First of all, I need to thank you Zavdi for introducing me to a great online game! I don’t think I’ve played an online game since I was a teenager but thanks to Zavdi’s recommendation, I went to americanhistoryusa.com/campaigntrail and was tested on my presidential knowledge. I chose the 11th president, President James Knox Polk, as I just finished reading a biography about him.
Now this game puts you on the campaign trail and you are tasked with answering policy questions to constituents. If you answer the right questions, you win the election, the wrong ones, and you lose.
Well, I lost. I got 47% of the popular vote, and Henry Clay received 49%. Due to my lack of knowledge, Oregon, New Mexico, and California are still part of Mexico and Great Britain. Sorry.
I am confident that had Zavdi been playing he would have done just fine and Polk would have been elected president. And that’s because Zavdi, as some of you may know, is a real history buff. He knows ancient and modern politics better than most of us here – which makes this week’s Torah portion a rather interesting one.
In the second Aliyah of this week’s Parsha, we are introduced to Judaism’s perspective on government. And like most things that have to do with government, it’s complicated.
First and foremost, there’s a debate among our classical commentators, as to whether or not establishing a king is a mitzvah or not. Some say it is – the Torah says, “som tasim alecha Melech, place upon yourself a king.” Others argue the Torah is not commanding us, but is merely giving us permission to establish a king. And then there is the opinion of Don Isaac Abarbanel who argues that the Torah is not giving us permission, it’s just telling us what will happen. Not only is there no Mitzvah to establish a king, according to Abarbanel’s approach, but a monarchy is a disaster that we should avoid at all costs. His proof? All of Jewish and non-Jewish history.
Inasmuch as we are all biased towards democracy, even the great champion of democracy, Winston Churchill, wasn’t such a fan. His most famous quote on the matter is, “Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all the others.” Or less famously, but far more telling of his personal views, he once quipped, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” I am sure he is turning in his grave right now as Britain implodes with the Brexit saga. And that’s because following the popular vote doesn’t always end well.
The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, one of the later commentators on the Chumash attempts to reconcile these divergent views. He suggests that establishing a king could be a Mitzvah and could be a sin, it depends. It depends, he writes, on one’s motivation, it depends on why. If you establish a king so that you will be like all the other nations, so that the Jewish People will look mighty and modern, as they did in the time of King Saul, that’s not a good reason, and it will end in self-destruction. But if the agenda is pure, if they want a king to unify the people, to represent G-d, something we hope to see in a Messianic Era, then a monarch is actually a blessing.
Same act, two radically different agendas. Same form of government, but two very different perspectives on what it means and why. And I was thinking about this as I read the final chapter of the Polk biography. The final chapter was a reflection on his presidency. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t know anything about this guy, nor do we think much of him. And you’re in good company. In the standard American history texts you could find quotes like this one: “His mind was not of the first order.” And other not such kind remarks. And for years, this was the common thinking. But in 1910, more than sixty years after he died, his personal diary was published, and the world was given insight into who he really was. Not just the actions, but the thoughts, the backroom conversations that we were all unaware of, the thoughtful reflections; the self-doubt and the convictions, and a whole new portrait was painted. In light of these new findings, in 1962, Arthur Schlessinger, polled 55 leading historians to rate the best presidents of all time, and James Knox Polk, came in at #8.
We all knew what he did until that point, but only after getting insight into why and how he did it, did we see someone else entirely.
I would like to think that his diary didn’t just give us insight into who he was, but it gave him insight into he was. You see, some of the most insightful and creative people in history kept personal diaries as a way of not only catching their thoughts but fleshing them out –
Mark Twain kept 40 to 50 notebooks which he carried with him at all times. Sometimes writing jokes but often writing insights into his own character or the character of others.
General Patton who struggled mightily to succeed in life, failing his first year in West Point, he pushed forward with the help of his notebooks, in which he would jot down reflections on leadership which served to motivate him: “Do your darndest always.” Or, “Always do more than what is required of you.” Sometimes he would remind himself what they were trying to accomplish at war: “Find the enemy, attack him, invade his land, raise hell while you’re at it.” Or more meaningfully, “Officers must be made to care for their men. That is the Sole Duty of All Officers.”
Thomas Jefferson, George Lucas, Charles Darwin, Beethoven, Hemingway, and of course, Benjamin Franklin all kept diaries. Do you see a pattern here?
Some of the most wildly successful people in history kept personal diaries in order to collect and organize their thoughts, in order to better understand themselves.
Now it’s no easy feat keeping a diary. As Mark Twain himself wrote in Innocents Abroad: “If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year.” But what it does speak to is the importance of getting in touch with our inner selves. There is the public persona and the private one. Like President Polk, our external accomplishments cannot be understood and do not have meaning if they’re viewed independently from what is going on inside.
In the passage that describes the Jewish King, there is a commandment for the king to always have a Torah with him, to literally carry around a Torah scroll. (I imagine it was a small one.) But if you read the verse carefully, you’ll notice there are two Torah scrolls! One, as Rashi explains, that he travels with, that he walks around with all day, and another one that he leaves in his personal safe, in his treasury. What’s the deal with two scrolls? Not to mention the cost. Why not just carry the same one both inside and outside?
Explains the Nesivos Sholom – there are two books that we live our life by – there is the outside book and there is the inside book. They are both crucial to our well-being and success. As David Brooks puts it, there are resume values and eulogy values. The resume values are the things we accomplish in the world, what everyone on the outside can see and appreciate. The eulogy values are the ones that only those around us know; who we really are, our character. Both are essential to being not just a great king or president, but both are essential to be a great person. Not just a good public persona, but a deep and developed private one as well.
Zavdi, today you are entering a new chapter of your life. It is a chapter where our minds start to expand and they allow us to see ourselves not only in the mirror, but in a far deeper way. At this stage of life, you develop insight. You start to see yourself, understand yourself, and as time goes on, and if you work on it, that understanding gets deeper and deeper.
You are so fortunate to have such a loving family and such wonderful role models to help you do so. Your parents, Morris and Ariella, are idealists, they have convictions, and they’re as sweet as can be. And you, Zavdi, are deep, you march to your own drumbeat, you’re inquisitive. As time goes on, your ability to understand the world around and understand yourself will get better and deeper, but only if you work on it, only if you pay attention to what’s going on inside. A journal may be too much to ask, but to spend some time just thinking about your inner world, about your motivations, will go a long way in your future success. One day, I look forward to mentioning your name in that list of other great thinkers, people who also spent time trying to understand who they are.
The truth is, we are all entering a new chapter, it’s a special time of year, known as month of Elul. Last week we spoke of one acronym of Elul and today I’ll share another one, not as well-known, from the Arizal. Elul he says is an acronym of es levav’cha v’es levav. It comes from a verse that speaks of the heart, of a change of heart, of inner work. And that’s because Elul is a time for self-reflection, for self-awareness, and for self-growth. For some of you maybe that means journaling during this month. For others it means not listening to music or a podcast while driving to work and just listening to yourself. It means making sure your inner self is just as important to you as your outer shell.
I’d like to conclude with a story, probably a myth about a president we all know quite well; Abraham Lincoln. To appreciate the story you have to know two things, one, as you all know, Lincoln was known for his integrity, Honest Abe. The second, historians point out that Lincoln’s emotional intelligence was really high. Lincoln knew himself really well.
Story goes back to before he was a president, before he was a congressman, and he was just a simple lawyer. One day a wealthy man entered his office and asked him to take care of some legal work for him. Lincoln quickly looked it over and it was readily apparent that this was illegal work. Lincoln looked up and said, “I’m sorry, I cannot help you.”
The man really wanted Lincoln’s help and so he offered to pay him an additional ten dollars – a large sum of money back then – beyond the price. Lincoln refused.
“Twenty dollars?” Again Lincoln refused.
“Seventy-five?” Lincoln shook his head, no.
Just as the man was about to offer a hundred dollars, Lincoln picked the man up, threw him out of his office, and said, “Everyone has a price and you’re getting awfully close to mine!”
Know your price. Know yourself. Because that’s the path to greatness.
Uri Shachar, a young Israeli man, came to shul on Yom Kippur like he did every Yom Kippur, only that this Yom Kippur was different. It would be the first time he would say Yizkor for his beloved father. His father, Yaniv had passed away a short two months ago and Uri couldn’t stop thinking about him. The good times they had together playing soccer, the invaluable life lessons his father taught him in their many long walks. And also the many implicit lessons that he learned from his father, a man who went through so much hardship and yet never lost his faith.
Uri needed this Yom Kippur. He was actually looking forward to Yizkor so he could pour out his heart and feel the warmth of his father who he missed so desperately.
All through the morning services, he heard whispering, people coming and going, something was clearly going on, but Uri tried to ignore it. He needed Yizkor and wanted to be in the right frame of mind when the congregation got there. However, it was not to be. As they were concluding the Torah reading, a siren was heard, a sound he was all too familiar with – there was a war. The date was October 6th, 1973, and what he did not know at the time was that Israel was just attacked by surprise by a joint Arab coalition. What Uri did know was that it was only a matter of minutes before they would call him up join at the war front.
Uri made a quick decision – forget Yizkor. He ran out of the shul down the winding roads and made his way to the Kotel, the Western Wall. He clutched the ancient stone and broke down in the most gut-wrenching tears. His thoughts and emotions were overpowering; fear, sadness, loneliness. His yearning for his father melted into a yearning for the Father of all mankind.
As he pulled back from the Kotel and released his tight grip from the stones, a few notes that had been tucked into the crevices fell out. As any decent human being would do, Uri quickly picked them up and started stuffing them back into the cracks in the wall. As he was about to replace the final note, a strange sensations overtook him and he quickly opened the note and read it and this is what it said:
Ribbono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, ani yodei’a, I know, that I do not have much time to live. I will not be able to fulfill the most basic duty of a father, to watch over his child. Master of the Universe, please do me this one favor – tishmor al haben sheli, watch over my son.
Signed, Yaniv Shachar.
In a daze, unsure if what just happened was a dream or reality, Uri ben Yaniv Shachar folded the small piece of paper, placed it his shirt pocket and made his way to the Suez Canal where he fought in numerous bloody battles.
Though many of his friends were not as lucky, three weeks later, Uri returned to the Kotel, took a small piece of paper out of his front pocket, kissed it, and returned it into its place in the wall.
This story lived with Uri; he would go on to share this story time and time again for decades, telling anyone who would listen how this note that he found changed his life. I actually heard this story from someone who heard it directly from him. (Rabbi Yaakov Cohen, aish.com)
When something of that magnitude happens to you, when something that would be statistically near impossible to occur does occur, there is no greater wake-up call than that. If you were a skeptic, this would turn you into a believer. If you never really saw G-d in your life, you would now see G-d in everything and everyone around you. If you used to feel alone, you would now feel G-d’s presence hovering over you, embracing you, and with you every step and breath you take. A wake-up call like this one would change your life forever.
The reality is that most of us will go through our lives without such a wake-up call. Some close calls, some near misses, some interesting coincidences, but nothing so powerful, nothing so loud to jolt us out of our routine.
And yet, here we are, starting the month of Elul, 30 days from Rosh Hashana, and we are asked to wake up! Uru yesheinim mishinas’chim! Wake up! Wake up from your sleep! This is the theme of the month of Elul, says the Rambam. It is a time of breaking free from our routines, a time to reflect on how we’ve done over the past year, with our family, with our friends, with G-d. It’s a time to be honest with ourselves and reorient ourselves to the values that we want to live our life by. But how do we wake up?
So we blow the shofar in shul every day of the month, the shul sends you incessant reminders to buy your high holiday seats, you start inviting guests for Rosh Hashana (we’ll be done davening at 1:30 latest…), but none of that is going to really wake you up! None of that is jolting us to rethink our lives, is it now?
As many of you may have noticed there have been a whole lot of contraptions placed all around the shul over the past couple of months. Intercoms, blue lights in every room, switches, speakers, safety buttons… These were all part of a security grant that we received. Thank you, Barry. What you also may have noticed is that every once in a while, some alarm would go off in the building.
Now some of the alarms in the building were faulty and needed to be fixed. And they were. Thank you, Carl. But more often than not, an alarm would go off, and we’d all just kinda stare at each other. I wonder why those blue lights are flashing. I wonder why there’s an incessant beeping sound coming from the speakers. Hmm. Pass the kugel.
The alarms were working just fine, we just weren’t listening. We weren’t paying attention. We ignored them.
(Over the past couple of weeks we’ve met numerous times with our security company and someone is working on emergency protocols as we speak. Thank you, Devorah.) The point I am trying to make is that often times there is a wake-up a call, we just don’t hear it.
Because the only way you hear a wake-up call is if you want to hear that wake-up call.
A little while back, I tried setting my phone alarm to vibrate so that I wouldn’t wake my whole family up in the morning. It worked. No one woke up, including me. But on other occasions, when I have to catch a flight or I am doing something I am very excited about, I wake up before my alarm even goes off.
There are no shortage of alarms ringing, no shortage of wake-up calls, flashing lights and blaring sirens, but if we’re not open to hearing it, we’ll just sleep right through it. Sometimes, we’ll wake up just enough to hit the snooze button, making some minor changes in our routine, but more often than not, we’ll just sleep right through it.
Talking about waking up – I woke up really early today. One of my children, no names, woke up reeeeally early and was inconsolable. There were children sleeping upstairs, in-laws sleeping downstairs. I had nowhere to go. So I took her outside. I took her across the street and amazingly, she immediately stopped crying. We were just standing there, the light of the sun was painting beautiful colors in the sky; pink, purple, and blue. The birds were starting to chirp, there was a deer in the distance. Our feet were getting wet from the morning dew. We didn’t speak, we just stood there in silence, holding each other’s hands and taking it all in.
And then it occurred to me. I see this same picture every morning!! It’s about when I leave to shul. But instead of taking it all in, I jump into my car, and fly down the street.
Because if you’re not listening out for it, you just won’t hear it!!
As I mentioned earlier there is a custom to blow the shofar every day this month after morning services. But the custom is actually not to blow the shofar. The blessing we say on the shofar, is lish’moa kol shofar, to hear the call of the Shofar. It’s not enough to make noise, you have to listen.
Our sages famously comment that the name of this month, ELUL, is an acronym for the words, ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me. I’ll tell you the truth, I hate acronyms like this. If this month is really all about loving G-d, then just say so! Don’t hide it in the letters Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed.
But perhaps that’s the point, perhaps the message of Elul is hidden on purpose. Because most of us will never find a note in the wall that is meant for us. Most of us will never have an experience where G-d will just tap us on the shoulder, and say, Hineini, here I am.
If we want a relationship with G-d, if we want to change our lives around, we need to listen closely. We need to strain our ears, stretch our eyes, and open our hearts and then maybe just maybe we’ll be able to see what was always in front of us:
G-d is reminding of His existence in every sunrise and sunset, in every tree and every blade of grass. G-d is telling us He loves us in the first breath we take every morning and the millions of breaths we take in between. G-d is watching over us and the proof is the fact that we are here, alive. And G-d is waiting for us to stir, to wake up to the powerful sound of the shofar, to reorient our lives to living the life we know we’re meant to live.
We may never receive a note from Heaven like Uri Shachar. But if we close our eyes and listen closely, we will hear G-d quietly calling out to each one of us, with open arms and an open heart, ani l’dodi v’dodi li. Ani l’dodi v’dodi li.