvah, and this to me is such a beautiful teaching, it is said that what we are doing is creating wings for our soul, wings that can elevate us out of the depths of negativity. So, if a person is doing the process of teshuvah correctly, it means that every day in this month of Elul, he feels more excited, inspired, and has more of that life force than the day before, because he is creating these wings for his soul to fly out of the weight of the Negative Side.
In the book of Psalms, in Tehillim, chapter 55, King David explains what we feel when we are not corrected: "My heart is in anguish…and the terrors of death have fallen upon me, and unexpectedly, I feel fear, I tremble." And then King David tells us what each of us should ask for as we begin the process of teshuvah, "May I merit to have wings like the dove… I will fly up and I will rest. I will find peace."
Any fear or type of anguish that we feel in each day is only for one reason: we have not yet corrected. And then, when we do go through the process of correction, we merit, as King David says, creating wings like the dove. We will be able to fly up and out of the negative depths, connecting to the Light of the Creator, finding both peace and the proper resting place for our soul. It is something beautiful and powerful we can ask for as we do teshuvah in the month of Elul.