Earlier this year, at a more frivolous moment, I introduced a Jimmy Fallon-inspired game to the pulpit, something we called, Minhag or Shminhag. I would share a Jewish practice and ask the audience, I mean congregation, if the said practice was a minhag – meaning a legitimate and sanctioned practice, or a shminhag – a made up word for made-up practices.
Now I know this is a serious time for all of us, as we are about to say Yizkor, but we are also about to celebrate Simchas Torah, and this holiday, aside from being an extremely joyous one, is also ground zero for some of the strangest, logic-defying Jewish customs. Simchas Torah, more than any other day on the Jewish calendar is ripe with both minhagim and shminhagim.
I’d like to share with you just a few of these minhagim/ shminhagim.
In the Talmud, the only thing that is mentioned about Simchas Torah is that they would read Parshas V’zos Habracha, the final section of the Torah and that’s it. Meaning, in Talmudic times, Simchas Torah looked no different than Shmini Atzeres – a Jewish holiday like any other.
But then Jewish life happened. In a responsa from the year 1038, Rav Hai Gaon, living in Babylon, the center of the Diaspora, describes the following practice – the individual who would receive the final Aliyah of the Torah, known as Chassan Torah, would wear the Torah’s crown on his head to receive the Aliyah. What do you think Rav Hai Gaon had to say about that practice? Minag or shminhag?
Well, he didn’t love it as he saw it as an affront to the honor of the Torah, but since it was “so widespread” he let it go. And it became enshrined as a Simchas Torah minhag.
Another example – Dancing, not the shuffle, but real fast-paced dancing, is, per the Talmud, forbidden on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and yet, with the exception of Yekkes, German Jews, (who don’t know what dancing is anyway) every single synagogue has wild dancing on Simchas Torah. Forget minhag or shminhag, it is assur/ forbidden to dance like we do on Simchas Torah, and yet, this practice of dancing up a storm was accepted as the norm. Isn’t that amazing? Dancing went from being forbidden to being an accepted minhag.
Another example – Normally, drinking alcohol is frowned upon with perhaps the exception of Purim. Even then, to do so in the context of prayer is forbidden. For a Kohein to do Birkas Kohanim under the influence is a grave sin – a sin learned from the tragic episode of Nadav and Avihu who died doing the priestly service while intoxicated. And yet, on Simchas Torah, in an inversion of values, Birkas Kohanim is moved to Shacharis due to the fact that apparently there were no sober Kohanim by the time Mussaf came along. (If you do plan on drinking, please, please, please do so responsibly.) What a crazy minhag! But everyone does it!
My first Simchas Torah at Ner Tamid, someone told me that the minhag of the shul was that on Simchas Torah the rabbi does not sit up on his chair. I thought to myself, that is ridiculous. Shminhag all the way! But I later realized that there are a number of Simchas Torah minhagim which try to create a spirit of egalitarianism, so maybe it’s a minhag after all…
Let me share with you one more minhag/ shminhag, this is by far the wildest example. It is a practice quoted by the Maharil, Rav Yakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, probably the most important Ashkenazi scholar of the 15th century. He describes a custom where children would go from home to home, or rather from Sukkah to Sukkah, on Simchas Torah, and they would take the s’chach – with or without permission – they would collect the wood into one huge pile and light it, creating a tremendous bonfire to dance around. Minhag or shminhag?
This is illegal, assur mid’oraytah on so many counts!
First of all, the kids were stealing the wood. You know, like one of the ten commandments (sort of). Second, they were destroying a structure, something you are not allowed to do on Yom Tov. Third, they were lighting a fire that served no real purpose, again, a violation of the laws of Yom Tov. And yet, the Maharil writes a wildly creative justification. Not only that, but his student records that he encouraged the kids to take the s’chach especially from the grumpy people who were opposed to them doing so. Talk about a shminhag!
What in the world is going on here? How did Simchas Torah evolve into such a circus-like day? Especially since so many of our practices are not only strange and different but they are straight-up shminhagim, they are predicated on extremely shaky halachic ground.
Rabbi Professor Chaim Saiman has a fascinating article on the topic and that’s where I drew these many examples from. He shares a theory of his own, on the Lehrhaus website, which you could read for yourself (https://thelehrhaus.com/holidays/the-inverted-halakhah-of-simhat-torah/). But I’d like to just make a simple observation which I want to focus on today, and that is this: whatever the sociological factors may be, Simchas Torah evolved. Big time. If your great-great-grandparents going back to the year 500 came into a shul on any given day, they would feel right at home; the tunes may be a little different, but the liturgy, the customs that surround them, we’ve been doing the same thing for at least 1500 years, if not more. But on Simchas Torah, they would not feel at home. They wouldn’t know what hit them. I mean literally they’d probably get hit in the face with a candy. And then they’d try to get up but their tallis would be tied to their chair by some troublemaker – by the way, making a permanent knot on Yom Tov is another violation of Torah law. And then they’d wonder why we’re reading the Torah at night, something we never ever do. And they’d be shocked to see the guy doing hagbah, criss-crossing his hands, unroll the scroll a good eight (nine?) columns as if the Torah was a set of weights in a gym. Your great-great-grandparents would be totally lost.
And for the most part, I want to be part of a faith that could proudly say that Ravina and Rav Ashi, the authors of our constitution, the Talmud, would feel at home at our shul, at Ner Tamid. For the most part, I want to be engaging in rituals that Moshe Rabbeinu, were he to be here, would know exactly what we are doing. But there is also a part of our faith that is not static. There is also a part of our faith that evolves over time. And I’m not a sociologist so I can’t tell you why or how. But I could tell you that there is some ‘give’ in the Torah that allows for a subtle evolution of sorts.
From the Halachic standpoint, from the perspective of Jewish Law, you know how it works?
It’s a dance. A question is asked, an answer is given. A practice is tried, some take off, some do not. Some become established minhagim, others regulated to the dustbin on shminhag lore. There is a give and take, a dynamic, between us and our tradition, between the Jewish People and the Torah. It’s a slow dance, it’s not exactly a horah, but over time there is a slow and steady evolution.
While some may cynically see in that change a Torah that can be bent out of shape to match up with our needs and desires, I prefer to see something very different in this Torah evolution.
There’s an old song by Abie Rotenberg called the Place Where I Belong. The tune is so beautiful that it is sung almost universally on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur… But the words are just as majestic. It’s a story of a Torah scroll from the perspective of the scroll itself. She describes the process of her being written by the scribe with tenderness and care. Then she describes the procession as she made her way to the shul for the very first time to be placed in the wooden Aron. But before she’s placed there, the rabbi holds the Torah to his chest.
He spoke out loud and clear to all the rest.
He said, “No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old,
Live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.”
The Torah scroll then describes the generations coming and going but no matter what, they always take her out of the Aron three times a week. They always read from her and dance with her, and lovingly kiss her and return her to her place in the wooden Aron.
But then, the war breaks out, and before the Nazis come, the Shamash quickly hides the scroll in a dark cellar where she remains unused but safe until finally years later, someone finds her, they gently take her out of her hiding place, wrap her up and send her to America.
Tragically, she was not taken to a shul:
And in a case of glass they put me on display,
Where visitors would look at me and say,
“How very nice, how beautiful, a stunning work of art, ”
But they knew not what was inside my heart.
What we are celebrating today, tomorrow, and really every day, is that we know exactly what is inside the Torah’s heart. Not only do we know what’s inside, but we engage with her, we question her, she answers, she challenges us and we respond. It’s a dynamic. It’s alive. The Torah is not behind a glass wall. It’s something each and every one of us will have the opportunity to hold tomorrow, to kiss, to dance with.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that the one day a year that is unrecognizable to our ancestors is Simchas Torah. Because it is on this day that we celebrate the Torah being alive. It’s the day we celebrate the tension of the Torah; how on the one hand the Torah informs our worldview and yet we grapple with the instances that this view conflicts with a modern worldview that at times seems to resonate even deeper. What do we do? How do we respond?
You know what we do? We dance. We ask, she answers, she challenges and we respond. It’s alive. And it’s ours. Not to be misused or misconstrued, it’s very easy to do that. As Shakespeare once said, the devil doth quote scripture. So no, not to misappropriate, but to honest and earnestly dance with the values and the laws that G-d transcribed into our Torah scrolls. Because ultimately, when the tension between us and the Torah are irreconcilable, it is the Torah that will remain unchanged, and we who will learn a new dance. This is why we dance around the Torah – she is at the center of our lives, and we can never lose sight of that. But sometimes when all the dancing is done, somehow, I am truly uncertain as to how, but over time, our practices have changed ever so subtly.
If you are here today for Yizkor, if you are here tonight or tomorrow for Simchas Torah, then clearly you have made a choice to dance with the Torah. Not literally. But for you, if you are practicing in any which way, that means the Torah is alive for you. It’s not something to gawk at in a museum. To regale your grandkids with stories of a bygone era. It’s part of your life. Judaism is real to you.
Maybe your parents danced more vigorously, maybe they danced less vigorously. Whatever the case may be, you are here, and because you’re here the evolution of the Torah is taking place through you. The questions you ask, the practices you engage in, you are keeping the Torah alive!
We are all part of this organism, this mass of people called the Jewish People, and the questions we ask, the things we do, impacts the future. Through our Jewish dance, we will define the Jewish future. That’s an amazing thing to reflect upon; we are not just bearers of a tradition, we are also tasked with ensuring its vitality by living, and by dancing with the Torah.
I’ve suggested and asked of you many things over this holiday season, and I’d like to make one final request; don’t stop dancing around the Torah. Never forget that the Torah is at the center of our lives. And please allow me to share with you two practical ways to do so:
The first is to ask questions. As an example – the Simchas Torah celebration at Ner Tamid, especially as it pertains to women, has changed a lot over the years and it is still very much in flux. Like so many other Simchas Torah customs, it has evolved. But it didn’t evolve on its own. It evolved because people cared, and people questioned, and people studied. And that’s wonderful. It is a beautiful expression of the fact that the Torah is alive to us.
But Simchas Torah is the analogy, it is the parable. It needs to reflect our entire Jewish experience. Ask Jewish questions every day! Not just about Simchas Torah! Ask Jewish questions not only about what we do in shul, but also what you do at home! You could text me, email, WatsApp. I even use the phone sometimes! Or forget me! Don’t quote me on this, but ask Rabbi Google! Engage in the Torah in any which way! Allow the Torah to change our lives! Be open to that evolution in our personal lives as well.
That’s the personal dance. The private dance.
But there’s also a public dance. Last week, Congressman Elijah Cummings passed away. Ladies and gentlemen, please no politics today. But one thing that we can all agree upon is that he made a genuine effort to create a bridge between the Jewish community and the Black community. I have met and heard from graduates of his youth program; Baltimore youth who were sent to Israel to learn about Judaism, Jewish history, and the Jewish People, and to hear from them how that changed their view of this community. He led a magnificent dance between our communities and now he’s gone. And we mourn his loss.
But the dance must go on. And it must go on today, more than ever. Ties between communities, between people, is at an all-time low. What’s going on just a few blocks away from us is just beyond description. It’s complex, I know. But if we were to have the Torah at the center of our life, the most basic expectation she has of us, is to look out for those in need, it is to be a good neighbor. To say hello. To create relationships in a world where relationships with neighbors is old-fashioned. That’s one Torah ideal that I hope never evolves into anything else. As a community, we need to pick up our public dance with all of our neighbors.
I’ve said a lot today so let’s review: Simchas Torah reminds us that the Torah is not an artifact. It is alive and it evolves. But it only evolves through us engaging with her.
We’ve had a beautiful holiday season here in shul. Let’s bring that beauty into our homes and let’s bring that beauty into the streets of Baltimore. Let’s dance with the Torah every day of our lives.
No matter if you’re very young, or even if you’re old,
Live by the words you’ll find inside this scroll.
Live by the words you’ll find inside my soul.
For the past seven years, every Kol Nidrei night, I would stand up on the bima with Max Jacob. Dressed in his white kittel, truly looking like an angel, Max would open the Aron, the Ark, and then do what he did best; he would manage and direct. “This person should take this Torah, this person should take that Torah.” And if there were ever too many people and not enough Torahs, he would find the perfect comment to whisper to the individual who was Torah-less, making sure they did not feel bad.
We would stand together, and I would hear him hum along as the Chazzan sang the ancient melody. The haunting, stilted tune of Kol Nidrei, going back at least a thousand years is evocative for all of us, it arouses some of our deepest memories.
Standing with Max, I would wonder what memories would be going through his head. Was it memories of his father? Of his mother? Of his sister who were murdered by the Nazis? Was it memories of a Yom Kippur spent in the ghetto? In a concentration camp? Or would it be the more positive memories of life after death, of when he somehow managed to rebuild out of those ashes?
After Kol Nidrei, Max would ensure that each Torah was placed in its rightful spot. He would then pull the chord, the curtain would close, and then, as everyone made their way back to their seats, Max would turn to me with a big smile and say, “Rabbi, let’s do this again next year.” And he would walk off the bima.
Each year, though I hoped and prayed that we would indeed ‘do it again next year,’ but as I watched him slowly make his way down the stairs, I couldn’t help but wonder, would we really? Can this frail man who went through so much, who was still battling so much more, would he really be back again for Kol Nidrei the following year?
But of course, each year he would surprise me. Each year, he would stand here, sing along with the Chazzan, say the blessing of Shehechiyanu, close the Ark, turn to me and say, “Rabbi, let’s do this again next year.”
One of the last conversations I had with Max Jacob was at the Good Samaritan hospital in late October of 2018. It was days after the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I asked Max what his thoughts were; did he think this was the beginning of a new era of antisemitism in America? Did he think what happened in Europe in the 30’s and 40’s could possibly happen here?
Now you have to understand – though Max and I spoke openly about everything, we both avoided talking about antisemitism with one another. I think we both realized early on that we had very different viewpoints on the matter. Max would want to commemorate the Holocaust at every opportunity, and I would try to avoid talking about the Holocaust as much as I could. Max’s attention would be drawn to an antisemitic incident anywhere in the world, and he would sound the alarm bells, and I would try to minimize these events as best as possible, reminding everyone that we are living in a very different world.
My ideology about anti-Semitism doesn’t come from optimism per se. It actually comes from a fear; a fear that for too many years, Jews have been bombarded with messages of the Holocaust, of martyrdom, and of being victims to antisemitism. For too many Jews, they’re identification with Judaism revolves around the Holocaust alone. According to a recent Pew report, 73% of American Jews consider the Holocaust to be essential to their Jewish identity – a higher percentage than anything else, higher than Israel, than G-d, than morality. Judaism to so many Jews is all about people trying to kill us and about suffering. And I find that to be a real shame and a threat to our self-identity. To define ourselves by our victimhood is a recipe for attrition. Who wants to be a victim? Who will be inspired by being the hated people? And aside from the negative impact on Jewish continuity, it’s just not true. This negative self-view eclipses so much of the beauty, the meaning, and the optimism that Judaism has to offer.
Max, a Holocaust survivor, having been born into a different world, with a different set of experiences, with gaping losses and nightmarish memories, obviously saw things a little differently. And so, we generally avoided the conversation.
Amazingly, in response to my question about Pittsburgh, Max said he was not worried about a new wave of antisemitism. He told me that things are different in America. That we were safe here.
Now, maybe he said it to make me feel good – I will never know. I will never know because that was the last real conversation I had with him. No more quick coffees with him in the morning where I could grill him on pre-Holocaust life in Romania, no more planning sessions in the shul office, where we would prepare for a Shabbos or Yom Tov at Ner Tamid where I would marvel at his quick wit and political astuteness. And no more Yom Kippur’s. With Max standing near me. Shaking my hand.
I have wondered since then, if Max would have changed his optimistic view that Pittsburgh was an exception. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind when just a few months later, on April 27th yet another shul in America was attacked by a gunman, this time in Poway, California. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind when politicians in Ocean County started encouraging their constituents to “rise up” against the Jews moving in. I have wondered if he would have changed his mind after an Orthodox Jew was beaten with a brick on the streets of Crown Heights, one of many such violent antisemitic incidents on the streets of New York these past few months. I have wondered if he would have been perturbed knowing that Jeremy Corbyn, an unabashed anti-Semite, is one seat way from ruling England’s parliament.
I don’t know if his opinion would have changed, but I know that mine has. For the first time I find myself worrying. For the first time I find myself uncertain about the future. And for the first time I find myself not being able to ignore antisemitism.
For the first time in my life, I found myself researching anti-Semitism. Not the history of anti-Semitism, we are all too familiar with that. But a theology of anti-Semitism. What does Judaism have to say about this eternal hatred, dating back to even before we were a nation?
Of course, there is a well-known Medrash, a Sifrei, that “Eisav soneh et Yaakov” – that Eisav, who in this passage represents the nations of the world, hates Jacob, hates the Jewish People. To me, a statement like this one, understood superficially, as it usually is, only exasperates the issue. Aside from ignoring the vast majority of righteous gentiles, it does not explain why.
Another oft-quoted passage is found in the writing of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, otherwise known as the Ohr Samayach, one of the most respected rabbis of the early 20th century. He describes how every few hundred years, after Jews have settled into a new land, they start to assimilate with their host nation. And to prevent further assimilation, to prevent the Jews from completely losing their identity, G-d sends a terrible storm, in the form of pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, and crusades to disrupt their lives. In an almost prophetic paragraph, he describes the state of Judaism in his time – he is writing in the 1920’s – he describes Jews who are so assimilated to their host country that they describe Berlin as the New Jerusalem. And he concludes with a warning of a new storm, a new disruption, even fiercer than any that came before. To Rabbi Meir Simcha, ironically, antisemitism is the great buffer against assimilation.
Diving deeper, into the esoteric sources of our tradition, Rav Tzadok HaKohen, a great mystic suggests that all of anti-Semitism comes from a Messianic impulse. In a future world which we pray for, the world will be unified and together, all as one. But today, now, in this pre-Messianic world, when we the Jewish People stand out more so than any other nation or faith, when we have different customs and different laws, when we have a nation state and not a full-fledged democracy, this is something that cannot be tolerated by the nations of the world. And so, in a premature and perverse way, they act on this Messianic impulse by forcing us to not be so different by fighting against our unique practices, and when that does not work, they go even further, eliminating us from this world. To Rav Tzadok, antisemitism is a premature impulse from a utopian world.
Fascinating ideas, but no direction. No action items. What do we do with these ideas? How are they to impact us? None of them provide a coherent and practical response to the hatred that we are experiencing.
I wish I would have asked Max Jacob what he could have done differently in Europe in the 40’s to prevent the onslaught. I wish I had that conversation with him, but I never did.
And so, I turned to my colleagues. I posted this question on a list-serve with hundreds of rabbis, hoping someone would enlighten me. But I was dismayed. Some suggested political action, which goes without saying. Of course, we must use every tool at our disposal to fight anti-Semitism on the local and national level. Others suggested that we must all move to Israel – as if there’s no anti-Semitism there. I am the biggest proponent of making Aliyah, but we have been around too long to naively think that Israel is immune to destruction. Heaven forbid that such a thing should ever happen. Others just threw their hands up and said, kach hi darko shel olam, this is the way of the world.
And I refuse to accept that. The only thing more supernatural than the survival of the Jewish People after all these years, is the incessant, undying, ever-morphing hatred of the Jewish People. How could we just ignore such an exceptional phenomenon? To be aware of such a logic-defying reality and not be moved by it any way is unacceptable.
But I missed my chance to ask Max, and my colleagues, though I love them and respect them, fell short. So to whom do we turn for direction when there is no one to turn to?
The Talmud in Pesachim, daf samekh-vav, describes the famous sage, Hillel, being questioned by the rabbis on a number of intricacies of Jewish law. For each question he has an answer. They ask him things that they had been grappling with for years and Hillel coolly quotes verse after verse, logical inference after logical inference and tradition after tradition, and leaves them all amazed.
But then they ask him a question which he has no answer for; he does not know. This was a question though, that needed to be answered. It was a question about Erev Pesach and it was just a few days before Pesach. The rabbis were worried, what will we do? What will we tell our congregants? Our followers? But Hillel was calm as can be.
He told them, and I quote, hanach lahem l’Yisrael, don’t worry about the Jewish People. Im ein nevi’im heim, even if they are not prophets, b’nei neviim heim, they are the children of prophets. G-d will somehow make sure they know what to do. He will drop the right idea in their collective minds. And sure enough, on Erev Pesach, the Jewish population on their own, without any direction from their elders or leaders, as if driven by some mystical intuition, knew exactly what they were supposed to be.
Our elders are no longer – we do not have a Max Jacob and those of his generation. We do not have clear guidance from our leading rabbis. We no longer have prophecy. But we do have a Jewish People. And even if they are not prophets, b’nei neviim heim, they are the children of prophets, and they will tell us what to do. So let me share with you what the Jewish People are doing in response to the most modern threat of anti-Semitism:
Listen to the words of Miranda Levy, a young non-observant, freelance journalist who normally writes about entertainment and family life, who now lives in the UK:
“Two weeks ago,” she writes, “I went to my local synagogue for the first time in 33 years. This was surprising because I haven’t set foot in a shul in all this time apart from a couple of weddings and the odd bar mitzvah. This is because over the past few months, both my political sensibilities and my sense of cultural identity have radically changed.
You may have heard that the UK has a problem with anti-Semitism … This moved sharply into the mainstream when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015. Now there is a realistic chance that Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister.
Now, in response, me and so many others are reconnecting to our Judaism. I have a friend who said: “Jeremy Corbyn has made a lot of people who didn’t feel very Jewish, Jewish again.” MP Margaret Hodge agrees. “I remember my dad tried to make me Jewish and failed,” “The local rabbi tried to make me Jewish and failed. It took the leader of the Labour Party to do that.” On Twitter @Gilana25 wrote that “I had always felt Jewish, but British first,” “Now it’s Jewish first.” And for me, newly single, I am enjoying an online flirtation with a Jewish novelist from Chicago I met on Twitter. I am proud of my Jewish surname (which) I haven’t always been. As I am writing this, a message from a Jewish friend pops up on Twitter. “Will I see you in shul on Friday?” The answer, most emphatically, is yes.”
Like so many others, Miranda took part in the post-Pittsburgh campaign of solidarity to show up for Shabbos, to attend a synagogue even for those who normally do not. But for so many, it wasn’t just that weekend that they showed up, they keep on showing up for Shabbos.
And it’s not just in the UK. Listen to the words of Bari Weiss, a young, non-observant editor for the New York Times, and I quote: “The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.
In these trying times, our best strategy is to build, without shame, a Judaism and a Jewish people and a Jewish state that are not only safe and resilient but also generative, humane, joyful and life-affirming. A Judaism capable of lighting a fire in every Jewish soul — and in the souls of everyone who throws in his or her lot with ours.”
These are not the words of rabbis, of survivors, or of famous Jewish thinkers. There are just regular Jews, b’nei nevi’im, the children of prophets. These are Jews who otherwise wouldn’t always have been so proud of their Judaism but are now embracing it. And you know what they’re saying?
They’re saying, Show up for Shabbos. Come to shul! They’re saying, don’t be embarrassed to defend our historic connection to our homeland. They’re saying be proud of your heritage! They’re saying defy the anti-Semites not with less Jewish life, but with more of it.
And I realized as I read these messages, as I saw the pictures of thousands of otherwise disconnected Jews attend services after these terrible incidents, that this was Max Jacob’s message after all. I reaized I made a mistake. Max did not define himself by anti-Semitism. He was not one of those people who felt their entire Jewish identity was wrapped up with the Holocaust. It was the opposite! His entire identity was a rebellion against the Holocaust. His Jewish life was a protest against the anti-Semites of the world, telling them with his life, with his joy, with his Jewish pride, that they make have taken so much away, but they cannot rob him of his connection to his G-d and to His people.
And in retrospect, I realized that the most powerful memory I have of Max is not from Tisha B’av, or Yom Hashoah. The most powerful memory I have is at my dining room table on Purim. Max was smiling with his beautiful smile that lit up the room. He was smiling because we were sitting together, with maybe 30 or 40 of us, singing songs of joy, celebrating our Judaism with pride and with passion. He took in the scene and he asked if everyone could be silent for a moment and he stood up and said, “Hitler! Where are you?! You’re six feet under. Look where I am! Look where the Jewish People are!” and he sat back down and we continued to sing.
Max showed up for Shabbos. Max showed up for minyan. Max showed up for every Mitzvah. Max’s response to anti-Semitism like the youth of our generation was not one of sadness or cowardice, but one of pride of becoming even more Jewish.
Ladies and gentlemen, as much as I’d love to, I cannot and we cannot ignore anti-Semitism anymore. It’s here and it’s ugly. Of course we must do everything in our power to fight it politically. But that’s not enough. The prophets of our generation are speaking. Young men and women who probably wouldn’t dream of stepping into an Orthodox shul like this one are telling us what we need to do, and they are right. They are telling us to be better Jews. To be prouder Jews. To show up.
We will be commemorating Max Jacob as a community in a month and a half from now, and I hope you will all be able to contribute to that event. But tonight, on this holy night I have a different appeal to make. How will you fight antisemitism? In what way will you show up? In what way you will connect to your heritage with even more fervor? Is there a particular Mitzvah you’ve been ignoring that perhaps it’s time to embrace? Maybe it’s showing up to shul just a little more often? Maybe it’s learning something new? Maybe it’s just being an amazing person, a proud and passionate Jew?
We pray to G-d on this holy day for an end to this senseless and age-old animosity. But if he dares rear his ugly head, let us never define ourselves by this hate. Instead, we will define ourselves in defiance of this hate, by being even more proud and even more passionate. May the fires of our bold Judaism extinguish the cowardly fires of antisemitism once and for all. And let us say, amen!
Just over two thousand years ago, a Roman official visiting Jerusalem recorded in great detail the scene he took in on the Eve of Passover, on Erev Pesach. He describes Yerushalayim teeming with hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children from all over the country and beyond. How they all thronged to the gates of the Temple with their Pascal Lambs. There were too many people to all enter the Temple’s gates at once and so the Levites would open the gates, allow the courtyard to fill to capacity, and then close the gates behind them. Then the group would leave, another group would come in, and they would again close the gates shut, doing this a total of three times to allow for everyone to enter those holy gates.
To keep up with the exceptionally high volume of offerings, every single kohein would be employed. All the priests would be called into service for Pesach. The Levites would be practicing for this day the entire year. Singing together as one, with the most heavenly harmonies, accompanied by a symphony, they would chant the Hallel in an angelic roar, growing louder and louder, until they reached the climax of their song. Then the gates would open, a new mass of people would come in, and they would do it all over again.
What a sight! Described the Roman officer. What a powerful mass of joy and Jewishness coming together. The shouts of delight, of old friends and family reuniting, mingling together with the uplifting sounds of the Leviim’s music.
If Pesach was the loudest day in the ancient Temple, then Yom Kippur was the quietest. The courtyard would again be filled to capacity, but on Yom Kippur it was deathly silent. The Levites did not sing; they did not play their instruments, as they would on every other day. The Kohanim, normally so busy, so quick, would stand at attention, unflinching. Only one man moved on Yom Kippur. Only one individual did anything at all on the Temple grounds. The High Priest, the Kohein Gadol. He, and he alone, was the center of the drama of the day.
It was he who brought each offering, he alone brought the incense. It was he who lit the Menorah, and he alone entered the Holy of Holies, the kodesh kodoshim.
While everyone in the courtyard would strain to catch a glimpse of the High Priest, he would perform an ancient and intricate dance; the dance of atonement. Gracefully making his way from the outer courtyard to the inner sanctum and back again, changing outfits to reflect the spirit of each segment of the service. Perfectly choreographed down to the “finest of finest” of details. One man; one man alone.
Pesach is the festival of community, of coming together, of connecting to the past and building towards the Jewish future. Yom Kippur is a day of singular oneness, of the present, of the individual, of you and you alone. It’s warm and comforting connecting to a family holiday like Pesach, and it’s somewhat awkward to connect to this lonely day of Yom Kippur. But that is exactly the point.
Maimonides in his famous work on Repentance describes a scale of merits and transgressions. It is the scale of all of humankind, and during these days, from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, it dips to the positive, to the side of life, and then precariously tips to the side of sin and of death, and then back again. With that imagery in mind, the Rambam writes, “Tzarich kol adam sheyirah atzmo, each individual must see themselves,” standing before this scale. “Chata cheit echad, harei hichria es atzmo v’es kol ha’olam kulo l’chaf chova. If you perform one sin, you tip the scales, yours and the whole entire world to the side of guilt! Asah mitzvah achas harei hichria es atzmo v’es kol haolam kulo l’chaf zechus, if you do one Mitzvah, you tip the scale to the side of merit. V’gorem lahem, and you, and you alone cause t’shua v’hatzalah, deliverance and salvation to the entire world.”
Maimonides is not known for his hyperbolic prose, and yet he conveys in no uncertain terms the importance and the value of you and you alone. How the world may indeed be hanging in the balance and your deed, your gesture, your word, can save the entire world. Absent a Temple, Maimonides is teaching us, that we are all the Kohein Gadol on this day; that the drama of Yom Kippur revolves around us, not us, but you and you and you, each and every one of us.
Our minds gravitate to greatness, to grandeur, to all that is big in the world. We see the towering tree and overlook the beautiful grass. We are overawed by a storm and do not notice the pleasant winds, we are so impressed by wealth and by power that we fail to appreciate the delicate beauty and subtle impact of every individual – of ourselves.
A few weeks ago, a man named Eugene Gluck died at the age of 92. He was the founder of Armitron watches, one of the top ten fashion watch companies. He was a towering, larger than life individual. His philanthropy and leadership were legendary. I’ll share with you just one story. One day a new employee was called into his office. You can imagine the intimidation of being a new employee called into the CEO’s office. They were sitting and talking; Mr. Gluck doing most of the talking as this new employee sat there nervously and listened. And while the conversation was going on, his secretary walks in and says, “Sir, Mr. Netanyahu is on the phone for you.”
Without blinking an eye, with no hesitation, he turned to his secretary and said, “Thank you. I’m in the middle of an important meeting. Kindly tell him that I will call him back as soon as I can.”
Eugene Gluck never lost sight of what we sometimes forget, and that is that we are important. That each person, regardless of their title, their age, their resume, each person is a High Priest, a Kohein Gadol.
Yom Kippur, more than any other day, the day that one man served alone – Yom Kippur reminds us of the power of a single individual. The whole world hangs in balance, and you, yes, just you can tip the scale in either direction. You do make a difference.
There are so many wonderful tales of people who changed the world, or who changed their community, who made a difference. But I don’t need to tell you any stories this morning. At this moment, before Yizkor, this room is packed with stories. With memories of individuals; most were not famous, most lived simple lives, lives of anonymity. But pray tell me, did they not make the biggest impact on you? Did the people being remembered this morning not change your world?
Forget for a moment, the fact that they brought you into this world and gave you life. Did their loving smile, their embrace, their approval not give you the strength and self-confidence to achieve all that you have accomplished in life?
And tragically, for too many, did their frown, their coldness, their biting criticism, did it not haunt you, not break you, not crush you every time you tried to forge forward?
We make a difference. Each and every one of us. Not only every person, but so too every act has the potential to give or take life.
The story is told of a young boy on a beach, picking up starfish that have been swept ashore by the tide, and throwing them back into the water. An old man comes by and asks the boy what he’s doing. And the boy explains that he is saving the starfish by putting them back into the water, where they belong, where they will live. Of course, the man scoffs at the young boy, pointing to the endless beach, “There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of starfish on the beach, you will never make a difference!”
The young boy picks up a starfish. “For this one,” he says, as he throws it into the water, “I will make a difference.”
All it takes is a flick of the wrist and a starfish is saved. All it takes is a nod of approval and a child is given confidence for life. All it takes is a kind word and a volatile situation melts into love. All it takes is a smile and an otherwise lonely man or woman remembers that they exist and that people notice them.
It is not ‘the world’ which is in our hands, there are many worlds in our hands, there are lives hanging in the balance, and one person; each and every one of us can tip that scale to life.
Rav Nachman of Breslov was one of the most influential Chassidic rabbis to have lived. He died over two hundred years ago but his impact looms large. Just this last week, over 50,000 men travelled to his grave in Ukraine to spend Rosh Hashana. His teachings, especially in the past few years, are studied by Jews and non-Jews alike. I’d like to share with you a teaching, one that he describes as his most important lesson. It is the 282nd piece in his seminal work, Likutei Moharan.
He writes there about the importance of finding goodness even in those who are evil. There is no evil person, he writes, who does not have some good to them.
I have thought about this a lot, especially in our ever-growing hostile society. Our society has been dubbed the cancel culture, in which if you say the wrong thing you will live with the consequences for the rest of your life, as if we are defined by our mistakes. People’s lives, good people, have had their lives destroyed because of one comment and often times a comment that was misunderstood. We live in a society in which there is only wrong and right, good and evil, and nothing in between, especially in our public dialogue, especially in the political arena. Imagine if our politicians and political pundits would judge each other favorably? Imagine if in our conversations with one another or about one another we would look for the good, as small as it is, in those we disagree with, in those we dislike?
“V’afilu mi she’hu rasha gamur, even someone completely evil,” writes Rav Nachman, “tzarich l’chapeis, one must seek and seek, v’limzto bo eizeh me’at tov, and find just a little bit of good.”
Rav Nachman then continues, and here is where the piece really takes a turn. He writes, “V’chein tzarich ha’adam limtzo gam b’atzmo, so too a person has to find the same in themselves, eizeh me’at tov, a little bit of goodness. A person has to look beyond their own mistakes, beyond their own sins, beyond their own failings, and see the good. Because the two go hand in hand.
That parent who couldn’t see the good in you, the parent who was never satisfied despite all of your accomplishments, the parent who never gave you the time of day – it was not you they did not love. They were too hard on themselves. Who knows? Maybe someone was too hard on them. And they took it out on you.
So you want to change the world? You want to change the people in your life? You want to change yourself? It starts by recognizing the value, the goodness and the potential that we possess, that you possess!
Yom Kippur is the day we remind ourselves that the people who did not love us were wrong, they were so terribly wrong! You are important. You are essential. You are good. Yom Kippur is the day that G-d says to us, “I have forgiven you, I have wiped away your sins. But now you need to forgive yourself.”
Today is the day we are reminded that the scale of the whole world is hanging in the balance, and you, small you, through your judgments, through your gestures, through your kind words to a child, through your smile to a stranger, you can make a difference, you really, really can. You can tip the scale of that person to life.
Today is the day we are reminded that anonymous people, people who don’t make the news, they still make a difference. Because the people we remember today made – or broke our lives.
Yom Kippur is the day on which we are all High Priests. We are the center of this drama called life. Let’s make a difference to the world by appreciating the people around us, by giving them our undivided attention which they deserve – through a smile, a kind word, or a compliment, by seeking out the goodness of the people in our lives, even when we disagree. And ultimately by finding and celebrating the good within, by silencing our most vicious critic – ourselves, and by realizing the message that G-d, our Father, is conveying to each and every one of us on this day, “I forgive you. I love you. You make a difference.”
The year – 1712 Before the Common Era. The great king and judge Hammurabi has died, and his son, Samsu-iluna attempts to hold his father’s sprawling empire of Babylon together. He is unsuccessful, and instead, the careful order constructed by his father, crumbles into chaos.
Across the Euphrates lives a man, known by many to be eccentric. He claims to speak to G-d, and not just any G-d, but an abstract G-d, a G-d who takes no physical form, who cannot be seen, and who promises things that will be fulfilled years and years into the future. But despite his radical claims, this man is widely respected – he is powerful, wealthy, and exceptionally kind. He is known to treat every stranger with love, every passerby as if they’re family. While nearby Babylon is burning, descending into anarchy, Abraham our patriarch, Avraham Avinu is preaching a message of justice and of peace, of love and of life. He preaches not of a G-d who man must believe in, but in a G-d who believes in man.
One night, while deep in sleep, near his beloved wife, Avraham has a vision. This is nothing out of the ordinary, he has had many prophetic visions. But this vision is different. It is a violent vision, a vision of coldblooded murder, a vision of his G-d asking of him, commanding him, to take his beloved son and bring him up as an offering. Child sacrifice.
He wakes up in a cold sweat and sees his beloved wife sleeping soundly. He recalls their struggles, their journey. How they left the comfort of their home to pursue his visions. How they encountered adversity every step of the way. How their relationship was tried and tested through their childlessness. How they somehow, miraculously had a child at an exceptionally old age. All of that comes crashing down with the words; “Take your child, the one you love, and bring him up as an offering.”
It must have been a dream, a nightmare, not a vision from his loving G-d! Avraham closes his eyes and tries to fall back asleep.
But sleep eludes him. He cannot sleep.
And so he slips out of bed, making sure not to wake his wife Sarah, and he quietly awakens his beloved son, Isaac, and with tears in his eyes, he whispers, “We need to go.”
They travel for three days. In absolute silence.
Isaac knows something is terribly wrong, he knows his father is in deep turmoil and he has a dreadful, foreboding sense that it has to do with him. After all, if they’re going to bring sacrifices, as the firewood and sharp knife seem to indicate, “where is the lamb?” that is meant to be slaughtered.
But Isaac is silent, respectful, stoic.
Each night, they set up a makeshift campsite and Isaac quickly falls asleep, tired from a day of traveling, but Avraham cannot sleep. He tosses, he turns, he is physically and emotionally drained, but paralyzing fear overwhelms his body preventing it from drifting asleep. “Did I really hear G-d say what I think He said?” “Maybe it was just a dream?” “Maybe this has all been one long dream! Maybe everyone back home was right. Maybe” – he can’t believe he is even considering it – “but maybe G-d does not exist. Maybe my mind was just playing tricks with me. Maybe it’s time to turn around and go home. Sarah must be so worried…”
And then that voice is countered with another, a whisper; “What if?!” What if G-d does exist? What if G-d really did create this world? What if G-d really did imbue me with a soul and with a purpose? What if G-d wants me to do something with my life? What if?
And Avraham forges forward.
The Medrashim teach us that every moment of Avraham’s journey to Mt. Moriyah was filled with internal debate; was this all just a big mistake?
Because you see, Avraham’s belief in G-d led to some pretty uncomfortable conclusions. Uncomfortable physically – Personally I’m afraid of getting a shot at the doctor, he circumcised himself at the age of 99… Uncomfortable emotionally – he was alienated from his entire family. And ultimately, his belief in G-d took him within a step of slaughtering his own son.
It would have been far more comfortable to just imagine it all to be a dream. Just like it’s far more comfortable to ignore the nagging feeling that something is lacking in our lives. It’s far more comfortable to continue on, doing the exact same things we’ve always done. It’s far more comfortable to stop questioning our life trajectory once we graduate from college or we get married or buy a house. You know what it would mean to rethink my life right now?
But what if. What if it’s real. What if it’s true?
What if all this is more than just tradition and rituals and apple cake for dessert?
What if G-d did speak to your great-great-great-grandparents and gave them a moral code, a set of laws to live their life by? Like, for real. Not just something to tell our children at the Pesach seder.
What if G-d expects something of us? Not just a general-fuzzy-be-a-better-person-and-light-unto-the-nations type of expectation, but in a very particular fashion, with daily prayer, Torah study, lashon hara, and kosher. What if?
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say this out loud, but it’s true and so I will. I have asked myself if G-d exists. More often than not, I know He does. More often than not, I think about the incredible world around me, about the miracle of Jewish continuity, about the wonders of creation and there is no question. More often than not, I feel like I am talking to some Being as I stand in prayer. And I just know.
But I have wondered. I have wondered if it’s all a game that I was born into, if it’s all just a fable that has kept our people alive. I have wondered if my decisions really make a difference? If there’s really any purpose?
In those moments – moments I should add, that are rather scary, rather dark, with implications that I’ve dedicated my life to a fairytale, that’s a pretty dark thought.
In those dark moments of doubt, invariably, another voice in my head responds with two words: What if?
There is very little that we know for certain. From the early days of the Enlightenment and on, we have questioned every one of our religious dogmas and in our 21st century world of fake news, and alternative facts, we have become even more skeptical, and for good reason. So I cannot prove to you, or tell you definitively that G-d exists. But what if? What if He does.
We’re all going to pray in just a few moments. How many of us really truly believe in what we’re going to say?
The great 15th century philosopher, Rav Yosef Albo explains that the three blessings in Mussaf correspond to the three most fundamental Jewish beliefs.
The first section, that of Malchuyot that speaks to G-d being our King. We are proclaiming that He created the world, and controls it.
The section of zichronot. We are proclaiming that G-d is aware of everything we do, nothing escapes His attention.
And the section of shofrot. We are proclaiming that we believe that the shofar that was blown at Mt. Sinai and that G-d gave us a set of laws that He expects us to live our life by.
Do we believe any of that? Do we think about that during our daily routine? How does our belief impact us when we make major and minor life decisions? Are we any different because of our faith?
We like the tunes, we like the comforting feel of our seat, surrounded by our family and friends. But what if this was all real? What would that mean practically? Not just for the rest of this morning. What would it mean practically beyond the here and now?
Probably, a lot.
If G-d really existed, and G-d really knew what we’re thinking, watched our actions, and wanted us to do something with our lives, something very specific, and if we don’t, there will be consequences, our lives would look different, wouldn’t they?
That’s a very uncomfortable thought. So uncomfortable that I should probably pivot to a heartwarming story right now. But I won’t.
It’s okay to be uncomfortable from time to time. Let’s just sit, or squirm for a moment with the possibility that G-d is real, the Torah is true, and that there really is a court case taking place right now, reviewing our record in light of the Torah’s commandments, and if we were honest with ourselves, we’re probably not doing so well.
All the things we said this year that we shouldn’t have said.
All the things we did this year that we shouldn’t have done.
And all the many missed opportunities. All the days, weeks, and months wasted in pursuit of what?
Let’s just sit with that for a moment.
Now the truth is, there is another possibility, but I find it to be equally uncomfortable, if not more so. It’s a possibility that Avraham grappled with many years before the Binding of Isaac. It’s a possibility that was taken for granted on the other side of the Euphrates back at home, in the ancient Mesopotamian world. A different what if: What if that loving G-d does not exist? What if my life has no intrinsic meaning whatsoever? What if this really is all meaningless?
This is how writer/ blogger/ philosopher, Mark Manson puts it:
“If I worked at Starbucks,” he writes, “instead of writing people’s names on their coffee cup, I’d write the following:
One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing.
Enjoy your coffee.”
You see, neither of these what-ifs end well. The inherently meaningful world of a G-d, a soul, a set of rules and expectations – that’s terribly overbearing. Or the meaningless world without a purpose or Creator, of pure biology, and of arbitrary codes of conduct – that’s terribly depressing.
But instead of thinking and choosing, we drink our caramel macchiato – complaining about the lack of plastic straws, of course, while we scroll to the next email/ message/ or Facebook post. We ignore this dilemma, don’t we? We distract ourselves from these uncomfortable possibilities of existence, because who in the world wants to think about that?!
Or – we do something even better. Something far more sophisticated. You and me. That’s right, you and me, in shul, this Rosh Hashana morning. We’re very clever. This is what we do:
You and I have just enough spirituality, tradition, faith and meaning in our lives to escape the depressing thought of being cosmic dust. But not too much spirituality, tradition, faith, and meaning to make our lives too difficult. A little bit of sacrifice makes me feel good, too much and I’m getting heartburn. “I don’t want to be a fanatic.” We’re clever, aren’t we?
In a TED talk, viewed by almost 3 million people, swiss philosopher, Alan de Botton proposed, what he described as Atheism 2.0. It’s starting point is a disbelief in G-d, but he suggests that this disbelief should not preclude one from borrowing what is good in religion. You got that? He’s an atheist, so he does not believe in G-d but he wants to take what is good from religion. In his words:
“I’m interested in the kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines: that thinks, “I can’t believe in any of this stuff. I can’t believe in the doctrines. I don’t think these doctrines are right. But… I love Christmas carols. I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I like turning the pages of the Old Testament.” Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about — people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion, but can’t bear the doctrine. Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice. It’s almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and you’re living in some kind of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.”
He goes on to suggest that atheists adopt what he considers to be the good things in religion, things like a calendar and rituals that remind us of important values. Art and music that is not art for art’s sake. Art that is meant to move people in one way or another. An educational model that is more than just sharing information; an educational model that assumes people need help and guidance. And my favorite, sermons – he suggests that atheists need more sermons. Go figure.
And as I’m listening to his talk, I’m thinking, this isn’t atheism 2.0, this is religion 2.0! It’s what we do!
If we were honest with ourselves, isn’t our religion, the Judaism that we practice just a mashup of a bunch of Jewish cultural components that make us feel good? How much of what we do is driven by faith and how much of what we do is driven by comfort? This is what I’m used to. This is what my friends do. This is what I’ve always done.
And this is true, by the way, whether you drove here today or walked, whether you have a sheitel on your head or a kippah that keeps on slipping off, whether you were born into this lifestyle or you’ve taken leaps and bounds to get here, How much of our Jewish life today is intentional and how much of our Jewish life is a product of habit? How much of our Jewish day-to-day living is about G-d and how much of our Jewish life is about us?
G-d doesn’t only care about how many mitzvot you are performing on a daily basis. Judaism is not a point system or a diet (it’s definitely not a diet!). He wants us to be connected to Him, to have a relationship with Him. Do we believe in Him? Are we seeking a personal connection with Hashem? Do we believe the Torah is true? Do we believe G-d sees us and cares? Because if we did, if we really did, if we were really honest with ourselves, I don’t think any of us would live the life we are currently living.
Our tradition teaches us that when Avraham was a young man he was arrested and given a mock trial. He was accused of planting dangerous seeds of rebellion against the establishment with his radical ideas of monotheism. After a quick decision by this kangaroo court, Avraham was given a choice – renounce his beliefs, state publicly that he was mistaken, or burn at the stake. Avraham, with his head held high, publicly reaffirmed his belief in a kind and loving G-d. Our tradition teaches us that Avraham was thrown into a fiery pit and was miraculously saved.
Less well-known, is that the same Medrashic passage informs us that Avraham had a brother; his name was Chur. And right before Avraham was thrown into the fiery pit, they asked his brother, Chur, “What about you? Do you believe in the monotheistic G-d of Avraham or are you a polytheist like the rest of us?”
Chur told the judge that he needed to think about it, and he’ll let him know after Avraham was thrown into the fire pit. Chur was clever. Maybe a little too clever.
After Avraham emerged from the fiery pit unscathed, Chur loudly announced that he too was a believer in G-d. So they threw him in the fire. And he died.
Life is too precious, life is too fleeting, life is too darn short to hedge our bets. Are you an atheist? Be an atheist. Are you a believer? Be a believer. The message of the Medrash is clear – you cannot be both. Whatever path you choose, choose it fully, as uncomfortable as it may be.
It was a brilliantly clear day in Jerusalem, Avraham, ready to collapse from exhaustion, tied his beloved son to the altar they had built together. With tears pouring from his eyes, Avraham lifted the knife, ready to fulfill the will of G-d. And G-d said, “Stop!” “You have proven yourself. You do believe in G-d.”
And in Isaac’s place, Avraham brought a ram; a ram whose horn we blow every Rosh Hashana. That ram’s horn, which we will be blowing in just a moment is a reminder of Avraham’s deep and unyielding faith. As we hear its sound, listen closely, it will be asking us one simple question. A question that needs to be answered by everyone of us, every day of our life:
As Yogi Berra once said, it’s déjà vu all over again.
Great to see you all back here, some new faces, many old faces. I look forward to seeing you all next year, back again; healthy and happy.
A few months ago, the shul took a trip to the Auschwitz exhibit in New York. It was a moving tour and I learned a lot, but one really thing stuck out. In the corner of the museum, right at the end of the exhibit, there was a picture of a Polish officer, Witold Pilecki, with a short description about who he was. What I read shocked me and so when I got home, I decided to do some more research. What I learned shocked me even more. It was such a powerful and unique story that I thought it appropriate to share with you on this holy day. This is the story of Witold Pilecki:
Pilecki was an officer in the Polish army during the first world war. A few years later, when the Soviets and Germans attacked Poland in World War Two, Pilecki fought back. Of course, as we all know, the archaic Polish army was no match for these two evil superpowers. But Pilecki did not give up. He joined some fellow soldiers and started an underground resistance group called the Secret Polish Army.
In 1940, the Secret Polish Army learned that captured Polish soldiers were being brought to a place called Auschwitz and there were rumors that terrible atrocities were taking place. But they were just rumors. The Secret Polish Army decided they needed to verify this information, but how were they going to do so?
Well, Witold Pilecki was how. He suggested to his superiors that he sneak into Auschwitz. That’s right. He offered to sneak into the most notorious death camp in Nazi territory. And he did. He violated curfew one night, was arrested, and was shipped to Auschwitz.
He spent two years there, again, voluntarily and in that time, he secretly built a radio transmitter with stolen parts, and conveyed to his comrades how bad things really were. He then transmitted a detailed plan for an attack on Auschwitz. Unfortunately, his plan was rejected by the rest of the underground as too dangerous.
And then things got worse. Jews started coming to Auschwitz. You see, in the first year of the war, it was patriotic Poles who the Germans were bringing to Auschwitz, but now they started emptying out the ghettos with the intent of wiping out the Jewish People. The Jews arrived in Auschwitz, first in busses and then crammed into cattle cars. And we all know what happened next.
Pilecki was shocked. Nothing he had seen until this point prepared him for what he now witnessed. He started sending frantic messages to his superiors. “They are not working the Jews! They are killing them! There must be 100’s of thousands, maybe a million being murdered. Do something! Please!” But his superiors assumed he was exaggerating.
And so, Pilecki escaped Auschwitz. It’s a long story, but he got out. As soon he got out, he wrote a 100-page eye-witness report which made its way to the allies. It lay out the daily atrocities; the gas chambers, the crematoria, with uncanny detail. The Office of Strategic Services in London received his report and wrote a note on it – “no indication of reliability.” And the report gathered dust.
After the war, Pilecki fought to keep Poland free from Soviet rule but he was unsuccessful. And so, under Soviet rule, he started documenting once again, what he saw around him; the corruption, the rigging of elections. He sent these reports to the West and was one of the first to inform the world what the Soviets had in store.
Tragically, this time his luck ran out. He was caught, given a mock trial, and on May 25, 1948, he was executed with a gunshot to the back of his head. (Hope, Mark Manson, and Wikipedia)
Now let me ask you something. This is one of the most heroic stories you will ever hear in your life. But tell me – did Witold Pilecki accomplish anything in his life?
Think about it.
He tried to prevent a Russian invasion – and failed. He tried to prevent a German invasion – and failed. He tried to arrange an attack on Auschwitz and save maybe a million lives – but it was rejected. He tried to warn the world about the Nazis diabolical plans – but no one listened. He fought for his freedom under Soviet rule so he could live in peace with his wife and two children – but he was shot in the head and buried in an unmarked grave. What did this man accomplish? What did he do?!
Nothing. He accomplished nothing. And not only did he accomplish nothing, he had the most miserable life possible – He lived through two world wars, in Poland of all places! He was a slave in Auschwitz and was executed by the Russians, leaving his wife a widow and children orphaned.
Miserable life conditions, accomplished nothing, and yet, what would I not give to live a life as glorious as his? Can you think of a more noble life than that? Do you know of a greater hero than Witold Pilecki?
And it begs the question – We stand here today in prayer, and we ask G-d, chasveinu b’sefer hachaim, write us in the book of life, but not just any life – l’chaim tovim, for a good life – what is this good life that we’re after?
Because our lives are far “better” than Pilecki’s. We have food to eat. A lot of food. No one’s trying to kill us or even take away our freedom. We should all be well and live a full life, but when we die, the likelihood of us being buried in an unmarked grave is not even a possibility. And yet – we, and by we, I mean society, we don’t have a good life. We’re miserable. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are on a twenty-year upswing among adults and an eighty-year upswing among young people. Life satisfaction is continuing to drop steadily. Stress levels have steadily risen over the past thirty years. Drug overdoses, a form of self-medication to some of these issues, have reached an all-time high in the US and Canada, affecting every segment of the population… What are we missing that we’re praying for today? More food? Better technology? More exotic vacations? Longer lives? Will any of that really give us the good life?
And then there’s Pilecki, with all his misery, with all his failure, you know what he said to the courtroom after the Soviets decided that they would execute him? This is what he said. He said; “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.”
I want what Pilecki’s on!! He had a good life! Did you hear what he said? He had a joyful life! So again, what is it that we are asking for on this holy day; what is the good life?
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, one of the great moralists of the 20th century, in one of his many addresses, explains what a good life is not. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos states that jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor, remove a person from this world.
Now of course, no one ever died from chasing any of these vices. Honor is not lethal, nor is desire. What does the Mishna mean when it says that these vices “remove a person from this world”?
Explains Rabbi Shmuelevitz, someone who chases these things, someone who is never satisfied with what they currently have or with who they currently are; someone who is constantly disgruntled because they’re not given enough kavod, enough honor, at home, at shul, at work, someone who is constantly seeking out the next opportunity for pleasure, sexually, gastronomically, whatever, someone who looks around and sees what others have and wants it for themselves, why do they have this spouse, that car, this job, those friends – that is not a life, certainly not a life of joy, it’s a life of misery. Motzi’in et ha’adam min ha’olam, having those sentiments suck your life dry.
Ask any teenager what their biggest fear is, and they’ll tell you it’s something they call FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out. They’re afraid to commit to hang out with this friend because in doing so they miss out on hanging out with a different friend and they might miss out. FOMO. But it’s not just a teenage phenomenon. So many of us are miserable because we find ourselves stuck in a situation, imagining that if only things were different, we’d feel better. Not afraid, but miserable, because we feel like we’re missing out.
I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that affluent societies suffer from depression and anxiety more than others do. Perhaps it’s because the more opportunities we have, or that we think have, the more we feel like we are missing out, the more we feel like we are stuck. And it is downright depressing to live such a life.
Let me share with you another story, about a philosophy, a way of thinking, that could help us live a good life.
In the 1960’s there was a group of women who came to New York from Detroit as part of a women’s organization, known as Neshei Chabad. Neshei Chabad is the women’s arm of the Chabad movement. They have this big event in Crown Heights and women of Chabad from all over the world fly in to attend.
The event ended and it was time for them to go home. This group of women get to the airport. They check in, they look at the board and see that their flights were canceled. They don’t know what to do, should they get a new flight? Should they go back to New York? Being chassidim, they did what chassidim do, they called their rebbe to ask him his opinion.
The secretary picks up. “Can you please ask the Rebbe a question for us. We have a dilemma. We’re stuck in the airport. What should we do?”
The Secretary puts down the phone and goes into the Rebbe’s office, comes back and says, “The Rebbe doesn’t understand what you mean by stuck.”
So the woman on the phone explains, “Well, we were supposed to go to Detroit, our flight is cancelled, so now we’re still here. We’re stuck. What should we do?”
Again, the secretary goes to the Rebbe, gets back on the phone. “The Rebbe doesn’t understand what you mean.” She thinks to herself, “I don’t know, the Rebbe is from Europe, maybe he doesn’t know what the word stuck means.” So she explains, “Stuck means we’re here. We cannot move. Stuck.”
Once again, the poor secretary goes to the Rebbe’s office, and then gets back on the phone and says, “The Rebbe understands what the word stuck means. He speaks a perfect English. But what the Rebbe does not understand is why you think you’re stuck. Stuck means that you know where you’re supposed to be and you’re not there. And since you’re not there, you’re stuck.”
“How do you know where you’re supposed to be right now? At this given moment. Maybe you’re not stuck. Maybe this is where you’re supposed to be.” (heard from C. Harary)
Maybe this is where you’re supposed to be.
What a refreshing perspective on life.
You’re not stuck in a conversation with the man or woman who can’t stop talking. Maybe this is where you’re supposed to be. Making this person, right now, feel like a million bucks by listening to them because no one else will.
You’re not stuck in traffic. It’s an opportunity to work on your patience and learn that you do not control your life.
You’re not stuck in shul today, regardless of what time we end. It’s a holy time and place like no other. Stop looking at your watch!
And you’re not stuck in a relationship. There are times that relationships need to end. Yes. But if you’re even considering staying, you cannot love someone while fantasizing about the day you leave. Love is a decision, not a feeling. It’s a commitment, an acceptance of being here, being fully present. Not somewhere else.
This is where you’re supposed to be.
I’d like to believe that Witold Pilecki understood this, that the reason he lived a life of joy, of joy! despite the terrible circumstances is that he accepted his fate – as lousy as it was – and did all that he could wherever he found himself. Whether he accomplished anything concrete or not didn’t matter; he never felt stuck. This is where I’m supposed to be. To the point, that he could turn around in retrospect and say, “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.” If we embrace every moment of our lives, in the present, if we could accept our fate and face it head-on, then we too could live a life of joy, regardless of what is thrown our way.
And so to the question of what is a good life, to the question of what we are doing here; what we are asking G-d for, what we are praying for when we ask for chaim tovim, for that good life. I believe the answer is this:
I believe that our prayer for a good life is both a plea and a pledge. We plead with G-d, we ask Him today to take care of us, to give us the best possible life circumstances, please – a good life.
But paradoxically, as we say those words, as we ask G-d for a good life, we realize that so much is not in our control. None of us are naïve enough to think that no one will get ill this year, none of us are naïve enough to think that there will be no tragedy, no setbacks, no difficulties. And here’s where the pledge comes in; “G-d, You give us a good life, but we will give ourselves a good life as well. G-d, we pledge, we commit, that no matter what You give us, no matter the circumstance we find ourselves in, we will live those moments to the fullest, we will embrace whatever you send our way because we realize that no matter how hopeless the situation, we will remind ourselves that maybe this is where we’re supposed to be.” That is the good life; right here, right now. We are not stuck.
I’d like to conclude with one more example of someone who despite her circumstances, never felt stuck, and because of that she was able to live a good life. Julie Yip-Williams was born blind in Vietnam. She narrowly escaped euthanasia at the hands of her grandmother who felt she would be a drain on the family. She fled political upheaval with her family to Hong Kong, and then came to America, where a surgeon gave her partial sight. Working her way from the bottom, she became a Harvard-educated lawyer, married a wonderful man and had two little girls. All was well. And then, at the age 37, she was diagnosed with terminal metastatic colon cancer.
Julie died last year and this is the letter she wrote her two daughters:
“Dear Mia and Isabelle,
I have solved all the logistical problems resulting from my death that I can think of — I am hiring a very reasonably priced cook for you and Daddy; I have left a list of instructions about who your dentist is and when your school tuition needs to be paid and when to renew the violin rental contract and the identity of the piano tuner. But I realized that these things are the low-hanging fruit, the easy-to-solve but relatively unimportant problems of the oh so mundane.
I realized that I would have failed you greatly as your mother if I did not try to ease your pain from my loss, if I didn’t at least attempt to address what will likely be the greatest question of your young lives. You will forever be the kids whose mother died of cancer, have people looking at you with some combination of sympathy and pity (which you will no doubt resent, even if everyone means well). You will ask as you look around at all the other people who still have their parents, Why did my mother have to get sick and die? It isn’t fair, you will cry. And you will want so painfully for me to be there to hug you when your friend is mean to you, to look on as your ears are being pierced, to sit in the front row clapping loudly at your music recitals, to be that annoying parent insisting on another photo with the college graduate, to help you get dressed on your wedding day, to take your newborn babe from your arms so you can sleep. And every time you yearn for me, it will hurt all over again and you will wonder why.
I don’t know if my words could ever ease your pain. But I would be remiss if I did not try.
My seventh-grade history teacher, Mrs. Olson, a batty eccentric but a phenomenal teacher, used to rebut our teenage protestations of “That’s not fair!” with “Life is not fair. Get used to it!” Somehow, we grow up thinking that there should be fairness, that people should be treated fairly, that there should be equality of treatment as well as opportunity…
[But,] Mrs. Olson was right. Life is not fair. You would be foolish to expect fairness, at least when it comes to matters of life and death, matters outside the scope of the law, matters that cannot be engineered or manipulated by human effort, matters that are distinctly the domain of G-d or luck or fate or some other unknowable, incomprehensible force.
Although I did not grow up motherless, I suffered in a different way and understood at an age younger than yours that life is not fair. I looked at all the other kids who could drive and play tennis and who didn’t have to use a magnifying glass to read, and it pained me in a way that maybe you can understand now. People looked at me with pity, too, which I loathed. I was denied opportunities, too… I was sad a lot. I cried in my lonely anger. Like you, I had my own loss, the loss of vision, which involved the loss of so much more. I grieved. I asked why. I hated the unfairness of it all.
My sweet babies, I do not have the answer to the question of why, at least not now and not in this life… I was deprived of sight. And yet, that single unfortunate physical condition changed me for the better. Instead of leaving me wallowing in self-pity, it made me more ambitious. It made me more resourceful. It made me smarter. It taught me to ask for help, to not be ashamed of my physical shortcoming. It forced me to be honest with myself and my limitations, and eventually to be honest with others. It taught me strength and resilience.
You will be deprived of a mother. As your mother, I wish I could protect you from the pain. But also as your mother, I want you to feel the pain, to live it, embrace it, and then learn from it. Be stronger people because of it, for you will know that you carry my strength within you. Be more compassionate people because of it; empathize with those who suffer in their own ways. Rejoice in life and all its beauty because of it; live with special zest and zeal for me. Be grateful in a way that only someone who lost her mother so early can, in your understanding of the precariousness and preciousness of life. This is my challenge to you, my sweet girls, to take an ugly tragedy and transform it into a source of beauty, love, strength, courage, and wisdom.
I love you both forever and ever, to infinity, through space and time. Never ever forget that. (Love,)
Mommy” (The Unwinding of the Miracle, Julie Wip-Williams)
We do not know what G-d has in store for us this year; sickness, setbacks, strife. There is so much that is not in our hands. And that’s why we’re here today to ask G-d for a good year. But we’re also here to remind ourselves what it means to have a good year. So much of having a good year depends on us; not on longevity, not on health, popularity, being clever, or financial wellbeing. A good year and a good life is dependent on living every day with the possibility that maybe this – as terrible as it is, as painful as it is – is where you’re supposed to be. Witold Pilecki understood this and lived a heroic life like no other. Julie Yip-Williams understood this and left a glorious legacy to her children. May we, in this new year of 5780, every single day, at every single moment, through the good and through the inevitable bad, never stop reminding ourselves that we are never stuck, and that this is where I need to be. Shana Tova!