Yom Kippur, 1929, Louis Fleisher, Harry Fleisher, and Henry Shorr attended services at B’nai David, an Orthodox Congregation in Northwest Detroit. The three men, decked in their Yom Tov finest, taleisim over their heads, were leading members of the Purple Gang, Detroit’s mostly Jewish mob.
They had plenty to atone for. The Purple Gang controlled the city’s illegal gambling, smuggled liquor during Prohibition, and had a hand in most of Detroit’s underworld vice. The gang never hesitated to resort to violence—arson, bombings, and murder—when its operations were threatened. They were reputedly more ruthless than Al Capone’s gang in Chicago.
The three gangsters, engrossed in the services, did not notice three other men sitting in the back of the synagogue: Police disguised in black Chasidic garb who hoped to arrest the three hoodlums after the service. But when the non-Jewish policemen lit up cigarettes during the intermission, their cover was blown and the gangsters got away. (Robert Rockaway, Tablet Magazine)
The rabbi of the shul, was a man by the name of Rabbi Joshua Sperka – I don’t know anything about him. But I wondered what went through his mind, to have in the front rows of the shul, criminals with blood on their hands, wishing to pray for forgiveness and atonement, knowing full-well that tomorrow they’d be at it again. Did he shake their hands, did he give them an honor, or did he really want to tell them that there is no place for such people in a house of G-d?
If I were him, there would be a part of me that would not be able to concentrate during services with them in the crowd, a part of me that would very much like to forbid them from joining our services. But I think the right thing to do would be to welcome them in, graciously and lovingly, and I’d like to explain why with another story.
Late in the 19th century, somewhere in Eastern Europe, a group of Yeshiva students were arguing fiercely over a section of Maimonides.
They couldn’t make sense of it and so they did what any good student does when they are stuck, they turned to their teacher, the Rebbe.
They showed him the section, it was in the laws of Repentance, Hilchos Teshuva. Maimonides writes, “One can sin their entire life, the most vile, most terrible sins, but if they repent sincerely, even with their final breath, G-d will accept their repentance entirely and take them back.”
“How could it be?” they asked their rabbi. “How could a person commit their lives to every wrongdoing and in a single moment be taken back by G-d? Where’s the justice in that?! It’s wrong!”
The rabbi gently closed their books. “The answer,” he said, “is not found in the holy books. Let me tell you something. My youngest son has veered away from the path of Judaism. He is a leader among the revolutionaries. He despises religion, he mocks it, he antagonizes the faithful. He has said terrible things to me, he has wounded me and my wife with his words and his behavior. I haven’t seen my son in years, and it breaks my heart into a million little pieces whenever I think of him and imagine what he’s up to.”
“But if my son were to knock on my door right now, I would smother him with hugs and kisses. I wouldn’t ask him where he’s been, what he’s done. I don’t care! I would just be so happy, ecstatic! to have him back in my life.”
When we think of G-d as a judge, it is very hard to understand how and why He would welcome us back after all our misdeeds. You can’t just erase the past! But if we understand that G-d is our father, our loving father, well which father wouldn’t give anything to embrace his son, especially a son who has been so distant for so long?
Last night, we spoke about the soft side of love, of vulnerability, how in order to let someone into our lives we need to be soft; we need to lower the walls around us. But maintaining love does not come from a place of weakness. Love is anything but a soft emotion. To hold on to a loving relationship, regardless of how much pain, hurt, confusion the relationship may bring with it, that takes strength; superhuman strength.
In 1973, Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Twerski, called in his son, Dr. Rabbi Abraham Twerski to discuss his medical situation. He had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. The senior Rabbi Twerski had visited many patients as a rabbi and he knew exactly what his prognosis was with such a diagnosis.
He asked his son, the doctor, “Chemotherapy is not going to work at this point, is that right?”
The son, based on his medical knowledge, confirmed his father’s prediction. The father continued, “I am going to suffer terribly from the chemotherapy. Correct?” The son nodded.
The father then declared, “I am not going to go through with it. It’s not going to help. It’s only going to cause me pain and suffering. I believe the wise decision and the right decision is to not to have the chemotherapy.”
The son gravely shook his head in agreement.
As they were concluding the conversation, Rabbi Twerski Sr.’s wife burst into the room. “I spoke to the doctor.” she said, “He said there’s a chance. I want you to have the chemotherapy.”
The rabbi turned his wife and said, “Of course. Of course, honey. I’ll go through with the treatments.”
After the Rebbetzin left the room, the older Rabbi turned his shocked son, “I’m sure you’re wondering what just happened; why I just agreed to undergo the treatments when we both know it’s not going to help and we both know it’s going to cause me extra pain and suffering.”
“But I want you to know something. If I do not go through with the chemo, your mother will feel guilty for the rest of her life. I have dedicated my entire life to loving her, to making your mother as happy and content as can be. This is my last chance to do so. There’s no way I’m turning down this final opportunity.” (Rabbi Frand)
There are complicated questions of Jewish Law in every end of life circumstance. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from here what could or could not be done at the end of one’s life. But what we most certainly can learn from this story is that love is not soft. This man loved his wife with every fiber of his being, with superhuman strength, regardless of the pain that it caused him.
And although we all know, at least intellectually, that love takes strength, too often we allow for a soft and fragile love. How many of our relationships that are supposed to be filled with love are instead lived on eggshells?
In how many homes is a spouse afraid of saying the wrong thing for fear of a blow up?
How many children are afraid of making a mistake for fear of being criticized?
How many parents are afraid of their child pushing them away even further?
And in that fragile setting, where every action is viewed suspiciously, where every word is misconstrued, and every get-together is volatile, we tip-toe ever so gingerly, softly crushing those eggshells, until we stop tip-toeing all together, and the flame of love is extinguished.
True love is strength. It’s the strength it takes for a parent to accept their child regardless of any, any, any, any decision they make in life. True love is the strength it takes for a spouse to accept their partner when they stumble, when they change, when they age.
True love is the strength it takes for a child to be there for their parent who no longer acts like one.
And yes, there are times that we have to protect ourselves and pull back. There are times when two spouses must go their own way. There are times that a relationship must be ended. But where to draw the line, when to draw the line, how to draw the line. These are questions we need to spend more time asking.
You know why our love is so fragile these days; why the divorce rate doesn’t seem to stop climbing? Why beautiful relationships seem to crumble so quickly? Why no one seems to get along?
There are many reasons of course, but I’d like to focus today on just one. Noted columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, describes “two models of human development.” He writes the following: “The first is what you might call The Four Kinds of Happiness. The lowest kind of happiness is material pleasure, having nice food and clothing and a nice house. Then there is achievement, the pleasure we get from earned and recognized success. Third, …the pleasure we get from giving back to others. Finally, the highest kind of happiness is moral joy, the glowing satisfaction we get when we have surrendered ourselves to some noble cause or unconditional love.”
“The second model is Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. In this conception, we start out trying to satisfy our physical needs, like hunger or thirst. Once those are satisfied we move up to safety needs, economic and physical security. Once those are satisfied we can move up to belonging and love. … when that is satisfied we can move up to the pinnacle of development, self-actualization, which is experiencing autonomy and living in a way that expresses our authentic self.”
Says Brooks, “The big difference between these two schemes is that The Four Kinds of Happiness moves from the… individual to the relational and finally to the transcendent and collective. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, on the other hand, moves from the collective to the relational and, at its peak, to the individual. In one the pinnacle of human existence is in quieting and transcending the self; in the other it is liberating and actualizing the self.”
That’s a fascinating observation. Because when you think about it, it’s quite obvious that it’s the second model that has become the foundation on which all of modern day psychology rests, which all of popular culture revolves, and on which our entire conception of love lies; it’s about self-actualization, it’s about you, your life. Don’t let your family, friends, or faith get in the way. But when I’m only thinking about me and my self-actualization then my relationship is very, very fragile. It actually, almost doesn’t exist.
When a bride and groom stand under the Chuppah, there are seven blessings, the Sheva Berachos that we bestow upon them. They all of course relate to the bride and groom and to love – except for the first one. “Blessed are You, Hashem, for everything was created for G-d’s honor.” What does this have to do with a bride and groom? Why is this the first blessing that we shower upon this brand new couple?
One of my mentors, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, once suggested that the first message we give to the bride and groom as they embark on the journey called marriage is that there is no longer a me, no longer a you, and not even a we. We have now created something new, a relationship. It has nothing to do with brides or grooms; it’s a brand new entity called love. The first message shared at a Jewish wedding is that love transcends us as individuals and creates something far greater.
When we think of love in those terms, when we think of love as transcendence it’s not fragile, it’s not soft. When love is bigger than me and you, bigger than my needs, and my feelings, bigger than you being insensitive to me, and me being insensitive to you – to get past all that, to transcend all of that, love must take its true form. That type of love, transcendent love, is a rock; un-moveable, unbreakable, and ultimately everlasting.
I’d like to share with you one final story. It’s a story I did not initially believe until I heard it from the granddaughter of the man it happened to, someone I trust, Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg from Boca Raton Synagogue, and it goes like this. (Rabbi Yoel Gold, Aish.com)
Yocheved then-Bruckstein, was a young girl in sleepaway camp, at Camp Chedva. On visiting day, her parents and grandparents came to see her. As they were walking through the summer camp together, her grandfather walked by another older gentleman and nodded hello and kept on walking. Yocheved’s father was curious. “Who is that man, dad? I’ve never seen him before.”
The grandfather initially tried to brush it off. “It was nobody.” But that made his son even more curious. “C’mon, Dad, Who is he?”
And so finally the grandfather said, “He was my best friend before the war.”
“You’re best friend before the war?! And all you did was nod?! What’s going on, dad? Why didn’t you give him a hug, talk to him?”
The grandfather stopped walking and turned to his son. “Let’s find a seat, I want to tell you something.” They found a place to sit and the grandfather shared this story.
“As you know, I had a wife and a son before the Holocaust. We were living in Romania, I was pretty successful, but I saw the writing on the wall. I managed to get visas for myself, my wife and son, and my in-laws, and I had plans to leave just before the Nazis arrived.”
“The day before I left, I went over to the house of my best friend; we used to study together, we shared so many ups and downs together, I couldn’t leave without telling him. I told him about the visas, I told him they were hidden away and that tomorrow I would be leaving. And we hugged each other goodbye.”
“The next morning, I went to get the visas, but they were gone. And so was my friend and his family.”
“The Nazis came, we were deported to Auschwitz and I lost everyone; my in-laws, my wife, and my dear son.”
The son couldn’t believe his ears. “Dad, a moment ago I wanted to know why you didn’t hug him, now I want to know why you didn’t punch him? He killed your family?! How could you even say hello to him?!”
And the grandfather replied, “Son, it was a different time. People were scared, people acted in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise acted. We can’t understand it. We just have to move on.”
If Mr. Bruckstein had the inner-strength to just move on, what can we not move on from? What could possibly be more hurtful, more unimaginably painful than what Mr. Bruckstein went through, and yet he found it within him to say, “Just move on.”
On Yom Kippur, if we want it, G-d “just moves on.” Our Father in Heaven welcomes us back, embraces us with His deep and never-failing love. And G-d, being our Father, wants us to do the same with one another. Just move on.
This room, in a moment, will be filled with tears for lost parents, siblings, spouses, children. Life is so short. Just move on.
You’ll go home later today, or maybe later this week you’ll be talking to a child, a parent, a sibling, and some of you may feel those eggshells cracking under your toes. Sweep them away with your acceptance, with your ability to forgive the past, to respect and empower to your loved one. Just move on.
Just move on.
In 1856, just five years before the Civil War broke out, a Virginian slave-owner wrote the following to his wife: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages.” This slave-owner went on to free some of his slaves, an act, that was rather unpopular and seen as almost criminal in the mid-19th century deep south.
The author of that letter, as some of you may know, was none other than Robert E. Lee, the famous or infamous general-in-chief of the confederate forces. Lee, after his radical proclamation denouncing slavery, went on to write a justification for its continued institution, claiming that the slaves were better off in America than in Africa.
Thus begins the controversy of Robert E. Lee’s legacy; selfless general, vicious slave-owner, lover of animals, hater of people, humble in loss, arrogant in victory. Do we leave his statues up or do we tear them all down? This is the question that has roiled our country.
In the Torah, there is a prohibition against making statues. It’s a prohibition that until this past summer, I thought to be somewhat outdated. But after witnessing the controversy, the heated debates, the senseless bloodshed, I realized that erecting a statue is perhaps not only a reflection of the Torah’s opposition to anything that relates to idolatry, but perhaps the prohibition of erecting a statue speaks to the complexity of life itself; Because, how could a statue sum up the entirety of a person’s life?
If we were to freeze ourselves at one moment in our lives, doing just one thing, what single act can convey a lifetime; a life filled with great successes and shameful failures, a life filled with moments of elation and flashes of despair.
Would it be at work, signing our name on a contract, giving a wonderful presentation, saving a patient’s life? Or would it be the time we made a terrible choice that almost sunk our organization, the time we said the wrong thing to a potential client, or when we felt like giving up? Or should it be a picture of us at home, caring for a child in middle of the night – or perhaps the time we lost our cool and scared that same child?
What statue, what singular moment can be captured in bronze or gold? What single moment can truly define us?
No moment can define us. We are simply too complicated and too complex to be captured in still motion. And this is why the Torah is the most remarkable book of all. It speaks in stories and abhors statues. It paints intricate and complicated pictures of our forefathers, of Avraham and of Sarah, of Yosef and of his brothers, of Moshe and of Aharon. As a people, we have been blessed with role models, of men and women to look up to and admire, but the Torah, ever so sensitive to human frailty, tells stories and forbids statues.
A few moments ago, we said Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei is an annulment of vows; vows we made this past year and ones we will make in the year to come. “All commitments, all promises that I made this past year, and all vows I will inevitably make,” we ask the congregation, as a stand in for a court, to annul them.
Why? Because there is no way I could keep my word. I have not kept my word in the past and I acknowledge that I will continue to be incapable of keeping my word. Kol Nidrei is a humble admission to human frailty, to the fluctuations of life that we seek to control, but control we do not.
And that’s just the beginning of Yom Kippur.
Tomorrow morning, the most hallowed and sacred prayer we will say is Unesaneh Tokef – “Who will live, who will die?” How many loved ones did we say goodbye to this past year?
And in words that in 2017 take on special significance, “Who will die by fire, and who by water?” The “waters” of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria that have brought so much devastation. Or the “fires” of North Korea, Iran, and Hezbollah. Will this be the year we dread, when the saber-rattling turns into missile-firing?
And then, when the horrors and intensity of Unesaneh Tokef wear off, we begin to sing that haunting tune – ayayay… ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, we have sinned, we have rebelled, we have stolen.
If you were to sum up the feeling that all these prayers collectively evoke in us, I think we’d say that Kol Nidrei, Unesaneh Tokef, Viduy, together remind us – that we are pathetic. Throughout the year, we excitedly commit to great things – and we humbly submit to our inability to follow through. Throughout life, we build homes, we build lives – and we acknowledge that we are subject to the unpredictable winds, water, and fire of the world. On most days, we think of ourselves as good, as honest, but we spend the entire day beating our chest and admitting that we’ve made more mistakes than we can even keep track of. It sure sounds pretty pathetic.
But I’d like to suggest that there is an entirely different way of looking at all of this, a theme for Yom Kippur that I believe to be far more uplifting and actually, far more accurate. Because you see, every Jewish holiday corresponds to a moment in early Jewish history and Yom Kippur is no exception. Although there is no explicit mention in the Torah, the Talmud makes the following calculation. On the seventeenth of the month of Tammuz, the Jewish People sinned with the Golden Calf. Moshe comes down the mountain, sees how low the Jewish People have fallen, and breaks the tablets. The next morning he goes back up the mountain for 40 days, begging G-d to forgive the Jewish People. G-d acquiesces and the Jewish People are forgiven.
But then, Moshe goes up the mountain again. He spends 40 days and comes down at the end with the second set of tablets. That day was Yom Kippur.
It would seem that although we associate Yom Kippur with forgiveness, based on this tradition that is not entirely accurate. Forgiveness took place 40 days prior. What took place on Yom Kippur was that G-d not only forgave the Jewish People, on Yom Kippur, G-d reestablished a relationship with them. Yom Kippur is far more powerful than forgiveness. It is a day of reconciliation; Yom Kippur is a day of love. (Rabbi Moshe Hauer)
That’s why we say Kol Nidrei and remind ourselves of our fickle nature, that’s why we say Unesaneh Tokef and remind ourselves of our vulnerability, and that’s why we say Viduy and remind ourselves of our shortcoming. What we are doing is making ourselves vulnerable to G-d. Because vulnerability is the key to true love.
In the words of Brene Brown: Love is… “Waking up everyday and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we cannot ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow – that’s vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed.”
Vulnerability is not only an expression of love, it’s what makes love. When we are able to open ourselves up to someone we trust and share with them our shortcomings, when we are able to open ourselves up to someone we trust and share with them our dreams – as corny as they may seem, when we’re able to metaphorically bare ourselves to a friend, to a family member, to a spouse, that’s what makes love. Vulnerability breeds love. It is the door through which the “other” enters our life.
As a society, we are terribly vulnerable-averse. We make ourselves so busy or we pretend to be so busy so we don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable void in our lives and the emotions it may evoke. We medicate, we distract, we overstimulate to avoid the vulnerability of our emotions. We avoid sadness at all costs because it scares us, and in doing so we lose our capacity for joy. We pretend to be someone we’re not because we’re afraid of being judged for who we are. And oh, do we absolutely stink at apologizing – “I am sorry about the way I made you feel.” “I am sorry about the situation that we’re in.” We will say anything but take ownership and responsibility. We will do anything to prevent ourselves from feeling vulnerable.
But a world without vulnerability is a world without love.
Making ourselves vulnerable does not mean over-sharing and letting everyone know your problems or who share with people they barely even know. People who do so cheapen the magical power of vulnerability. Vulnerability is opening up to the people we care about, the people we love or we’d like to love, and being honest with them, about ourselves, about our mutual relationship, about what’s really going on inside. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, but it’s a small price to pay for love.
On Yom Kippur, we turn to our Father in Heaven, G-d, and we share with Him our vulnerabilities; we are fickle, we don’t like to admit it – but to you G-d, I’ll be open and I’ll be honest.
We tremble in fear – I’m scared as I hear the haunting words of “who will live and who will die” and I ask you, G-d, to hold me close, because I need Your embrace.
We hang our heads in shame as we acknowledge our many missteps – but I feel uplifted knowing that You, G-d, still want to hear from me, because you love me, because you love us!
This is the essence of Yom Kippur and this is the model for the loving relationships that we can have in our lives. If we could only gather the strength to stop running and faking and building walls around ourselves, and instead accept ourselves, be honest to others, and let some special people in, to help us, to understand us, to love us, I think we would have the relationships that we all crave for.
I recently read a story of a man, as successful as can be, whose parents, both Holocaust survivors, never had it within them to say, I love you. He lived his whole life waiting for affirmation from the two people he adored. He received accolades from his clients, his colleagues, newspapers, but it meant nothing. He wanted to know his parents loved him; he wanted them to let him in.
On her deathbed, his mother called him close. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word love, but she whispered in his ear, “Son, I am very proud of you.”
Those words, those words that came from a place of honesty and for her, vulnerability, empower him to this day.
Let’s not wait until our dying breath to open up to those we love. We are somewhat fickle, life is fleeting, and we are far from perfect. Let’s be honest about our shortcomings, our fears, our dreams, and ourselves with the people we love – and with G-d; let’s allow ourselves to be vulnerable today and every day, to their help, to their sympathy, to their support, and may we be blessed with the deepest and truest of emotions, the blessing of true love.
There are a number of different sets of candles that are lit on Erev Yom Kippur that are supposed to last for all of Yom Kippur. Each of them has its own set of laws.
Candles are lit like every Erev Shabbos at home. Ideally, one says the blessing of shehechiyanu when lighting these candles and one should therefore not say the shehechiyanu blessing at shul after Kol Nidrei.
- If one plans on driving to shul after lighting, there are two options: Option 1) They should explicitly state that they are not accepting the sanctity of the holiday with the lighting of the candles. In such a case, one should recite the blessing upon lighting but should not recite the shehechiyanu blessing. Shehechiyanu should then be said with the congregation at Kol Nidrei. Option 2) Light candle at shul. Although one can normally not discharge their obligation of lighting Shabbos or Yom Tov candles by lighting at shul, Yom Kippur is the exception to this rule.
2. Another candle should be lit to be used for Havdallah after Yom Kippur. To demonstrate the extra sanctity of Yom Kippur we use a flame that was lit before Yom Tov and do not light a new one for Havdallah. (If one plans on being in shul for Havdallah, no extra candle is needed. If the light goes out, one may light a new light for Havdallah.)
3. There is a custom to have one candle lit for every family and this is kept in the home. Some have the custom of lighting this candle at shul.
4. If one lost their mother or father, an additional Yizkor candle should be lit in one’s home. One candle suffices for two parents. No blessing is said over this candle.
Do not send your children to a Jewish Day School. Better yet, boycott Jewish Day Schools.
That was the takeaway from an op-ed written last week, titled, “I can ‘do Jewish’ on just $40,000 a year.’ The anonymous author argues that Jewish life, especially sending one’s children to Jewish schools, is way too expensive and not worth it. The children, he argued, don’t come away with a solid education nor do they learn good middos. He decided to pull his kids out of his local day school and provide for their Jewish education on his own and is encouraging others to do the same.
Since publication, this article has been shared approximately 30,000 times. Clearly, his message resonated.
In the course of the article, he went on to criticize everything Jewish, including his rabbi who he claims is making $350,000 a year, is receiving free housing and pays no tuition. Honestly, reading that part kind of made me happy – at least I now know the author does not daven here.
Today is Rosh Hashana, it’s a big day, and so instead of focusing on the particulars of the article, I’d like to focus on the big picture, something we all care about – the key to a strong Jewish future. Because I believe the author is right, at least in a limited sense – a child can go to public school and grow up to be a wonderful Jewish adult and a child can go to a Jewish day school and want nothing to do with Judaism.
Of course, there are endless factors at play, some we can control and some we cannot. But I would argue that there is a single feature that anyone who cares about a strong Jewish future needs to incorporate into their Jewish lives. It is a feature that is relevant whether you have a child in a Jewish Day School, public school, or home school. It is relevant, I must add, whether you’re a grandparent or you have no children. Because a strong Jewish future is dependent on a strong Jewish present, and we, you and I, are the face and the soul of modern-day Judaism.
Not too long ago, there lived a great Torah scholar, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory. He was considered by many to be the most authoritative voice in Jewish law here in North America and beyond. Rabbi Feinstein lived in the Lower East Side of New York from 1936 until 1986 when he passed away.
As you know, back then, the Lower East side was teeming with immigrants. Many of those immigrants were religious Jews who came from Europe. As I’m sure you also know, tragically, many of the children of those immigrants walked away from Judaism.
Rav Moshe Feinstein would often ask, rhetorically, how is it that the children of these Jews turned away from Judaism? The parents were so deeply committed. They were willing to be fired from their jobs every Friday because they refused to work on Shabbos, they would try to keep kosher well before the kosher industry really took off. Why didn’t that commitment rub off on their children, he asked.
Rabbi Feinstein explained that those dedicated Jews, who were indeed incredibly committed to Judaism, would come home after being fired, or they would sit down to eat their severely limited meal due to kosher standards, and they would say, “Oy! S’iz shver tu zain a Yid. It is so hard to be a Jew.” It was that message, explained Rabbi Feinstein, that turned off so many of the second generation American Jews.
And that’s why I so often speak about the Joys of Judaism, because it’s not shver tu zain a Yid. S’iz gevaldik tu zain a Yid! It’s awesome to be a Jew! I love being Jewish, and I hope you do too. Because if negativity or guilt is driving your Judaism, no one wants to be a part of that. The author of that article I mentioned chose to remain anonymous, and I’m glad he did, at least for the sake of his children. Because that cynical tone, the way he chose to discuss the issues, is toxic and is a surefire method to drive one’s children away from Judaism.
Positivity is contagious in the best of ways. But positivity alone can be superficial. Clapping and singing and having a good time is not the positivity that I am discussing today. That’s a start but we need a positivity that expresses something far deeper and more powerful and that is PASSION.
We are no strangers to passion. This has been a very passionate year for us Americans. I even coined a diagnosis, OPD – Obsessive Political Disorder. It doesn’t really exist but it should. It represents a new reality; a reality in which everyone is obsessed with politics.
Allow me to read to you one man’s personal reflections of this past year: “Like millions of affected Americans, I can’t get President Donald Trump out of my head. I search his name in Google a dozen times a day. Every day. Seven days a week. It’s the first thing I do when I awake in the morning and the last thing I do before going to sleep at night: “Trump.” Press enter.
Trump rarely fails to satisfy the addiction; it’s a round-the-clock show. There’s always an update — a firing, a nutty tweet, a Russia revelation.”
Everywhere I go all people seem to talk about is politics. I come into shul, people are talking about the latest. I was in Toronto this summer, Toronto, Canada! I know it doesn’t seem like it, but it’s a different country! I was listening to a Canadian comedian speak to a Canadian crowd, and guess what he spoke about? Trump! You gotta be kidding me!
Couples, who typically do not care much for politics, have split over their political differences. The New York Times had a story about a wife who gave an ultimatum to her husband last summer, “If you vote for Trump, I will divorce you.” And no, this was not a joke.
It’s a sad day, it really is, when I know more couples who are intermarried than couples who disagree about politics.
Now let me be clear, passion is a wonderful thing; it means you believe in something deeply, and in many ways it’s an expression of your soul. The experience of passion is the most alive feeling known to man. It’s beautiful, it’s euphoric, and it’s just plain magical to lose yourself in something wherever your passion may lie; politics, sports, Game of Thrones, it doesn’t matter.
What I wonder is how we can borrow some of that wild and intense passion that we have in this area or that, and apply it to our faith, and apply it to Judaism. Because let’s be honest here, we could sometimes be a little lacking in passion when it comes to Judaism, and sometimes we can even be apathetic. How many times will we look at our watches this morning? How often will we get up to stretch our legs and see who’s hanging out in the hallway? And to contrast, how often do we look at our watch during a playoff game? We rather hook ourselves up to a catheter than miss a minute of our favorite TV show.
If there is no fire, there is nothing to pass on. They call it passing on the torch for a reason. A passionate Judaism, I believe, is the key to a Jewish future and a Jewish present.
So allow me to describe to you not how to develop passion, we’ll talk about that tomorrow. But today, let me describe to you what a passionate Judaism should and could look like:
One of the most well-known stories of the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, takes place in the last weeks of his life. The Romans had decreed that all Torah study was forbidden and punishable by death, and yet, Rabbi Akiva continued to teach Torah to his students. A Roman friend of Rabbi Akiva urged him to stop, “What are you doing rabbi? You’re risking your life!” To which Rabbi Akiva answered, “This is my life. You ask how I could learn Torah, I ask, how can I not?”
Now if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we would say that this story is difficult for us to understand. A day without Torah? A week without Torah? A year without Torah? Big deal! How could one be so obsessed with Torah study anyway? How could one genuinely feel that Torah study gives their life its sole sense of meaning?
And to answer that question, I need to apologize. Because if we could even ask that question that means that I, and all Jewish educators who have ever taught you, have not properly conveyed the powerful and passionate connection one can have to Torah study. I have tasted it but I obviously haven’t taught it. I have had the privilege of studying a page of Talmud so deeply that I have been moved to tears. There have been times, after finally understanding a difficult passage that I have held myself back from dancing. I have dreamt Torah. And yet, I have failed to convey its beauty, its depth, and its majesty.
And that’s too bad. Because without appreciating its profundity, by only studying Torah superficially, there’s no way in the world we can cultivate a passion for it. And so it’s our fault, your teachers and your rabbis for not exposing you to the beauty and the profundity of our heritage.
But while I take some of the blame, some of the blame is on us all. If we wanted it, if we were looking for it, we would find it. It’s not found on Aish.com and it’s not even found in a sermon. The beauty, the true beauty of Torah is found by immersing ourselves in a genuinely Jewish idea, in a Torah text, thoroughly, deeply, passionately. “Ta’amu ure’u,” King David writes, “Taste it and you will see.” Like a good scotch or a fine cigar, it’s an acquired taste. And the only way to develop it is to bite in.
I commit myself this year to spending more time preparing my classes and I invite you to meet me in the middle. To try a class, and if the class or classes don’t speak to you, find a class somewhere else, there’s a lot of Torah being taught in Baltimore, or find a study partner – I’ll help you find one, or study by yourself. But study deeply, study passionately, develop a passion for Torah. It’s G-d’s gift to every Jew and please trust me when I say, it is a magnificent, enchanting gift worth being passionate about.
We need passion in Torah and we need passion, perhaps even more, in prayer. Natan Sharansky, the famous refusenik, who spent nine years in a Russian jail, would often tell people how he kept his spirits up in the darkest of times, thousands of miles from his wife Avital, in solitary confinement, and often without food. His source of strength? Tehillim/ Psalms.
He was allowed to have this one Jewish book, a book that encapsulates all the yearnings and desires of the Jewish People throughout the millennia. And he relates how every day, and at any time that despair would start to creep up on him, he would lovingly open this book, read from it, and connect to G-d.
What amazes me is that he was not a learned man; he didn’t even know how to pray. Remember, he lived behind the Iron Curtain with virtually no Jewish education. And yet, his relationship with G-d was profound, it was deep, it was real.
You don’t need a Master’s in Judaism to have a relationship with G-d. You don’t need to know how to read Hebrew to communicate with Hashem. Knowing what page we’re on, knowing when to bow down and when to stand up, is not what makes prayer powerful. Passionate prayer is when we have a passionate relationship with G-d.
Nachman of Breslov, a great and holy 19th century rabbi known for his passion, recommends something called his’bodidus. It doesn’t translate well but what it means is to take time every day to speak to G-d in your own language; openly, honestly, and sincerely. And if you feel uncomfortable doing so or stuck, he suggests that we speak to G-d and ask Him to help you get unstuck, ask Him to help become more comfortable speaking to Him. Adon-i sefosai tiftach ufi yagid tehilosecha, open my mouth, G-d, so I can speak to you.
An let me tell you, this is tried, tested, and true. I can personally attest to the powerful effect of this exercise. You could do it in a few moments when we daven Shemoneh Esrei and you could do it on Sunday before you get out of bed in the morning and on Monday on your drive to work. Five minutes a day, two minutes a day, one minute a day! Carve out some time to develop a deep and meaningful connection with G-d. It is the stepping stone to a passionate Judaism.
That is the key, in my humble opinion, to a strong Jewish present and a strong Jewish future. And so back to the question of Jewish education: Passion and positivity can be learned at home. One does not need a school to teach these things and yet, I can only share with you my personal experiences. I love Judaism, I’m passionate about Judaism. I think you know that. And I wondered, as I sat down to collect my thoughts, where did I get that from?
Thank G-d, I have parents who are deeply committed to Judaism and had a realistic yet positive outlook towards the Jewish community. But I also had teachers who I adored, who lived and breathed the most positive, joyous lives that I had ever seen. Teachers whose faces would radiate in a way that I never saw anywhere else. Teachers who had a special serenity about them that I so deeply yearned for. Teachers who were brilliant who opened my eyes to a profound understanding of the Torah. Teachers who lived with G-d.
Passion is something that we as parents can teach and must teach our children at home, whether they go to a Jewish school or not, through modelling a passionate Jewish life of our own.
But my experience has been that positivity and passion is something that the men and women who have dedicated their lives to Judaism, the teachers in Jewish day schools, have an unequal share of. Personally, exposing my children ten months a year, five days a week, to those wonderful men and women, to those paragons of passion, is something I find difficult to put a price tag on.
Two weeks ago, I attended Talmudical Academy’s 100th year anniversary. Rav Aharon Feldman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, was the first one to speak. He is in his mid-90’s and he has accomplished quite a lot in his life. He has written books, led fine institutions, and brought up a large and beautiful family. This is how he concluded his address: “I must confess, I don’t remember a word of what I learned while I was in TA. However, it was not a waste, because Torah is compared to a shirah, a song. I may have forgotten the words, but I will never forget the music.”
It’s a lot of money to pay for learning a song, I know. It could be done without a school, I truly believe that. And sometimes that is the best decision for one’s child. But if that song is a beautiful one, if that song is one that inspires my child to keep on learning and to keep on growing, then I’m willing to pay a premium for them to learn it.
Passion, positive passion, will ensure Jewish continuity, and it’s up to us, the bearers of that torch, to find the best place for ourselves and for our children, where that tune can be learned.
I’d like to conclude with an old parable. It’s about a man whose job it was to warn pedestrians of oncoming trains. This was before the advent of electricity. The man would sit up high in a tower and when he saw a train coming he would light a lantern and shake it back and forth to warn the people down below not to cross the train tracks.
One night, tragedy struck. A young woman was crossing the train tracks and she was hit by an oncoming train.
The man was brought to court and was questioned mercilessly by the prosecutors. They asked him time and time again, what were you doing the night the woman was killed? Were you sleeping? Were you drunk? Were you distracted? And each time the man responded, “I was waving the lantern back and forth, back and forth. I was waving the lantern back and forth!”
After much deliberation, they decided to let him go. He was innocent, he waved the lantern after all.
However, the man was never the same again. He wasn’t sleeping, he wasn’t eating, and finally, his wife sat him down and said, “I know you must feel so much guilt, but honey, you aren’t guilty! You were waving the lantern! You were doing your job!”
The man, with a sad face, his eyes sunken in, slowly looked up and said, “Yes, I was waving the lantern. But the lantern was not lit.”
Judaism is not about going through the motions, it’s about being lit up, it’s about being on fire. We all know that magical feeling from other interest in our lives. Let’s bring that fire to our faith. Let’s make sure our torch is lit so we can pass it on to the next generation.
For this year to come, let’s commit ourselves to speaking about Judaism and its institutions, honestly, with an eye for constructive change, but let’s do so positively.
Let’s commit ourselves to developing passion, to tasting the depth of Torah, to understanding Rabbi Akiva’s love, to pursuing this goal, to diving in, to really seeing what it’s all about.
And let’s commit ourselves to spending some time talking to G-d. Don’t worry so much about the structure or the formalities. Our relationship with G-d, like all relationships, begins with communication; his’bodidus, real genuine communication.
May G-d bless us with the fuel we need for a year of vibrancy, a year of health, and a year lived with a fiery passion.
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet…. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal?
And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?”
With those words, spoken to a crowd of 35,000 in Houston, Texas, President John F. Kennedy kicked off the American space race.
“We choose to go to the Moon! … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …”
That speech was given at the midpoint of one hundred years of unbelievable accomplishments and advancements. The world changed in those years so drastically that our great-grandparents could not have even dreamed of life in the 21st century. From cars to radio. From television to the computer. From refrigerators to cellphones. From plastic to the internet. From travelling to the moon to travelling to Mars. We accepted that challenge and so many others and we never looked back.
And in the wake of all of our accomplishments and advancements, we have rewarded ourselves like never before; we live in the most comfortable era known to mankind. We have an endless array of food available to us. And amazingly, something that would truly shock our grandparents, this is true for Jews as well. Remember when Manischewitz was the only kosher wine available? I grew up with Kedem 144. That was a big deal, it was a real step-up; you know, it was just a liiittle less syrupy than Manischewitz.
And now? Go to your nearest wine store! It’s mind-boggling how many quality Kosher wines there are! And in case you’re not sold on wine, Baltimore now has Season’s! Mazel Tov!! What more can we possibly ask for?!
Not only do we eat really well, we live in absolute comfort. From central air to the clothing we wear – I’m sure you’re all familiar with jeggings. Right? Jeggings are jeans and leggings in one. They’re pants, mostly worn by women, made of spandex and cotton and they are the most comfortable pair of pants ever made. If you’re older than forty, you may think they are pajamas – they are. But in 2017, everyone in this room can wear jeggings to work and get away with it – except for me. Jeggings are a hallmark of our generation; a generation that’s into comfort food, a comfortable workplace, and clothing far more comfortable than man has ever worn.
We are masters of the planet; technologically, gastronomically, and with endless pleasure and comfort. And you know what?
It’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a very good thing. Some may say that we have become too ostentatious, too ambitious, too hedonistic. And I’m here to tell you that I disagree.
Five thousand seven hundred and seventy eight years ago to this day, according to Jewish tradition, the first man with a Divine soul was created. Adam and Eve were given instructions on the very first Rosh HaShana, not the instructions they teach you in Hebrew school. Before the whole tree debacle, G-d said to Adam and Eve: פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ, the very first words uttered to man are, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the world and conquer it.”
You know what it means to conquer the world?
To conquer the world means to fly to the moon, to conquer the world means to create the internet, to conquer the world means to achieve, to accomplish, to not sit still until we are masters of every natural resource available to man. G-d imbued us with the capacity to be creators, to be powerful, and He wants us to actualize that power.
What should we do with that power, you ask.
G-d continues, in the very next directive, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם” Behold I have given you, all the herbs, trees, fruit, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה, Everything is for you to eat.” For you to enjoy.
So yes, build another Kosher supermarket with finger-licking take-out! Buy yourself a luxury car – assuming you could afford it! Build a colony on the moon – just because we can. These things are not only allowed, but yes, according to Judaism, there is genuine value in taking President Kennedy’s challenge to heart; in ambition, in actualizing every bit of opportunity on this planet and beyond!
But there’s a catch.
There is a third directive given to Adam and Eve. This is the one you all know: מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן, אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. Eat from every tree. וּמֵעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע–לֹא תֹאכַל, מִמֶּנּוּ – Eat from every tree, except for one.
All of a sudden, in what seems to be an about-face, G-d demands of man to hold back; to not accomplish, to not consume, to not enjoy everything the world has to offer.
So which one is it? Which path does Judaism promote? What is G-d teaching man on this first and fateful day of creation?
Explains Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century: Together, what these introductory instructions are conveying is that we are to be masters, we are to vanquish the world, but – when we reach the pinnacle, when the prize is in our hands, we are expected to hold ourselves back, to exercise restraint, because this! G-d is telling Adam and Eve, is what it means to be human. To be a dignified and heroic human being is to have the world at your fingertips but the self-control to hold back. Mastery not only over the planet, but mastery over oneself.
Think about the first Biblical wrestling match. An all-powerful angel attacks Jacob. And you thought Mayweather and McGregor was a mismatch?
Here was a mortal man, all alone, who was left to fight an angelic being. And somehow, from somewhere deep within, he mustered up the inner strength and fought back. And he fought valiantly. To the point, that in the final round, it was Yakov who was clearly going to be victorious.
But here’s the part we forget.
As the sun is rising, just before the KO punch, the angel pleads with Yakov to let him go. And Jacob, in a moment of thoughtful restraint, acquiesces. This is what our Sages meant when they said, eizehu gibbor¸who is strong? Hakovesh es yitzro, one who exhibits restraint.
There is raw power and there is strength. Unbridled ambition and tempered control. In Hebrew, koach and gevurah, and they have to be balanced. Those were the instructions given to Adam and Eve and this is the essence of Judaism. Other faiths have holidays like we do, other faiths have communities like we do, other faiths have places of worship like we do. But Judaism has a code, it’s called Halacha. It is a code and ethic of power and of restraint. It teaches us how to engage in this world, how to not be shy of accomplishment, of confrontation, and of power, but how to humble and control ourselves when we get to the top of that mountain.
That’s a lot of theory. What does it all mean? How does one practically live a life of power and restraint in the real world, outside these doors? Allow me to share with you just a few examples.
Let’s begin with the realm of SPEECH: On the one hand, literacy is at its highest. 200 years ago, 90% of the world’s population were illiterate. Today, the numbers have been inverted. 90% of the world can read and write, which is truly amazing! Not too long ago, the public word was limited to the powerful, those who owned the newspapers could say what they want and everyone else was forced to listen. Today, anyone and everyone has a voice. All you need is a keyboard or a YouTube channel, and you can share your thoughts-your plight-your dreams with the world. These advancements and these tools have allowed for the voices of the oppressed to be heard, of the otherwise powerless to equalize the playing field.
However – with all its good, we have perhaps become too comfortable with this new-found power. We are suffering, I believe, from collective verbal diarrhea. Politics aside, but it must be said, that this lack of restraint runs from the Twitter feed of the most powerful man in the world down to the man sitting on his couch trolling the comments section of popular news sites, and everyone of our Facebook feeds in between. Whatever is on people’s mind right now, with no forethought and no filter, is shared with hundreds, thousands and maybe millions, with a press of a button.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once commented, “All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.”
He lived two hundred years ago! Imagine if he would be alive today! If you have a keyboard, you’re entitled to share your view. And you know what? You are entitled to share your view. But just because you could, doesn’t mean you should.
I don’t know about you, but so often, especially with the many complex issues that come up from time to time, it takes me so long to formulate a coherent view and opinion. It takes time until the other side or sides of a story become known. And yet, as soon as the news breaks, half the world is already experts! The few times I did comment on something right away, I regretted it.
Or how often do we hurt people by saying insensitive things in the name of ‘I’m just saying what’s on my mind’? How often do we engage in our voyeuristic tendencies of talking about others just because there’s nothing else to talk about? The sound of silence is one of the most beautiful sounds of all. It’s the sound of internal strength.
Or take SEXUALITY as another example –
According to Jewish Law, a bride and groom, on the night of their wedding, in the heat of their passion, after consummating their relationship, immediately become forbidden to one another. Talk about strength! It’s this sanctified self-control that drives the laws of family purity. It may be your spouse, you may be in love, but restraint is the crown of humanity; of a dignified man or woman. And let’s be clear, a healthy and vibrant sexual life is a Jewish imperative, but so is one of restraint.
And this is not limited to those who are married or of a certain age. We live in a world in which pornography may be legal, we live in a world where Fifty Shades of Grey is an acceptable movie in polite society. We have it all at our fingertips. But the ethic of gevurah, of being heroic, of being dignified, teaches us to look the other way, it teaches us to maintain our powerful sexuality for its sacred use, to be dignified.
And how about other indulgences? We could eat whatever we want. But there is something dignified, something exalted in a code that demands of us to hold back from this food or that, even if it means we stand out from our friends or colleagues.
And perhaps in what is the biggest issue facing this country, and no, it’s not the political divide, nor is it North Korea. There is an opioid epidemic and we are not, as a Jewish community, magically immune from it. We, like the rest of American society have been indulging more and more over the past decades. I could tell you anecdotally that light drug use is today no big deal in good ol’ Jewish suburbia. And I believe they’re related because I wouldn’t call it an opioid epidemic, I would call it an indulgence epidemic. For example, in the past ten years alone, national alcohol consumption jumped by almost 20% (NBC News, 2015)! That’s a lot of alcohol! Just because you could drink as much quality Kosher wine, beer, and scotch as you’d like, doesn’t mean you should.
Because when your child sees you knocking back four, five, six l’chaims at a social gathering or even on a Shabbos morning, then I wonder what they will do when their friends are experimenting with heroin – as many middle and upper-class kids these days are doing. As unpopular a stance as it may be, as some of you know, I’m okay with a Kiddush Club, but I do lose sleep over what could so easily become a Gateway Club, for ourselves or for our children.
This is not about any single group. It’s about all of us. Every one of us has indulgences of our own that we do not restrain sufficiently, we all have passions that we know we need to curb, we all have emotions that we sometimes allow to run wild. That’s human nature. But we are supposed a light unto the nations and the world needs that light today like never before. The world needs a model of self-restraint, a model of people who could afford whatever they want – and don’t. Not because they can’t, but because they choose to live a dignified life.
Five thousand, five hundred, and seventy eight years ago, on this day, G-d instructed Adam and Eve how to live their life. He told them, it should be a life of ambition, of power, and of passion – and a life of self-restraint.
This is Judaism and the world needs its message ever so badly.
And this is our job. Whether it’s adopting one area of Jewish Law which until now we did not have the courage to take on, whether it’s working on developing better self-control in areas of passion or indulgence, whether it’s speaking with more forethought or just speaking less, whether it’s consuming less even when we can afford it, or whether it’s bringing some sanctity back to sexuality. Let’s be a light unto the nations! A brilliant light shining forth unto a world of instant-gratification and extreme comfort, and let’s show the world not only Jewish power – but Jewish strength.
You and I have the world at our fingertips, we have made it well-past the moon! We are the most powerful generation of people and the most successful generation of Jews, there is nothing we cannot do!
And it is precisely here and it is precisely now, that we have the opportunity to choose to live and exemplify a life of inner-strength. To paraphrase JFK: We will do so not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because this goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because this challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
May He who has given the Jewish People the strength to survive, give us now the strength to accomplish and the strength to hold back; the strength to live a dignified, heroic life and once again be a light unto the nations. Baruch Ata Hashem, Ozer Yisrael Bigvurah. Blessed are you G-d, who gives Israel strength.
Hachnassas Orchim, inviting guests, is a hallmark of Judaism. From the time of Avraham inviting the three angels into his tent, to the state of Israel taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, this is what we do. Nonetheless, I am so impressed and inspired by the community of Atlanta, Georgia, who this Shabbos are collectively hosting over 1,000 men, women, and children, complete strangers, who have made the drive from Florida up to Atlanta.
The two large shuls in Atlanta have turned into restaurants, providing breakfast, lunch, and supper – for free, to anyone who is stranded. Families are hosting complete strangers in their homes. I was told that one family in Atlanta is hosting 75 people for every meal. Chesed is what we do at times like these.
Times like these also bring out our faith. In addition to the almost one million dollars raised by the Orthodox Union for those hit by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, the OU has encouraged people to sign up to recite chapters of Tehillim, of Psalms.
Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue, who together with her husband chose to stay in Boca to be there for anyone who needs them during these difficult times, posted on Facebook a picture of her supplies for the hurricane: Candles, water, flashlights, and a little sign with the words, Ein Od Milvado, which loosely translates into, G-d runs the world. A deepening of our faith is what we experience at times like these.
And times like these also awaken within us a sense of awe. A number of people have forwarded me images of the storm, pointing out that the shape of Irma looks kind of like a Shofar. Check it out after Shabbos. Personally, at times like these, I don’t think we need a Shofar-looking hurricane to awaken within us a sense of awe to the force behind nature. Watching videos of buildings collapse on the islands, seeing before and after pictures of highways in Houston turned into rivers, that does it for me. Mashiv haruach umorid hageshem, He who makes the wind blow and rain fall, takes on a whole new meaning these days.
A sense of unity, faith, and awe; so many powerful feelings during these times.
But as well know, these feelings quickly dissipate.
This is not a new problem, it’s quite an old one. Eliyahu HaNavi, one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish People struggled with the fleetingness of powerful feelings. In his lifetime, the Jewish People of the Northern Kingdom were steeped in idolatry. Eliyahu thought he could turn the people around with a fire and lightshow. He brought the entire population to Mt. Carmel, had a showdown with the idolatrous prophets, brought a raging fire down from Heaven, and in the end, the people were sold, “Ein Od Milvado!” they exclaimed – the same words Rebbetzin Goldberg has with her hurricane supplies. They became believers overnight.
But the next day, the Torah tells us, they were back to the same old life. Their faith in G-d disappeared as quickly as it came. We all know this experience. We’ve all been there. High Holidays are around the corner – I am sure there have been moments in the past, during those holy days, that you made up in your mind to be better, to be more present, to be more G-d-conscious, and then, a short while later it’s gone. It’s a pretty lousy feeling. And it’s a feeling that Eliyahu himself felt. He was broken, the Torah tells us. He subjected himself to a self-imposed exile. He didn’t understand how it could be that the Jewish People could rise and fall so quickly.
And G-d eventually appears to him and tells him why. First G-d sends a whirlwind towards Eliyahu, and Eliyahu knows it’s Divinely-sent and so he looks for G-d but doesn’t see Him. Then G-d sends an earthquake, Eliyahu looks, and again, doesn’t see G-d. Then G-d sends a fire. G-d’s not there. Until finally, there is what the Torah describes as a kol d’mammah dakah, a thin still voice, and G-d appears.
What G-d was trying to convey Eliyahu was that drama, intensity, fire and brimstone or fireworks, all of that is good, but for a very short amount of time. It wears off all too quickly.
But if we can find G-d when it’s quiet, if we can find Him when we’re not stuck, overwhelmed, or even inspired, then we have a much better chance of hanging on. The thin still voice, that’s where G-d’s found.
It’s like the famous joke of the guy who is looking for a parking spot on a busy street in Manhattan. He’s driving in circles for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. He has a job interview and he can’t be late! So as a last resort, this man who isn’t exactly the biggest believer in G-d looks up and says, “Listen G-d, I really need your help. Please allow me to find a parking spot! If you do, I’ll start eating kosher!” Nothing doing.
“G-d, I’ll keep Shabbos!” Still, driving and driving. Two minutes to the interview.
Finally, “G-d, if you find me a parking spot I’ll go to shul every day!” And just as those words are coming out of his mouth, the car to his right zips out of its spot. The man turns to G-d and says, “Never mind I found a spot!”
At the risk of over-analyzing a joke, I think it has a profound message. When the man didn’t think it was possible to find a parking space, he thought that G-d finding Him a spot meant something out of the ordinary taking place. That’s where G-d comes in. He expected another car to vanish into thin air and make way for his car. He expected a flood to wash away the entire row of cars next to him and only his car will be left with more than enough room to park. That would be G-d intervening. But for the person next to him to pull out, that’s not G-d. That’s the person next to him pulling out. Where’s the Divine intervention in someone moving a car out at the right time?
But that’s a mistake. Because G-d is found in that silent, thin voice. We need G-d to make it through a regular day just like we need Him for when everything goes wrong. We don’t need catastrophes to find G-d, and we don’t need catastrophes to do more kindness.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful to watch people change and act in the face of hurricanes. But it’s even more beautiful and much more lasting when we’re able to do so here, now, in the quiet without the storm.
That’s the kol d’mamah dakah. Drama is inspiring, crises wake us up, the high holidays are awesome. But for lasting change, we don’t need the fireworks, I’d be quite happy without them.
We read the tochacha today. The tochacha is a long list of curses that G-d tells us will befall the Jewish People if they don’t follow in the ways of the Torah. You may have noticed that the Baal Koreh read those curses rather quietly. It’s an ancient custom to do so. The classical reason given is that we don’t want to awaken the prosecuting angel. That reason never really spoke to me. If we’re deserving of punishment it’s going to happen one way or another.
But perhaps the idea is that we whisper these curses because our faith recognizes that yelling and screaming doesn’t work. It doesn’t work with our children and it certainly doesn’t work with adults. So yes, we need to read this dark passage, G-d wants us to be forewarned. But a whisper is far more powerful than a yell. The kol d’mamah dakah that penetrates our heart and soul if we listen out for it.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, recently wrote a book called Option B. I highly recommend it for anyone who experienced loss in their lives. It is moving, inspiring, and full of practical little tidbits of wisdom for coping with difficulties. In this book, Option B, she discusses PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re all familiar with PTSD, how some people are impacted negatively due to stressors in their life. But she cites some fascinating research that recently came out that points to PTG, post-traumatic growth. Researchers have discovered that many people who experience a traumatic episode in their lives report to have grown and changed significantly because of this or that hardship.
What Sheryl suggests in her book is that we need to develop Pre-Traumatic growth. In other words, we don’t need to experience hardship to live an inspiring life, we don’t need to lose a loved one to learn what it means to love, we don’t need to feel vulnerable to experience a deep faith. We can reach out to others even when they’re home is not being flooded. We don’t need a hurricane to find G-d. We can find Him in a cloudless sky. Pre-Traumatic Growth, finding G-d in the kol d’mamah dakah. Let’s change before we experience trauma, in the quiet without the storm.