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.