“Unesaneh tokef kedushas hayom, let us now relate the intense holiness of the day” None of us took these words as seriously last year. Did we? “Mi yich’yeh umi yamus, who will live and who will die?” And this year, we will think of the almost 200,000 people who died this year in the United States due to the coronavirus and we will think ahead to the great unknown; what will this year have in store.
“Who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time?” We will think not only of the elderly – who died disproportionately, but the many young, who thought they would live forever – and perished.
“Mi badever, who by plague?” Honestly, every year we say these words, and I think to myself, who by plague?! What is this – the dark ages? Who will die by plague?! But yes, in 2020, we ask, we shudder at the thought – who, which one of the people we know will die by plague.
“Who will live in harmony and who will be harried? Who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer?” The teachers, the front-line workers, the parents, those living in isolation… the list just goes on and on, so much suffering this year. It’s overwhelming! From the obvious and objective struggles to the countless people struggling in their own way, silently, forging forward, despite the immense difficulty in doing so.
“Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched? Who will be degraded and who will be exalted?” Our economy is still holding on, but for how long? And with the collapse of an economy, with social unrest at every street corner, an upcoming contentious election, it feels like we’re living in a tinder box.
Though we omitted many of the traditional prayers for this year, I could not bring myself to removing Unesaneh Tokef. It summarizes more than anything else the spirit of our mindset this Rosh Hashana; uncertainty about what this year will bring.
Isn’t that the most appropriate term to summarize our state of mind? Uncertainty. We just don’t know.
We don’t know anything. When will a vaccine come out? Who will be the next president of the United States? Will the country be in lock-down in a few months from now? Will the stock-market grow or crash? Will I be healthy this year? Will I lose more friends and acquaintances to this plague? This was the year, and this is the age of uncertainty.
The word, certainty, comes from the Latin, cernere, which means ‘to distinguish, to mark out, to separate one thing from the rest, to discern.’ Uncertainty is the opposite – it’s the experience of being unable to distinguish, when we can no longer separate one thing from the rest. There is so much conflicting and ambiguous information that it is impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. Are we being irrational or are we being prudent? We just don’t know.
Uncertainty is a debilitating feeling that can wreak havoc, both spiritual, emotional, and physical. Why did the Jewish People turn to idol-worship a mere 40 days after receiving the Torah? Because Moshe was gone, and they were anxious. Why did the Jewish People choose to believe the negative report of the spies? Because they were terrified of the unknown. Why did millions of Jews choose to stay in Europe despite the tell-tale signs of the looming inferno? For many of them it was because they were anxious and afraid to move to a new home. This year, we don’t need to look at the Torah or history to know this; we know it in our kishkas, we have experienced the terrible impact of uncertainty on our lives.
Uncertainty is taxing on our brain. Our brain is hard-wired to be aversive to ambiguity. We will do anything we can to avoid ambiguous – or uncertain situations. And that’s because ambiguity overworks our brain. It’s too much. That’s why when we’re feeling uncertain, we make snap decisions that we later regret, we yell at people, we’re rash, we cry more, we self-medicate unhealthily. Anything to avoid that unsettling feeling of uncertainty.
Uncertainty is at the root of everything that is wrong with us this year.
Or so it seems.
Franz Kafka, the 20th century Jewish philosopher and novelist, wrote a story six months before he died. It’s called, The Burrow, or in German, Der Bau. The burrow is a mole-like creature who spends his life creating a rather complex shelter. It’s built with ingenuity and with the sole aim of protecting him from all possible dangers. It’s a perfect and impenetrable home. Except for one thing – there is a hole that serves as an entranceway which is not sealed off.
The hole threatens his life, exposing him to danger, and at the same time, paradoxically, the hole reminds this little animal that he is not completely safe, and therefore keeps him vigilant and ready. In the words of Professor John Hamilton, “If the burrow were perfectly secure, he would waste away in idleness and complacency, and therefore put himself at an even greater risk. It is the possibility of being killed and the uncertainty of the threat that keeps him alert. His mortality, so to speak, saves his life.”
In Kafka’s telling of the story, the creature points to that hole and states, “There,” because of that hole “I am mortal.”
Because you see, uncertainty is a curse, but uncertainty is also a blessing.
For all the havoc it breeds, uncertainty also breeds humility. Uncertainty breeds urgency to do and to accomplish. Uncertainty breeds curiosity and wonder. And lastly, uncertainty is the passageway through which we find faith in G-d.
For the past five years, one of the things that kept me busy during the summer months was creating a shul calendar full to the brim with exciting events for the entire year. That calendar is something I bring with me to every rabbinic conference. I am proud of it. We have a plan for our entire year. I could tell you what classes will take place, what programs we will run, who our honorees will be – it’s great. I smugly inform my colleagues how at Ner Tamid, how at our shul, we don’t have to stress out in middle of the year because we know exactly what we’re doing months in advance.
Obviously, I didn’t work on a calendar this summer, because who in their right mind, plans for more than two weeks at a time nowadays?
It was sad but also humbling. Because it’s so easy for me, and I imagine for all of us, to live in the mirage of having everything under control, when in truth, we don’t control anything.
I have found myself saying and hearing the words, I don’t know, over and over and over again. In talking to top doctors, infectious disease experts, all I heard from them was, I don’t know. There’s something scary but also refreshingly humbling about saying and hearing those words. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, possibly the most important Jewish scholar in the past thousand years, wrote a commentary, or should I say the commentary for both the Chumash and the Talmud. In a few precious passages he writes the following: “I don’t know why this was said or done.” That’s not embarrassing; that’s a sign of his greatness as a thinker. Socrates once said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”
You see, uncertainty does not have to be depressing; it could be refreshing and energizing. Living in a state of uncertainty means waking up every morning, taking a deep breath through a throat that’s not itchy, allowing your lungs to be filled with oxygen, and to exhale. To say, “Modeh ani! Thank you, Hashem!” To experience life and all its beauty as if for the first time.
Uncertainty means listening intently when someone speaks, maybe even when they share a view that you know to be wrong – especially when they share a view you know to be wrong, because who knows, maybe they’re right. Maybe you’ve been wrong your whole life. “I don’t know.” “I don’t know.” “I don’t know.” Get used to saying those words. They’re words of knowledge, of humility and of greatness. That’s an uncertainty the world can use a lot more of these days.
And in that humble space of not knowing, not only the right answer, but also how long our biological clock will tick, a sense of urgency is born. We all saw it with our own eyes; the people who stepped up to help, to do, to serve. The people risking their lives for others. And we felt it in our soul; the questions we faced like never before, why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing? Where has my life gone?
And all of sudden, families that barely talked Zoomed weekly. Family dinners were back in vogue. Old friendships dusted off and reignited. Dark secrets and overdue apologies were freed from their captivity. New careers were considered. Aliyah offices were overwhelmed. I don’t know how long I have to live, but I do know that I want to live a life of meaning. And so, this curse of uncertainty blossomed into a movement of meaning. The greatest motivator in life is our mortality, but only when we’re bold enough to face it.
And lastly, uncertainty allows us to bring G-d into our lives. We all plan our lives as if we know exactly what’s going to happen next. We plan how many children we’ll have, and where we’ll live, and how much we’ll retire with, and where we’ll vacation – and then Covid, and the ground beneath us crumbles.
But the truth is the ground did not crumble. All Covid did was expose that there was never solid ground beneath us. As complex and sophisticated as our tunnels may be, there is always a hole that is exposed. Covid just made us aware of that vulnerability. And now that I see that hole, that hole that reminds me that I’m not in control. I could realize Who is. I could submit to the fact that despite my greatest plans, I do not run this world.
In a moment we will be blowing the Shofar. Our custom is to blow the Shofar 100 times. The reason, according to the Talmud, is that a woman by the name of Temach, cried for her son 100 times. Her son had gone out to battle and he was late returning. She was scared, she was anxious, she was filled with doubt and uncertainty. Our shofar blows are meant to capture those uncertain and loving cries.
Because you see, the Shofar symbolizes our uncertainty about our future; what will be, we do not know; we’re ready now to accept that. But is also symbolizes the love of our parent, of our Father in Heaven, who is waiting by the window, hoping that we return to Him. Because the two, uncertainty and love are intertwined. When we allow ourselves to feel vulnerable, how dependent we are, when we allow ourselves to acknowledge our uncertainty, then, and only then, can we really feel love. It’s true for all relationships, especially our relationship with G-d.
The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, where is G-d. And he famously replied, “wherever you let Him in.” Covid has swung open my door, all of our doors, and made us aware of the cracks in our armor; let G-d fill those cracks. The cracks in our self-confidence is “how the light gets in.”
There’s a story told about a man, who wanted to climb a terrifically tall mountain. After many years of preparation, he began his climb. On the third night of climbing, the sun had set, but he kept going. He was almost there, almost at the top.
And just as he had a few feet to go, he slipped.
Falling at incredible speed, seeing nothing, just feeling the terrible sensation of being pulled by gravity; further and further and further.
His life flashed before him, but he kept on falling, until YANK!
He felt the rope tied to his waist violently tug on him.
Dangling in the air, he caught his breath. He started pushing himself this way and that way, but he was nowhere near land; he realized he was dangling off a cliff. He tried climbing the rope itself, but he had no energy left.
Not a big believer, but facing no other choice, he turned to G-d. “G-d, if you’re really there, please help me.” No reply.
He started shivering in the cold. “G-d, if you’re really there, please help me.”
This time a deep voice responded: “How can I help you?”
“Do you really think I can save you?” asked the voice.
“Of course I believe You can! You’re G-d! I put my life entirely in Your hands. But please save me!”
“Then cut the rope tied to your waist.”
“Cut the rope.”
The next day, a rescue team found the man, dead, frozen to death, clutching that rope, dangling just a few feet from the ground.
When we realize how we’re not in control, when we realize how little we know about right or wrong, when we realize how fleeting life is, it’s an opportunity to feel G-d’s love and – to heed his directions, to let Him into our lives. To listen closely to what He’s asking of us. It’s hard, no doubt, to cut the rope. It’s hard to make major life changes, it is. But it’s moments like these, moments that are once in a lifetime, when we are dangling, when we recognize how little we are, how little we know, how short our time on earth really is, that we have the opportunity to let go of that rope and let G-d in.
Ironically, Kafka never finished that story. The hole he wrote of was the hole he lived. Life is full of uncertainty. Life is full of unfinished business. But we have a choice; to be debilitated by that uncertainty or to be moved by it. To fight and flight or – to face our weaknesses and grow in our humility. To fret endlessly or to make the most of this time here on earth. To escape into more distractions or to cut the rope – and start living a more meaningful life. We don’t need the Shofar today to remind us of the uncertainties of life. 2020 was one long Shofar blast, and if we listen to its call, we can hear the voice of G-d, calling us, beckoning us, shuvu vanim, return my beloved children, please! I love you! And in our vulnerability, as we cut the rope and give in, we can feel His warm and loving embrace.
I’d like to begin today by reading to you something almost prophetic written around 150 years ago by the great rabbi and Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
“If I had the power,” he writes, “I would … close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish Home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them – to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.” (“Introduction by Translator” to Horeb, “The Classification of the Mitzvoth,” p.1xix)
Rabbi Hirsch was the chief rabbi of Frankfurt, Germany in the mid-19th century. In this dramatic passage, he was lamenting the fact that synagogues had become too central in Judaism. That people felt, “that they could be a Jew in synagogue, and a gentile on the street.” That in creating beautiful synagogues and hiring dynamic and eloquent rabbis, they had stopped looking inward for more spirituality and were expecting others to lift them up. Rabbi Hirsch realized that the only way his community would take ownership of their Judaism was by closing the synagogues down.
But of course, this was hyperbole, it was his dramatic way of making a point. We would never close our shuls down!
In March of 2020, Rabbi Hirsch’s words came true. Granted, not the way he imagined, but it happened. We closed – or were forced to close our synagogues. How did we do?
Did we live up to the rest of his vision? Did our prayers become more personal because we were not rushed, and no cantor was davening for us? Or did we stop davening entirely?
Did we, in the absence of regular classes and sermons study more on our own, making our homes into mini-temples and centers of spiritual growth, or did we spend our evenings and free time distracting our minds to escape the stress?
Did we bring more Judaism into our lives or did we drift away without our spiritual anchor?
I imagine if we were to go around this room right now, the answers would be quite varied. We’d also have to include answers from the many people who are not here; some because they could not be and some because shul, over these past months, lost some of its appeal. In place of an open discussion, I’ll share with you my experience without a shul. Some of you may relate and others I am sure will not.
For me… honestly… I loved it. Really.
No, it was not relaxing. I have never been so busy with shul and community related issues in my life, and yes, we had a baby during this time. Mazel Tov! I look forward to having a kiddush we could all attend one day celebrating the simcah. I did not love it because it was stress-free. It was anything but. I loved it because I enjoyed the corner of my dining room where I could talk to Hashem at my own pace. I loved it because with my children’s schools struggling to educate over Zoom, I had to bring more Jewish content to our Shabbos table. I loved it because when I prepared for Zoom classes and took calls on my front lawn, (the office was closed,) I got to wave and say hello to neighbors I never knew and the many other people walking or driving by.
Now I recognize that my experiences are not universal, but it forced me to question something Rabbi Hirsch did not anticipate. What happens when you close the shuls and then you open them, and people do not want to return? What happens when people have not been in a community setting for so long that they adapt to it – and kind of like it? What happens when people receive a bill in the mail for synagogue dues, and they ask themselves, why? Why do I need this? What happens when people find their spirituality elsewhere or after being away for so long, do not have any desire for spirituality at all? What happens then?
I have to tell you, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of people who signed up for services over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Almost 300 people here today! And – I was touched beyond words at the generous donations that came pouring forth from virtually everyone in our Ner Tamid community to ensure that our beloved shul stays open. But it begs the question – why? Why is this place so important to you? What does it do for you? What role does this building play in our Jewish lives and do we still need it? In a time and place where we can livestream every class, where every Jewish book is translated, where so many of our children attend Jewish schools, where spirituality is in vogue and prayer can be so personal, what are we here for? What is this institution called the synagogue that we are supporting?
Where, when and why synagogues first originated is a matter of intense scholarly debate. Dr. Rachel Hachlili, one of the leading scholars on the topic suggests the following: “The synagogue as an assembly, a gathering place for local communities, was established already in the time of the (second) Temple existence, but the synagogue as an institution, with its characteristic features, forms, customs and rituals, was not yet standardized and canonized. It developed into an official Jewish place of worship only after the destruction of the Temple.” In other words, Dr. Hachlili suggests that over time, the shul evolved to meet the different needs of the Jewish People.
Similarly, the Maharal of Prague suggests that the two temples that stood in Jerusalem, one from the 9th century BCE to the 5th, and the second temple, which stood from the 4th century BCE to the 1st, each served a different purpose. The first temple, he writes, was a place of Hashra’at haShechina, a home for the Divine Presence. It was a place of open miracles and spiritual wonders. The second temple, which was missing some of the holy artifacts, such as the Holy Ark, that second temple never captured the same spiritual splendor of the first. Instead the second temple was a place for Jews to gather. Starting in the 5th century BCE, Jews were starting to disperse all over the world, and so the temple in Jerusalem was the great meeting point, ensuring that the bond between brothers and sisters remained intact.
What both the Maharal and Dr. Hachlili are saying is that houses of worship, be it a Bais Hamikdash, a temple, or a shul, have changed and developed with the needs of the times. Maybe it’s time that the role of the synagogue evolves again.
To be honest, I think it already evolved, but Covid has made us more aware of the change. You see, the synagogue of our youth is dead. The synagogue where you go to watch a chazzan perform and a rabbi entertain, that does not speak to the of our generation, the culture of the 21st century. We’re not into being spectators, we all want a piece of the action. We’re also more comfortable as Jews in society, accepted everywhere in any role, so we no longer need a shul for our social outlets. And Sunday Hebrew schools are a relic of the past so it’s no longer about the children.
This question of what shul is all about is obviously deeply personal. Shul is what I do for a living, isn’t it? And I’ve been thinking a lot these past months about what I do, but more importantly, about what we do here, together. Do we need shuls? Do we need this shul? I vacillated these months, some days believing that shul era is behind us, long live the backyard minyan. But ultimately, I concluded that we do need shuls. Not only do we need shul, but we need more shuls like this one. And to be clear, this is not an infomercial about our shul and who we are. It’s a call to action on what we need to do and who we could be.
#1) It is true, in 2020, spirituality can be accessed in so many places. At work, on your phone, or on a mountaintop. A lot is gained when spirituality becomes so diffused, but something is also lost. When everything can be sacred then nothing is sacred.
The many rules of a synagogue – you cannot eat in a synagogue, non-essential conversations should not be taking place in a synagogue, you cannot walk through a synagogue as a shortcut, etc. etc. – What these rules do is create a space where we can experience awe and reverence, feelings which are in short demand in this day and age. Respect is no longer a value; it’s anti-egalitarian, it’s backward, or so they say. Everyone is a thought leader one day, canceled the next. Irreverence is celebrated, nothing is sacred. But then you go to shul –
You put on special clothing. You are quiet and you listen, at least for a few minutes. You stand up with attention when the Ark is opened. You lovingly kiss the sacred Torah scrolls. You think about G-d.
I struggle to properly define the word kedusha, holiness. But I can tell you that this experience is holy. And we could use some reminders of holiness, of the truly sacred in our frenetically-paced, cynical, and irreverent world. That’s one thing that shul can create and give us that isn’t easily found outside; a special place for you to connect to G-d.
#2) Just like the second temple in Jerusalem was not able to capture the spirituality of the first, it’s not always easy to tap in to the spiritual; not always easy to remind ourselves that a shul is the house of the L-rd. The Maharal taught us that the second temple in Jerusalem stood for a different reason, a far more accessible reason, and that is community.
You know, when I was first interviewed for this job, some people were kind of worried about me, the fanatic religious man that I am 😊. In one of the many interviews I had with the search committee, one woman asked me, “Do you think your opinions will change over time?”
And I remember people yelling her down. “What kind of silly question is that?” But you know what? My opinions did change over time about many things. And you know why? Because these past eight years, we’ve been talking to one other about some of the most important topics in the world; timeless topics, current events, our lives. I’ll say something and you’ll challenge me. Or I’ll challenge you. And through this ongoing dialogue, we grow.
I don’t think I would have changed as much as I did if I had these conversations with you online. It’s only because we share a rich and warm relationship that we can see a good person who has opinions very different than our own.
And this is true whether or not we engage in debate or even discussions with one another. The fact that there are good, fine people who I see and know, who have opinions very different than mine about so many different things – not just politics! – that makes me pause and think and question. Name me one other place in your life, where this exists.
And it’s more than that. Community is more than just a place where different ideas are shared. To be part of a community means you are living for something greater than yourself. People complain from time to time that we need more classes or more events, and they are usually right – we could always be doing more. But the truth is, if you want a shul with the best programming and non-stop classes, and awesome kiddushes – this is not your place. I could find you a new spiritual home. Thank G-d, there are plenty in Baltimore.
You know what this place is, you know what Ner Tamid is, it’s a place where people come not to take but to give. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, the people of Ner Tamid do not ask what the shul can do for them, they ask what they can do for the shul. In too many shuls around the world, people think that when synagogues say “services” it means that they are providing a service, like internet connection or free babysitting, only here it’s a place to daven mincha or it’s a place to listen to a lecture or to hear a Chazzan. That’s not what service means. Services means we come to serve; we come to serve G-d and our fellow man.
People here get that. The incredible generosity that allowed us to be here today, the volunteerism, the hours and hours and hours that people have put in, the initiatives that have kept us connected, it is truly overwhelming. I wish I could just stand here and thank each person. It would not end. As someone who loves and breathes this shul, I am overwhelmingly grateful to each of you for what you do.
But I’d venture to say that the people who have given of themselves also got something out of it, that they got a lot out of it. The joy, that sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment. You know what that is? It’s the magical feeling of living beyond oneself – of being part of a community. That’s also something you cannot easily replicate.
And that brings me to the final feature of what it means to be a part of a shul and a shul community. Being part of a community means that we are all connected. Being part of a community means we care or should care about one another.
In our Haftorah today, we read how G-d heard the cries of our matriarch, Rachel. Rachel mivakah al bonehah. It does not say, bocheh, that she cries for her children. Mivakah means that she causes others to cry for her children. You see, Rachel was so connected to everyone that she caused them all to cry when she did. When we are connected with one another, we cry for one another. When we are one, then your joy is my joy and your sadness is mine as well.
These past few months have been some of the saddest months of our collective life. So many tears have been shed. Did you hear them?
Did you hear the cry of the singles who ate alone on Pesach and are probably eating alone today? Did you hear the cry of the divorcee who was overwhelmed by his or her children and managing custody while practicing social distancing? Did you hear the cry of the elderly man or woman who have been prisoners in their own home and felt like they had nothing to live for? Did you hear the cry of those who felt trapped in relationships? Of those who lost their jobs?
There are about 280 people in shul this Rosh Hashana – which is amazing. Last year we had 430 people in attendance. That means that another 150 people are at home. Being part of a community means hearing their cries, at the very least, reaching out to them and letting them know they were missed.
I’ve received the letters from Jewish institutions begging for financial support because they’re afraid they will not survive this pandemic. I’ve read the articles questioning the value of the synagogue in the modern era. As I mentioned, during these past months, I’ve had my own doubts. But today, I am more confident than ever in the future of the synagogue, especially this one.
I am confident that despite the great irreverence on the street, that we, even when we’re able to move our seats a little closer, and when we’re here more often, will still try to talk less, and will daily or weekly, feel the reverence, the G-dliness, that only a shul can generate.
I am confident that despite the world becoming more and more polarizing, that we will continue to share ideas – that we will learn from one another, and will remain a beacon of nuance, of diversity, and of mutual respect.
I am confident that we will continue to ask not what the community can do for me, but what I can do for it, and that we will feel greater by being part of something great. We will serve!
And I am confident that in a world where loneliness is the true plague, where parents feel estranged from their children, where most people have no one to confide in, and feel like they’re invisible, that we will grow in our awareness of the people sitting beside us, when they’re here, and especially when they’re not, that we will breathe new meaning into the notion of a kehila, a community in which your tears of joy cause me to smile and your tears of sadness break my heart.
Rav Hirsch’s words came true, our shuls closed down this year. But the shuls that closed down had closed down decades before; that shul was dead. Let us commit, this year, to building a new shul, a space for awe, holiness, and G-dliness, a place of community, a place of being part of something bigger than ourselves and a place where can we hear the cries of those in our midst. And may G-d bless us, as a community, with the sweetest year, filled with health, with hope, and with heart.
One of the most moving parts of Rosh Hashana is the reading of Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac. Though we are not given insight into his inner state, we can only imagine the turmoil raging inside of Avraham as he obeys G-d’s command. The most dramatic moment takes place with Avraham’s hand raised, about to slaughter his beloved son, and then – the angel cries out, “Stop!”
Avraham is informed that he is not to slaughter his son but he must now find a substitute, an animal offering to bring in his stead. He looks up and he sees a ram struggling in the thicket. The ram is stuck and trying desperately to get free.
What the ram does not realize is that he is not stuck at all. Our Sages beautifully make this point by saying that this ram was prepared from the six days of creation. What they mean to say is that the ram may have thought he was stuck but he was exactly where he needed to be. This ram had a great mission to fulfill, an offering that would change the course of history. The ram was not stuck at all; he just did not realize what he was meant to do.
Many of you feel stuck at home. It’s a terrible feeling and I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like. For many of you, you’ve been stuck at home for months now, with limited human contact. It’s a lot to bear.
Perhaps we can be inspired by the ram to know that we are never stuck. That each situation is an opportunity to grow and to accomplish. That even when we cannot change the situation, our acceptance of the situation IS the accomplishment.
For each of you being at home has its own challenges. The single parent with their children is challenged to remain calm and to inject the day with meaning. The individual who is on their own is challenged to not be overwhelmed by loneliness. Those are challenges of great magnitude and I pray that Hashem gives you the strength to overcome them.
Please remember, as you find yourself in these situations, though it may feel like it, you are not stuck. You are never stuck. You are exactly where you need to be.
(Link to Part 1 and Part 2)
The Baal Shem Tov was known to travel from city to city on a seeming whim. He would gather some followers, jump in a wagon, and travel. Sometimes they would travel for days and other times they would get in the wagon, get out, and be done with their mysterious. Each time there was a lesson, there was a mission, there was a story.
One time the Baal Shem Tov and how followers arrived in a small town right before Shabbos. The Jews of the town, a devout group, were elated to have the honor of hosting the holy Baal Shem Tov. He was given a seat of honor in the front of the shul and they started davening.
A few minutes into the davening, the Baal Shem Tov turned to the rabbi of the shul and informed him that it was stuffy in the shul. The rabbi quickly called over the gabbai and had him move everyone a few feet back. A few minutes later, the Baal Shem Tov again informed the rabbi that it was still really stuffy. Again, the rabbi called over the gabbai who moved everyone back a few more feet. As you probably guessed this happened again. At this point the congregants were crowded up against the back wall of the shul with no where to move. The rabbi didn’t know what to do and asked the Baal Shem Tov how he could make the shul less stuffy for him. Instead of answering the Baal Shem Tov asked if he could address the congregation, and of course, the rabbi invited him to do so.
“Chevra, friends, the room is stuffed, not with people. It’s stuffed with tefilos, with prayers, and with Torah study.” Seeing the quizzical looks on everyone’s face, he continued.
“There’s so much prayer, so much Torah study that takes place in here, but it’s all stuck. None of it ever leaves this room; they never reach G-d in Heaven.”
The Baal HaTanya beautifully explains that a Mitzvah on its own is a physical act, but what makes it spiritual is when it is infused with emotion. The two primary emotions, or the bookends of spiritual emotions are love and fear of G-d. Those emotions, he suggests are the wings of each Mitzvah. When performed with heart, our Mitzvos fly to the highest of heights. Without them, our Mitzvos are grounded, remaining a physical entity, and unable to reach their ultimate destination. And so, the room was stuffed, not with people, but with Mitzvos that were void of spirit, physical actions without wings.
I have been grappling with the challenge of defining spirituality. Is it Mitzvos or is it music? Is it study or sunsets?
The answer, it would seem, is that spirituality is made up of both music and mitzvos, moving sunsets and deep Torah study. Ultimately, Mitzvos are the most spiritual actions we can perform. We can touch the heavens here on earth through the good deeds that we perform. But to get there, to break free from the shackles of this physical world, to give our Mitzvos wings, we need to activate our emotional faculties. Our emotions live in the part of our soul that is more grounded to the physical world. The goal is to climb through our emotions up to the Miztvos, which reside on a higher plane. And when we bring them together, our spiritual life takes off.
This is why it’s important to develop taste in literature, in art, in music – because a refined and sophisticated appreciation for beauty helps make our Mitzvos even more majestic; they enable us to see the physical world with artistic eyes, eyes attuned to beauty. That is not a small thing. “Zeh Keli v’anveihu – this is my G-d and I will make His mitzvos beautiful,” was sung by the Jewish People as they crossed the sea.
This is why it’s important to develop deep self-awareness, because it allows us to bring our emotions, the good, the bad, and the ugly into our every deed. Those emotions are the window into our soul. “kol haneshama t’halel Kah – the entirety of the soul” – from bottom to top – “praises You”
And this is why, explains the Netziv, in this week’s Parsha, the Torah is referred to as a Song – “v’atah kisvu lachem es hashira hazos, write this song” understood by all to describe the Torah. G-d refers to the Torah as a song to remind us to not treat the Torah as prose. Don’t just read the words like an instruction manual. Read it like poetry.
When you read poetry, you listen for the rhythm, for the subtleties, for the space between the words, and for the space between the letters.
Torah observance is not about following a dry legalistic code. It is a life of fiery passion. It is a life of song. But it takes work. And with this definition in mind, I’d like to conclude by offering a few suggestions as to how we could live a more spiritual life. This is not an exhaustive list. These are ideas that have moved me and I hope they can move you as well.
1) Develop taste in the arts. Sensitize your ears and eyes to beauty. Not the obscene paintings and profane poetry. But to the beautiful world we live in. It will open your soul.
2) Spend some time with yourself. 5 minutes, that’s it. Just quiet. It’s not that easy but it’s also not that hard, and it is most definitely worth it. It could be while you walk, while you drive. Just listen to yourself. And get to know your soul.
3) The Chassidic rebbes were masters in demonstrating the song of the Torah. They would take a verse that meant one thing and breathe new and exhilarating life into it. Some go further and help us, in a more explicit way, understand the song of life itself. Dare I suggest that if you’re interested in a more elevated, more emotionally-driven Jewish lifestyle, find some Chassidus that speaks to you. There are English translations of the Nesivos Shalom, an extremely popular book on Chassidic thought. There are translations of the classic work, the Sefas Emes. There are podcasts – listen to Rav Moshe Weinberger from New York, or Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld, who will be joining me Wednesday night on Zoom. Or join us on Shabbos afternoon and study the highly poetic and soul-searing works of Rav Kook.
It might take a long time to find a teacher or book that could open your eyes to the music of Torah and the music of the soul. It took me a long time and every once in a while, I need to move on and find something or someone new. Whatever you do, don’t give up on the search. It’s completely worth the effort.
My final recommendation is music itself. There is certainly non-Jewish music that is spiritual. But I would recommend, in addition to whatever music you listen to, to find some Jewish music that speaks to you. Someone asked me the other day, where music ends, and prayer begins. It’s a good question and I think the answer gets to the core of what we’ve been discussing:
I’ve shared with some of you that I jog listening to Yishai Ribo or Chanan ben Ari. Sometimes I sing along as I run. But I’m not really singing along. I am praying. I am singing the soulful prayerful words of their music. So I don’t know where music ends and prayer begins – they merge and melt into one another – they are part of the continuum of our soul. It starts with our emotions and ends up in Heaven.
This is why music is the perfect analogy for spirituality. There are words and there is a tune, just like there are Mitzvos and there are emotions. It’s only when they come together that music is created.
So find some music that speaks to you and sing and pray and pray and sing; climb the rungs of your soul.
It’s the last Shabbos of this unbelievably trying year. I was speaking to someone the other day who told she hasn’t had the chance to listen to music. For me, it’s the exact opposite. I don’t know if I’d be standing here without music. It has allowed me, time and time again, to break through the fog of these times and lift myself up. Our hope and prayer for this year is that we leave these challenges behind us, but that song, music, soulfulness, and spirituality remain an integral part of our life. That the emotions that have been awakened within, never die down and that we appreciate the poetry of the Torah every day of our life.
Click here for a PDF of a Rosh Hashana stay-at-home reader, compliments of the Orthodox Union.
An-easy-to-follow guide by the Shusterman Foundation to run your own Rosh Hashana Seder: Haggadah English
Some classic tunes that we sing at Ner Tamid to listen to before the holiday and get you in the High Holiday mood can be found below by clicking on the links:
La’adei Ad Yimloch,
Haven Yakir Li
The latest rendition of Avinu Malkeinu by this cute boy: Avinu Malkeinu
A collection of poetic meditations for praying on Rosh Hashana: Poetic Kavvanot
(Part 1 can be found here: http://nertamid.net/sermons/defining-spirituality-a-journey-part-1/)
I remember the precise spot I was sitting. It was in Dutch Wonderland, I was watching a sleeping child while my wife took the kids on rides, and it just clicked. For many years I tried studying the thought of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, for some reason, I could never really penetrate the meaning of his words. I would use translations and commentaries, nothing worked. Until one day it did. I wish I could explain why and how, but all of sudden, Rav Kook was speaking to me. And I can’t stop listening. The poetry, the depth, the novelty; there are passages I read that genuinely leave me breathless.
I wrote in the previous post how Rav Tzadok HaKohein confused me with his discussion of emotions; highs and lows, and how he saw them as a meaningful part of the religious experience. Rav Kook made things even more confusing. He not only described feelings as spiritual, he described all of the arts, literature, music, poetry, artwork as expressions of spirituality.
Where’s G-d? Where’s Mitzvos? Torah? How can a deeply devout Jewish thinker describe these things as spiritual?
So bear with me as we get a little Kabbalistic and describe what spirituality looks like according to Rav Kook:
The Kabbalists believe that there are three levels to the soul. Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama. If you want to think about it visually, you can imagine a great ladder that goes from you, or your soul, all the way up to G-d. Each of us are connected, through our soul, to Hashem. Now imagine that there are actually three ladders attached to one another. The first ladder, the one attached to your soul is called the Nefesh, it is the most physical of the ladders. Attached to that ladder, going higher, is one called Ruach. And attached to that ladder, going all the way to G-d, is a ladder called Neshama.
Says Rav Kook – or at least my understanding of him – when a person is moved by a sunset, by music, by an interaction, by anything at all, their soul climbs up the ladder and stands in the realm of Nefesh, the lowest part of that spiritual ladder. Another way to put it, is that the lowest part of their soul is awakened. That hard-to-define-feeling of being moved by something IS spiritual, but it is the lowest level of our soul that is being activated.
When a person does a Mitzvah, their soul climbs up to that middle part of the ladder – to that of Ruach, and that too is spiritual. However, one can skip rungs of that ladder. In other words, one can access the spirituality of Ruach without accessing the spirituality of Nefesh. And so, you can have people who do Mitzvos that are rote, lacking in any emotion or feeling.
The highest level, the ultimate goal is when we climb the ladder properly. When our soul is emotionally moved in the act of a Mitzvah then we reach the top and we experience the spirituality of the highest order, Neshama.
You still with me?
In other words, there is spirituality in those indescribable uplifting feelings we’ve all experienced. And there is spirituality in doing Mitzvot. One is a lower form of spirituality – that of the Nefesh and one is of a higher form – that of the Ruach.
Taking in the beauty of nature, being moved by a Rembrandt, or swept up in a powerful symphony, all of that is spiritual. And we are encouraged to deepen our appreciation for such things as they are the gateway to our soul. It’s a pity that the arts and literature do not get the attention they deserve in many of our Jewish communities.
At the turn of the 20th century, Rav Kook sent a letter to the founders of the Bezalel School of Art, encouraging them, as he saw in its establishment the flowering of the Jewish soul. Similarly, shaking a Lulav, laying Tefillin, or listening to the Shofar are also spiritual acts. They are after all, what G-d describes as the mediums through which we connect to Him. However, as we all know, sometimes they are lacking in emotion and feeling.
The goal then is to bridge the gap between them. In doing so we actualize every part of our soul and connect to G-d not only through the intellectual and holy act but through the entirety of our existence. “Kol hanehsama t’hallel Kah. My entire soul sings your praise.”
We’ll pull this all together in the next and final post.