If I could ask you, if you feel comfortable, to close your eyes, and imagine something with me. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I think it may help.
Imagine two doorways, two entranceways standing before you. One doorway is worn away with use, the paint is peeling, the wood is chipping. The doorway itself is small – you have to crouch to get through it and enter inside. The second door is gleaming in its white paint, the space between the archways is vast, and there’s a beautiful glow emanating from the room behind the door.
These doorways are the two portals through which you can enter this holy day. Some enter this holy day with a hunched back and a broken heart, weighed down by the heavy weight of their sins, overwhelmed by the tragedies they’ve witnessed and experienced. These people are ready to beat their chests in contrition, ready to cry out to G-d for healing and health, ready to crumble at the feet of the Master of the Universe. It’s a path well-trodden and for good reason. We feel our dependence on G-d most acutely at times of loss and distress.
But there’s another doorway; another way of entering this day and connecting to its spirit. It’s a portal that’s underused, not just this year, but always. The paint is still fresh after all these years, the carpet is sparkling, and there’s almost no wear and tear; despite its beauty, no one seems to notice it. This door is the door of gratitude. It’s a doorway which demands of us to take stock of our life and the gifts we have; from the big, like life itself, a home to live in, food to eat, to the small, the weather right now, the comfortable clothing you’re wearing, and the fact that you’re here surrounded by people who care about you.
These two doorways are open to us this Yom Kippur. On the one hand, we say the Viduy, the confessional tonight, but we also say Shehechiyanu; thanking G-d for giving us life. On the one hand we beat our chests and say ashamnu bagadnu, we have sinned and we have rebelled, but we also bow low and say, Modim anachnu loach, we are so grateful and indebted, for all the kindness, and the goodness that we receive, erev vovoker v’tzohorayim, in the evening, morning, and afternoon.
There is a powerful gravitational pull in our psyche that bring our attention to the missing word in a newsletter, the crease in a shirt, the pain in our back. It’s a battle to focus on everything else. That’s why the news is always bad, that’s why we criticize more than we compliment, that’s why we more often experience the weight of guilt than the lightness of gratitude.
And if there’s any year where that feeling of brokenness is pronounced, it’s this one. We have all felt small, we have all felt constricted, we have all suffered. And so it’s very natural for us to look around this room, see the masks, the distancing, envision the people unable to be here, and to cry, and to once again, like so many others, enter that small and broken-down door. But I think we would be making a mistake, a grave mistake, if we were to do so.
And that’s because there is so much good that we need to be thankful for precisely this year! If you’re in this room, or even if you’re reading this at home, you are alive and hopefully healthy! That’s something we should never take for granted and certainly not this year! Not everyone, but so many here still have jobs – the economy wasn’t hit the way we thought it would. I know many people who were unemployed before the pandemic and now have jobs. And we pray that it stays that way! We are here in shul! I hope we never take that for granted again! There was a tangible joy in the air on Rosh Hashana; the first time so many of you were in shul for half a year! I think we all appreciated that gift. We’re okay! Thank you, G-d. Modim anachnu lach.
We’re naturally inclined to question G-d and to complain to Him when things don’t go the way they “should.” But what does G-d really owe me? Every second of life is a gift. What greater gift is there than life? Thank you, G-d. Shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higianu lazman hazeh.
And I want to take a moment to focus on one particular event that we need to be grateful for this year. Something that had not been such a distracting year, we would never stop talking about. You all remember the scene of Yasser Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin shaking hands on the White House lawn. Whether you were for it or against it, you knew that it was historic. That the Palestinians would even entertain this peace deal, or even pretend to go for it, was a unique moment in the history of our homeland. Less than two weeks ago, an event which is far more significant took place once again on the White House Lawn. This time, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the foreign minister of Bahrain, Abdullatif Al Zayani, and the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, shook hands and truly made peace.
As Bret Stephens points out, as opposed to peace deals with Jordan and Egypt which were based on strategic necessity and geographic proximity, this deal is based on the fact that Israel is the most advanced country in the region. And if a country in the Middle East wants to flourish, peace with Israel is the only way to go. The rumors have it that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are ready to do the same. Saudi Arabia! Do you know what this means?
Yes, of course, a fear of Iran is a part of this equation, but who cares? This is real peace with sworn enemies of the Jewish State who would like to open trade, travel, and joint scientific collaboration.
Three generations ago, no one would have ever believed that there would be a Jewish state. Two generations ago, no one would ever have believed that Israel would be a dominant military force in the region. A generation ago, no one would ever believe that Arab countries would be lining up to make peace with Israel. Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu! We are so incredibly fortunate to be living at this time! Everyone described this year as having plagues of Biblical proportion, but there are Biblical prophecies being fulfilled right before our eyes.
Yom Kippur is a day on which we stand before G-d in the closest proximity possible. And we get to choose; do we stand here with our head bowed, angry, questioning, broken over all the bad – and there was bad, don’t get me wrong. Or do we walk into this holiday with our head held high, with a sense of privilege for being alive, for having the countless things we possess, for living through a most glorious time for our country and for our people. Two doors. You choose.
I’ve shared with some of you in the past how Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the great sage known as the Chafetz Chaim, would take a very long time praying the Amidah, Shemoneh Esrei. He was once asked which Kabbalistic names of G-d was he meditating on; what deep mystical thoughts was he connecting to. He smiled, and he explained that there’s no mysticism, there’s no Kabbalah in his prayers. “When I get to the prayer of thanksgiving, Modim,” he said, “and I bow my head and say thank you, I start to think of what I am thankful for. And I cannot stop. The list just does not end. And I just stand there, with my head bowed, reflecting on all the good in my life.”
There’s a time and place to be broken and to accept the smallness of life. Tomorrow, I hope to spend some time in that doorway because it is important. But as we enter this holiday, as we close out this last year, let’s appreciate the good that we too often missed. There’s so much of it that G-d has given us as a nation, that G-d has given you as a precious beloved individual. Let’s enter that door together, it’s a beautiful door. Let’s enter that door, not only today, let’s enter every day, but especially today, and let’s say thank you for the endless and countless gifts that we are given and that we do not deserve. Blessed are You, Hashem, shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh, for giving us life, for lifting us up, and allowing us to be here today.