Our Sages taught, “Repent one day before your death,” meaning that one must repent one day before he dies so that he will arrive clean and pure before Hashem and be saved from the judgment of Gehinnom. The students of Rabbi Eliezer asked him, “Does one know when he will die?” He replied, “Therefore, one must certainly repent today, for one may die tomorrow. In this way, one will be repentant all the days of his life.” Rabbi Eliezer wished to explain to his students what he meant by saying, “Repent one day before your death.” He wished to shift our attention to the fact that death is the end of all of mankind and that man will one day be required to give judgment for all of his deeds before Hashem, King of all kings. Thus, one must give thought to the fact that if one continues with one’s unsavory actions, one shall depart from this world without having repented causing one’s end to be bitter indeed. It is therefore imperative that one awaken himself and mend one’s ways immediately and persevere with one’s service of Hashem. As our Sages said, “One should remind himself of one’s day of death,” for when one reminds himself of one’s day of death, one is roused to think about what his end will be like and in this way, one will be persuaded to repent.
Similarly, when we now find ourselves in the midst of the month of Elul which is right before the Judgment Day of Rosh Hashanah, although throughout the rest of the year one may have been preoccupied with one’s livelihood and other worldly matters, nevertheless, one must take care not to lose out on these awesome days which are so close to one’s final judgment. The driving force that causes one to do evil before Hashem throughout the year is that of desire which is indeed part of one’s self. If so, a human being is in control of himself, as the wise man writes (in Sefer Totza’ot Chaim, authored by one of the great Rishonim): “I have been sold to slaves, yet only my desires conquer me,” for only a servant of Hashem who follows his mind and is able to overcome his physical desires is truly free; however, one who follows one’s heart’s desires is constantly being dragged along by the tides of life and does not realize that every year, one stands to be judged before Hashem and in Heaven, one’s situation is weighed on the scale and unfortunately has not become any better, for one has not uplifted himself as much as is expected of him. Nevertheless, Hashem holds off his anger from the individual and decrees upon him more and more years of life, but the bottom line is that every person has an end. How then will the individual justify himself before Hashem when Hashem tells him, “I have given you more than you deserved and you have not roused yourself even a little bit to repent and I have already said, ‘Return to me and I shall return to you,’” for Hashem does not wish for the evil to die; rather, he wishes that they repent and live. When one ponders this point, it should cause one to strengthen himself more and more in his service of Hashem and to repent as much as possible, for we must all repent during these days since “there is no righteous man in the land who shall do only good and not sin.”
We are not oblivious to the fact that a man cannot change the entire essence of his being in one month’s time and it is impossible to believe that one who is filled with sins and bad character traits will be able to change himself from one extreme to another with only a month’s work. Nevertheless, one should pinpoint the things that cause one the greatest difficulty, for instance, if he one a bad friend, one should accept upon himself to distance himself from him and if one knows that he is a gossip-monger, one should accept upon himself to make certain “fences” to distance himself from this sin, etc. Similarly, one should accept upon himself in general to repent in all aspects of life. By doing so, one will be steadfast in one’s service of Hashem, ascend from one level to another, and one shall merit having success in one’s judgment by Hashem granting all of one’s heart’s desires for the good. Hashem will be happy with this individual as is a father with his wise and successful child and one shall likewise be happy with one’s Creator.