Tonight, in shuls across America, rabbis are talking about “hamatzav,” the situation in Israel. In some shuls, there are rabbis lambasting the chareidi community who are growing in size and are not contributing enough to the Israeli economy nor serving in the IDF. In other shuls, rabbis are criticizing the secular community for forgetting that Israel is a Jewish State not just a state for Jews. And yet in other shuls, it is the religious Zionists who are being attacked for their brazenness in leading the charge on judicial reform. Personally, and truly with the greatest of respect, I think all those rabbis are wrong. Not wrong in their opinions, but they are wrong for bringing this up on Yom Kippur.
“Ki bayom hazeh y’chaper aleichem mikol chatoseichem, for on this day, you will be forgiven of all your sins.” Yom Kippur is a day of repentance, it’s a day dedicated to personal transformation. In what way do we become better people by discussing who is right and wrong in Israel?
Am I concerned? Oh yes, I am. Should the future of the State of Israel be a focal point of our prayers on this holy day? Absolutely. The prayer of “simcha l’artzecha, bring happiness to Your land,” has never been so pertinent. But simply talking about it this evening will not help in any tangible way. You want to make a difference? Invest in Israel Bonds, pray. But speaking about what this group or that group is doing right and wrong in Israel and expecting that to move the needle? It’s as ludicrous as suggesting that we straighten that pole over there with the Israeli flag, and by doing so, it will bring a positive resolution to Israel’s political nightmare. That crooked pole has been driving me crazy for the past year…
In his best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey introduces the concept of the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern. We all have a circle around us of the people that we are able to influence with our actions or words; family, neighbors, community, co-workers. For some of us, our circle of influence is larger and for some of us it’s smaller, but we all have a circle. Then there is the Circle of Concern. In this circle are the people or events that we are concerned about.
“Proactive people,” writes Covey, “focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about. Reactive people, on the other hand, focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern. They focus on the weakness of other people… and circumstances over which they have no control.” What Covey was trying to say is that a healthy individuals’ circle of concern is as big as their circle of influence – their concern matches up with the amount of influence they have. An unhealthy person’s Circle of Concern is far larger than the circle of influence – they waste endless energy and attention on people and events well out of their control.
There’s a beautiful story my friend Rabbi Benji Goldschmidt reminded me of. It’s a story of a Lubavitch chossid who was imprisoned in Russia many years ago. In his cell, there were a number of men who would play poker. Only that in this jail, it was illegal to play cards. Every once in a while things would get a little rowdy and the guards would come running in looking for the cards. But every time they came in, they could not find the cards. They’d strip-search the inmates, they’d check under the beds, in the ceiling. The cards could not be found.
After this happened a number of times, the chossid turned to one of his fellow inmates and begged him to tell him how they managed to always hide the cards. “Easy,” he said. “We’re professional pick pocketers. When the guards come in, we slip the deck of cards into their pocket. Right before they leave, we take them back. They look everywhere, but they never look on themselves.”
We could spend this evening and spend the next 25 hours pointing fingers at this group or that group of Israelis who are destroying our country. There are people who spend a lifetime pointing fingers at everything that’s wrong around them, but they never look in their own pockets.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, had a transformative teaching that can help us close the gap between our circle of concern and our circle of influence. He would often say, “Everything you see, everything you hear, is a personal lesson from G-d.” Whether you believe that to be the case or not, imagine living your life with such a mindset. If you read in the news about a tragedy that took place in Libya, there is a message there for you. If you watch the Orioles clinch a playoff spot, there is a message there for you. What the Baal Shem Tov did was acknowledge that our concern, our interest may go well beyond what we can influence – but that’s such a waste. So we bring those interests, those concerns back into our circle of influence by internalizing, by making it about us and how we can change. “Everything we see, everything we hear is a personal lesson to be learned.”
So when we see our fellow Jews in Israel who are not doing enough for their country, we need to ask ourselves, are we doing enough for our country? For our community? For our shul? Are we really carrying our part of the burden or are we allowing others to do all the work?
When we see our fellow Jews in Israel who want to diminish the Jewish character of the State, we need to ask ourselves, do we wear our Judaism with enough pride, or do we attempt to blend in, to be just like everyone else?
When we see our fellow Jews in Israel pushing their view without broad consensus, we need to ask ourselves, how well do we listen to those around us? Do we care what others think or do we bulldoze ahead because we know we’re right?
The Talmud observes (Yoma, 43b) that the Kohein Gadol in his service on Yom Kippur would first bring a sin-offering for his sins and the sins of his family. Then and only then, after atoning for his own sins, would he bring a sin-offering for the sins of the Jewish People. In a similar vein, Covey points out that those who focus on what they can change, on their circle of influence, such people, with time, tend to expand their circle of influence – those are the people who end up changing the world.
Are things broken in Israel? Yes, they are. But today is not a day to point an accusatory finger across the ocean. It’s Yom Kippur, it’s a day for real change. 25 hours of focusing on our circle of influence, of putting our hands in our own pockets, of trying to change the one person we have any chance of changing – ourselves.
I have a great business idea for the shul. Has anyone here seen the Harry and Meghan Netflix series? There was a documentary all about Prince Harry and his wife Meghan that was put out earlier this year; it was the most watched documentary on Netflix. I want to pitch a new documentary to Netflix that is similar but so much better. My documentary would also involve royalty, romantic intrigue, and family drama, but it would have more royalty, more romance, and more drama. The documentary would be called… Joseph and His Brothers.
Think about it – a strapping young man – like Harry, who loses his mother at a young age – like Harry, sold as a slave by his brothers – which is far more interesting than having petty fights with his brother, who is almost seduced by his master’s wife – which for the British royal family is equally scandalous to falling in love with a black woman… who instead of losing his connection to the royal family becomes royalty, and then after two decades apart, reunites with his brothers. Tell me that wouldn’t be the most watched documentary ever. Ner Tamid presents Joseph and His Brothers. We’ll make millions. No more Causematch campaigns, our front lobby will be paid for in cash, gala kiddushes by O’Fishel every Shabbos. It’s going to be great.
There’s only one problem. You know that dramatic scene when Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers. The music stops. The cameras pan the room. You can see the pain in Yosef’s eyes, the shame on the faces of the brothers. We all know what happens next in the original. They fall on their feet; they beg Yosef for forgiveness, and Yosef embraces them. But if this story were to be retold in 2023, I am not so sure what would happen next.
In 2023, I do not think Yosef’s brothers would fall on their feet. I think they’d storm out of the room. I think they would pull out their phones and tell all their followers how they had been victimized by the power-hungry Yosef and how unsafe they feel around him. Yosef would call a press conference and let reporters know that as far as he’s concerned, his family does not exist. In 2023, I am fairly certain that the brothers would sooner starve than apologize, and Yosef would sooner give up his position in Egypt than forgive his brothers. And that’s because the greatest currency in this day and age is not power, not money, not prestige, it’s victimhood.
Parul Seghal, a brilliant columnist for the New Yorker, observed how the plotline of almost every show and movie over the past decade involved someone’s trauma. Storylines are no longer about some future goal or even about romance, all stories revolve around something hidden in the closet, with flashbacks, of course, helping us understand why the protagonist is who they are today – they have been traumatically victimized in one way or another. Whether it’s Ted Lasso, Wanda Maximoff, Claire Underwood, Fleabag. There is even a reboot of “Anne of Green Gables,” only now Anne is given a history of violent abuse. Or think about the origin story of Joker – Now we know why he’s so deranged! The trauma of his life caught up with him; he was a victim!
This idea that we’ve all been victimized, that we all have trauma is true in real life as well. Television and movies serve as mirrors held up to society, giving us a chance to see ourselves. As David Brooks, in an article in the New York Times wrote, in the past “the word “trauma” referred to brutal physical wounding one might endure in war or through abuse. But usage of the word spread so that it was applied across a range of upsetting experiences… For many people, trauma became their source of identity. People began defining themselves by the way they had been hurt.” Trauma was selected by Vox as the word of the decade.
And on the one hand, this development is great. Maybe we don’t use the word trauma or victim when we think of ourselves. But all of us are far more attuned to the pain we have experienced in the past and its impact on our present. All of us are far more attuned to our emotions – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And that is wonderful. Being emotionally aware and feeling our pain is critical to our well-being. Yosef, the original Yosef, is the Torah’s biggest crier. He cries no fewer than eight times. Shoving that hurt away, ignoring it, “manning up” as they used to say when I was a child, has terrible ramifications.
We should, on the one hand, celebrate how far we’ve come. Imagine two generations ago, the survivors of the Holocaust would have been given the tools to heal instead of bottling up all their pain. There’d probably be a lot less Jewish anxiety in the world today. Feeling our pain, being true to our pain, recognizing its impact on who we are, should be encouraged.
But here’s the problem – Victimhood comes with a price. To define ourselves as a victim of someone else’s actions, to constantly ruminate over all the injustices that others perpetrated against me, is to define ourselves as someone who is acted upon; as a slave, not a master of our own destiny. But even more importantly, to hold on to resentment towards those who have wronged us is like eating rat poison and hoping the rat dies; not letting go only hurts ourselves.
And I want to pause here and make something very clear – Trauma is real, it has devastating effects on a person’s life. There are experiences which are objectively traumatic, such as abuse and war. And there are experiences which for one person is uncomfortable and for another it is truly traumatic. Each person’s emotional pain threshold is different, and sometimes the pain is so deep that it is just too hard to move on. Who are we to judge someone else’s pain? My heart goes out to anyone in such a place.
But sometimes we don’t move on because we prefer to be a victim, we prefer to hold on to that grudge, we prefer to not let go of the pain. It’s usually not conscious, it’s usually to protect ourselves in some way, but also, having a complicated origin story is kinda trendy.
(You’ll notice, by the way, I quoted the New York Times and the New Yorker. This is not a political critique; this culture of victimhood is apolitical. Yes, it’s true, you will hear Democrats use the term and idea far more often than Republicans. But Jordan Peterson and co. who constantly describe themselves and their beliefs as being under attack, is that not just another way of saying that we too are victims?)
And here’s where Yosef, the original Yosef has something to teach us. Yosef could have easily played into the “currency” of his day. In the ancient world the currency was not victimhood, it was power and strength. But Yosef did not use his power to hold himself above his brothers, and despite being exquisitely attuned to his own pain, he did not hold that over them either. Not only did Yosef forgive his brothers, he did so without them even asking for it. “Where’s the justice?” you may ask. “It’s not fair! After all they did to him, how can he just go ahead and forgive them?!”
Perhaps Yosef was a pious man. The Rambam in Hilchos Deios writes that a victim may choose to forgive without being asked for forgiveness, and to do so is ‘midas chassidus,’ an act of extreme piety. Perhaps Yosef was spiritually mature – that’s the label given by a modern philosopher, David Bednar, to those who let go. Or perhaps, Yosef realized that he stood nothing to gain, only to lose, by holding on to the pain. Yosef never said what his brothers did was okay, it was not, they tried to kill him. But he did say, it was time to move on.
But if we were to make a reboot of Yosef and His Brothers, the plotline would have to be adjusted. Forgiveness is so corny, so out of touch, so unjust. In a world in which victimhood is a badge of honor, why would anyone want to forgive? Why would anyone want to forget?
I have to add a very important caveat – another lesson we can learn from Yosef. There is an age-old question – if Yosef was such a good guy, why did he wait so long to reveal himself to his family? It’s a good question. Forget his brothers for a moment, what about his father? His father was devastated. He couldn’t send him a postcard. “Hi dad, I’m alive.” What was he waiting for?
There are many answers to this question, but I’d like to suggest something new. Perhaps Yosef was waiting until he could feel safe with his brothers. They hurt him, physically and emotionally. To forgive them and to get right back into that toxic relationship, one in which he would be hurt time and time again, that is a grave mistake. Forgiveness should not be given if it means that I lose all boundaries and allow someone to hurt me all over again. But if the individual is remorseful, or if the individual is no longer capable of hurting us, that’s when forgiveness is something to strive for.
And yet, some of us in this room are still holding on to pain from parents who are no longer in this world. Some of us are holding on to pain from siblings or friends who cannot hurt us anymore. Some of us are holding on to resentment against our community, society, maybe even G-d. And you know what? The Torah does not mandate that we forgive. One is not obligated to let go. Nor does the Torah tell us to forget. On the contrary, G-d demands of us to remember our experience as victims every day – l’maan tizkor es yom tzeis’cha mei’eretz Mitrzayim. We are commanded to remind ourselves of our experiences as slaves in Egypt, the ultimate victims. But then we are told to take our victimhood and use it as a catalyst to change; to be more compassionate people, to be more thoughtful people, to be more understanding people, and to be more forgiving.
So how do we do so? Maybe we know how much we are hurting ourselves, we want to, but we still can’t let go? How do we sincerely say, salachti, I have forgiven?
I’d like to share with you a reflection by Esau McCauley, a columnist for yes, you guessed it, the New York Times, which I found enlightening. He writes: “I do not recall giving a single Father’s Day present. There were no cards hastily scribbled on colored paper during elementary school art class. My dad never received the barbecue apron with a silly message on it. My siblings cannot recall ever giving him gifts, either. This was no joint decision; it was an instinctive, shared response to trauma…
We shared a city, if not often a home, with a man troubled by addiction. He came and went in our lives, his presence and absence coinciding with the cycles of sobriety and relapse. For a long time, all I felt about him was anger because he seemed to care more about drugs than his children.
We never developed that traditional father-son relationship, but I did forgive him before he died in 2017… I forgave my father not because I concluded that his actions were not as bad as I recalled. They were. I began the long process of forgiving when I recognized him as more than a character in my story. My father, Esau McCaulley Sr., was a human being in his own drama… We enter our parents’ lives… in the middle of things. Our parents have their own traumas and disappointments that precede our arrival in their lives… As children, we think of our parents’ decisions in terms of us. We prefer to believe that they have only ever been parents. But we are only a part of their story, not the whole of it.
…Placing my father and his addiction in his own story made his failures not less tragic but more. What was at stake was not merely a father failing a son but a whole life crumbling. His story was much bigger than the two of us. Seeing that larger story stirred my sympathy.”
Esau McCauley saw the bigger picture. He recognized the person who hurt him was not only his father, but he was also someone who had a whole life, a difficult life, independent of his role as father. For Yosef, the bigger picture was not only seeing the full picture of who his brothers were but also seeing how him being sold as a salve was part of G-d’s divine plan. Trying to understand the entirety of the life of the person who has hurt us, acknowledging G-d’s hand in our lives, allows us to begin to transform from being a victim to being able to forgive.
As we stand before G-d on this Yom Kippur morning, as we reflect on this past year and maybe even reflect on years past, it’s okay, it’s healthy to feel pain over the hurt and yes, the trauma that we have experienced. But if we are no longer in danger of being hurt again by that same person, then maybe this is the year that we change the trend of our times. Maybe this is a year not of passive victimhood, but of transformative victimhood. Maybe this is the year that we no longer define ourselves by what happened to us, but by what we do about it. Maybe this is the year we let go of all the poison and pain, the baggage that is weighing us down. Maybe this is the year that we can forgive. And in that merit, may G-d forgive us.
My favorite moment on Rosh Hashana is the minute or two leading up to the blowing of the Shofar. Parents are running around in the social hall scooping up their children and bringing them inside. The men and women all adjust themselves to find the perfect position to stand by at attention. Children start to gather around the bimah, faces beaming with anticipation. And the ba’al tokeiah, with a creased forehead and a sense of heaviness on his shoulders, makes his way through the preliminary prayers.
It’s why we come to shul on Rosh Hashana, to hear those blasts, to be moved by their wordless cry. To remind ourselves of the shofar at the giving of the Torah, to blow trumpets as we coronate G-d as our king, to express our faith in the great shofar of the Messianic era.
And then there are the memories. I am sure for many of us the sounds of the Shofar awaken dormant feelings. Perhaps the warm memories of standing near a parent or grandparent as the shofar was sounded. Or maybe a Rosh Hashana during which we felt especially inspired. Sound, especially musical sounds have the power of stirring memories from their sleep. So much symbolism and so many memories packed into a tekiah, a shevarim, a teruah.
But alas, ‘those rabbis,’ they came along and ruined everything. Because as you know, (and despite what it said on our High Holiday tickets) there is no shofar blowing today. Although the Torah instructs us to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana even when it falls out on Shabbos, the Gemara in Rosh Hashana teaches us that the rabbis were concerned. What if someone needs to brush up on their shofar blowing skills on Rosh Hashana. And what if they decide to walk over to someone else’s home who is an expert in blowing the shofar for a last-minute tutorial. And what if they live in a community that does not have an eruv making carrying forbidden. And what if they forget that they cannot carry and they walk outside, carrying a shofar, and they violate the law of carrying on Shabbos. And soooo, it is forbidden to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana that falls out on Shabbos.
What?! Are you kidding me?!
All of that beauty, all of that magic, all of that spiritual and emotional power thrown out the window because some shmendrik living in a community without an eruv will forget and carry on Shabbos?! Give me a break!
The great Baal HaTanya, the very first Lubavicther Rebbe, was also bothered by this question. How could it be that the rabbis robbed us of this incredible spiritual opportunity?
He offers a profound insight in response. He points out that the mere fact we’re asking the question betrays the fact that we are missing out on something so much greater than the yearly Shofar blowing. The fact that we are bothered by a lack of blowing a Shofar on Shabbos means that we do not appreciate what Shabbos has to offer. You see, that shmendrik carrying the shofar, he’s just a scapegoat. It’s not about him at all. The real reason we do not blow the shofar on Shabbos is because – we do not need to. We do not blow the shofar on Shabbos because every seven days, the magic, the emotions, the power of the shofar can be attained. What the rabbis were trying to convey to us is that we do not have to wait 365 days to feel that nostalgia. We do not have to wait until the shofar is blown to feel that excitement. We do not have to wait until the Ba’al tokeiah is red in the face to feel a tingling down our back. Every Shabbos can and should feel this way. You want nostalgia? You want meaning? You got it. Every seven days. For a full 25 hours. It’s all there.
You’re not sold, I know. C’mon, Rabbi Motzen, Shabbos is nice, but it is NOT Rosh Hashana.
But I’m in luck. Something happened this year that in my opinion, serves as the perfect metaphor for Shabbos. It will help us, I hope, understand how and why Shabbos is indeed so awesome that we don’t need to blow the shofar when Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbos.
This event was so grand that it grabbed the attention of millions of people, it impacted the economy, it got the attention of all politicians and even more amazingly, our incredibly distracted teens. It was something that even caused a small earthquake – Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. That’s right, the singer, Taylor Swift, and her series of concerts, called the Eras Tour.
On November 15th, 2023, presale tickets for her concerts went on sale. Ticketmaster had anticipated the sale of 1.5 million tickets. 14 million people flocked to their site causing the site to crash and spawned a federal investigation into Ticketmaster’s practices. The revenue from her tour is estimated at over a billion dollars – the most ever for a concert tour. But she’s not the only one raking it in. Glendale, Arizona reported more profits for local businesses during her visit than the Superbowl had generated a few months prior. The governor of Illinois credited her three-night stay with reviving the tourist industry of the state. Politicians across the world are falling over themselves trying to bring her concert to their cities. Santa Clara made her honorary mayor when she visited, and Minneapolis renamed their city for a day to be… Swiftie-apolis…
After spending an embarrassing amount of time scouring through tens of articles, I came up with three reasons Taylor Swift and her concerts are so popular – (What is Rabbi Motzen doing? Taylor Swift on Rosh Hashana?! It’s a good analogy. Hear me out.)
- She’s a good songwriter, but it’s more than that. Her lyrics are highly personal but also universal. Her fans all claim that they find their own stories in her
- It’s not just a concert. It’s a journey through time – the Eras tour takes you through her history, which for her fans is their It’s like going in a time machine.
- Her concerts bring together a community of people with a shared love and a shared language and even shared rituals, like giving each other friendship bracelets.
Personal story, historical journey, and a sense of community. And that, my friends, is a terribly sacrilegious but perfect metaphor for the magic of Shabbos.
Every Friday night I open my siddur to the words of l’cha dodi, a beautiful 16th century composition by the great mystic, Rav Shlomo Alkabetz. I am tired, physically and emotionally, after six days of giving it my all. But most of all, I feel distant from myself, from my life mission, from who I know I could be. I know there’s more to life than the daily grind, but I am usually so consumed by the task at hand that I cannot bring myself to imagine anything beyond. I imagine I am not the only one who feels this way on a regular basis.
And then, “Hisna’ari mei’afar kumi, shake it off (😉), get up from the dirt!” Who is this song speaking of? Shabbos? Mashiach? No. It’s talking about me! “Livshi bigdei tifarteich ami, put on your royal clothes!” You are not the sum total of your struggles; you are royalty, you have so much to offer. “Uri, uri, shir dabeiri, wake up, wake up, sing your song!” “K’vod Hashem alayich niglah!” There is a personal mission, a song that only you can sing, G-d is watching over you, He is rooting for you; spread your wings and let yourself soar!
That song, that story of Shabbos – my story, it lifts me up from the dirt every single week.
As I walk home from shul, the sun setting over my week, with no phone to look down to, I look up at the darkening sky, and I am reminded of the very first sunset. I imagine two beings standing in awe at the world around them – vayechulu hashamayim v’haaretz, G-d had just concluded the finishing touches of this planet with all its brilliance. Imagine the peace and serenity of a world with just two people?
The next morning as I look out to the community gathered here in shul – v’shamru b’nei Yisrael es haShabbos, imagining our ancestors in a barren desert being taught to rest on the seventh day, for the very first time. I imagine the communities of Jews who held onto this radical idea through the ages. I feel inspired by them, connected to them and connected to each other.
And by the end of the day, as the sun begins to set again, I have a memory of something I have yet to experience – Avraham yageil, Yitzchak yeranein, a time in the future, a true Shabbos, a time of peace, health, and prosperity for all.
Shabbos is the ultimate time machine – a historic journey from the beginning of time to its glorious end.
And lastly, Shabbos is the glue of Jewish Peoplehood. I remember hearing a prominent member of the Jewish Conservative movement lamenting their decision in the 50’s to allow the driving of cars to shul. That, he said, was when their movement’s membership started to decline. Because Shabbos, with its restrictions on travel and carrying, forces us to live with community. And yes, we can complain about how expensive it is to live within the eruv, but when the nation is facing a crisis of loneliness, I’d pay a premium for a neighbor who I can say hello to.
Shabbos is the ultimate experience; it’s my story, it’s a historic journey, and it connects us with one another. I don’t know about you, but Shabbos causes a seismic movement, a mini earthquake, in my life every seven days.
And like all good things in life, it comes at a cost. You can’t get into the concert unless you pay up. The cost of Shabbos is a hectic Friday that lets you know you’re about to embark on something magical. The cost is shutting down your business and shutting down your laptop and turning off your phone for 25 hours. Yes, there are restrictions, but there are also restrictions as to what you can bring inside the stadium at a Taylor Swift concert. Those restrictions are there to create an ambience like no other.
And hey, it’s a free country, you don’t need to go all the way. You could do a half-Shabbos; a Friday night meal, some candles, keep some of the rules, ignore others. But it’s the equivalent of partying in the parking lot pre-concert. It’s nice. But it’s just not the same as standing inside, swaying, singing, being lifted up by the crowd.
And for all of us who “keep the rules” of Shabbos, before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s take our metaphor one step further. You’re at a Taylor Swift concert, or for all you alfa males out there – maybe you’re at a Ravens game, and excuse me, but you need to go to the bathroom. Okay, okay, you need to make a quick call or you’re hungry and want to buy a drink or some food. How long do you spend outside in the hallway at the food stands? We’ve all done this. We move as fast as we possibly can. We’re at an amazing concert! We’re at a game! We don’t want to miss a second!
How much of Shabbos do we miss out on?
The Gemara teaches us that on Shabbos we have an extra soul. Some understand this to mean we have an extra appetite on Shabbos. I guess that explains all the food. The deeper meaning is that on Shabbos, our spiritual impact is so much greater. During the week, we’re up in the nosebleeds with an obstructed view and on Shabbos, we’re up against the stage, but it’s not Taylor on the stage, it’s G-d! It’s an unparalleled opportunity to connect to Him through prayer and through Torah study. And you know who else is standing up there with you? Your loved ones, yourself – you know, the people you ignore throughout the week. Shabbos is an unparalleled opportunity to connect to our loved ones, to go on a walk, to have a real and uninterrupted conversation, and it’s the ultimate time for self-reflection. Are we really going to spend these precious moments waiting in line for popcorn?
It’s not just Swifties who are looking for a transcendent experience. We are all weighed down by the bad news we hear daily, by the challenges we face and bear. We all feel assaulted by the hate and discord in the streets. We all have that gnawing feeling from time to time that there is more to life than work and play.
Thank G-d, there is a tried and tested method to revive our faith in humankind. There is a tool we have access to that strengthens the bonds between us, our family, and friends. There is a mechanism at our fingertips to awaken our soul. “More than the Jews kept Shabbos, Shabbos kept the Jews.” Shabbos is what keeps us together in a culture that tries to divide us – look around at this wonderful mix of people! Shabbos is what keeps us sane in a world that spins faster and faster by the day – who here doesn’t feel like they’re drowning? Shabbos is what keeps us in touch with our soul in a world that denies her existence. So yes, Shabbos is the most timely message of all. And now we have a choice to make. What is it going to be?
Can we put our phones down for 25 hours and recharge our soul? Can we take our Shabbos meals seriously and fill them with meaningful conversation, a weekly opportunity to strengthen our family values? Can we look into the eyes of our loved ones for a few moments a week and connect ever so deeply? Can we lose ourselves in a book for a few hours, maybe even a Jewish book, and allow our minds to soar? Can we take advantage of the magical atmosphere on Shabbos and pray, slowly, thoughtfully? Can we sing? Here at shul? At home? Yes, song – the ultimate spiritual tool to bring people together that allows us to feel the edges of our soul? Can this be a year in which we invest in what G-d describes as the greatest gift to humankind?
We don’t need Taylor Swift.
We don’t even need the Shofar.
We have Shabbos.
Good Shabbos. Shabbat Shalom.
No one knew what she saw in him, but it must have been something special. He was impoverished, she was fabulously wealthy. He was a nobody, she was the daughter of the wealthiest man in Israel. He was an ignorant shepherd, she, an educated aristocrat. So vast was his distance from a Torah lifestyle that when he would encounter rabbis, he would later relate how he would have to fight an urge to bite them. And yet, she, Rachel, believed in him, and it allowed him, Akiva, to believe in himself.
We are our own worst critics. Most of us underestimate our capabilities and talents. I sometimes wonder how many artists are in this room, too nervous to share their art. I wonder how many great thinkers there are, with ideas that can change their family, their community, the world, but are too bashful to speak up. I wonder how many Torah scholars lived and died without ever opening a holy book. What a gift Rachel gave her husband by letting him know what she saw.
She planted a seed, but it took time to flower.
Their early years were spent in abject poverty. If that wasn’t bad enough, she, the heir to a fortune, was disowned by her father, who thought she lost her mind. They slept in a barn, and in the mornings, Akiva would tenderly pluck the pieces of straw out of his wife’s hair. He would then wipe the tears she tried to hide from her face. “I promise you,” he said, “one day things will be different. One day, I’ll buy you the most beautiful jewelry made of gold.” But she assured him, she didn’t want gold. She wanted him to grow, to succeed, to express the talents that she knew he had.
You all know the next part of the story. Akiva was one day walking by a stream and saw a rock. It was no ordinary rock; in the center of the rock there was a hole, from one side of the rock to the other. How does a solid rock have a hole in it? Akiva noticed an almost imperceptible drop of water from the nearby stream, dripping and dropping on the rock. And with that, the seed she planted burst through the soil. “If that dense rock could be penetrated by a constant drip of water, then I too can change.”
Legend has it, that he enrolled in the local school with his own son. Imagine the 40-year-old Akiva walking his five-year-old son to cheder, but instead of kissing him goodbye, walking in with him and sitting by his side. His students would later teach, “Ain habayshan lameid, one who is embarrassed cannot learn.” His strength of character, earlier expressed in his hate for the rabbis, was now being used to become one.
The rock proved to be an apt metaphor. The constant drip of Torah made an impact on him. Within a few years of study, he blossomed, transitioning quickly from an ignoramus to being educated to being a scholar. With his wife’s blessing, he kept at it. He was no longer dependent on her encouragement; he was finally able to see it in himself; he was bright, he was creative, and he soon discovered that he was also a master educator. His small group of students swelled to a staggering 24,000 students, and before long, he became known as Rosh Chachamim, the chief of the sages.
It was an exciting time for the Jews living in Judea. Though the Romans had recently destroyed the Temple, there was hope. A brave warrior, Bar Kochba, amassed a following of his own, soldiers who were fearless and were inflicting great damage on the Roman army who started to retreat. The Jews of Judea minted coins with a picture of the Temple on it. It was only a matter of time until Bar Kochba would rout the Romans entirely from the region and they would rebuild the Temple once and for all. Bar Kochba’s biggest supporter was the chief of the sages, Rabbi Akiva, who proclaimed that Bar Kochba was the messiah. History was coming to its glorious end.
And that’s when tragedy hit. A plague. A plague that impacted his students disproportionately to the rest of the population, wiping out every last one. At the same time, Bar Kochba was killed in battle. His soldiers, disillusioned without their leader, tried to surrender but were massacred by the bloodthirsty Roman army. Within a few weeks the legacy Rabbi Akiva was creating, the future he believed in, got ripped out of the soil. His bed of roses trampled under the randomness of illness and the venom of the Roman army. His students were dead; buried in a mass grave. The soldiers were hacked to pieces, the few who survived were dragged to Rome where they were paraded for all to see.
We don’t know what Rabbi Akiva was thinking during this time. I imagine they were very dark thoughts. Everything he worked for, everything he believed in… gone.
What we do know is that somehow, he was able to pick himself up. Likely with the encouragement of his greatest fan, his beloved wife Rachel, he did not wallow in self-pity. But he didn’t just forge forward. He reimagined what Judaism in general and Torah study in particular is really all about.
You see, until this point in life, his pursuit of spirituality was concrete and finite. The daily drop of water breaks through a rock, meaning, if only I study every day, eventually I will become someone different than who I am today. He collected students, seeing each additional student as a notch on his spiritual belt. He believed in an imminent end to history; today we are in exile, tomorrow we will be free. All these beliefs and practices are finite. A changed person, a number of students, a beginning and an end.
But it was at this juncture in his life that he had to face the question –What happens when all that you’ve invested in is gone? What happens when you cannot track or mark your success? What happens when you have nothing to show for all your hard work?
I think that’s a question that our community struggles with more than any other in the Orthodox community. I’ve been grappling with an uncomfortable question for quite some time now – Why is there less Torah study in Modern Orthodox communities than in Chassidic communities? Chareidi communities? Yeshivish communities? There’s no denying it. Whereas in some communities, the daily or weekly study of Torah is a given, you can see it in their shuls, in their publications, in their everyday life, in our community, you have to look a lot harder.
And I wonder if it has something to do with how intangible Torah study can be. You want to tell me to put up a Mezuzah, I buy it, I place it, I am done. You want to tell me to build a sukkah, I build it, I eat in it, I am done. You want to tell me to put on tefillin, to light candles, to give Tzedakah, all these mitzvos have a beginning and an end. But Torah study? How is that tracked? By the amount of minutes I engage in? By how I feel afterwards? And let’s be honest, I’ll never know enough to really be knowledgeable in Torah. Or as I hear so often, I just don’t see the relevance of this passage to my daily living. Sounds familiar?
I think we’re in good company. Rabbi Akiva must have grappled with this same question. He had nothing to show for it. What’s this all for? Where’s this all going? Why should I?
It was at this point, with this huge question hanging over his head, that Rabbi Akiva created his true legacy. He transformed once again, in a subtle but profound fashion. He didn’t think the Messianic era would come tomorrow, but he had perfect faith that it would indeed come – at the right time. When his colleagues cried over the destruction of the Temple, he laughed; let it be rebuilt today, tomorrow, two-thousand-years, it doesn’t matter. He decided to continue teaching Torah, only now he didn’t care for numbers. Instead, he gathered a mere five students around him. What happened? What changed?
What happened is that Rabbi Akiva went from playing the finite game of life to the infinite game of life.
Allow me to paint for you an image that will help us understand what I mean, the difference between a finite game and an infinite one:
A signpost stands at a fork in the road.
Pointing in one direction, the sign says “Victory.”
Pointing in another direction, the sign says “Fulfillment.”
We must pick a direction.
Which one will we choose?
If we choose the path to Victory, the goal is to win!
We will experience the thrill of competition as we rush toward the finish line.
Crowds gather to cheer for us!
And then it’s over.
And everyone goes home.
(Hopefully we can do it again)
If we choose the path to Fulfillment, the journey will be long.
There will be times in which we must watch our step,
There will be times we can stop to enjoy the view
We keep going.
We keep going.
Crowds gather to join us on the journey.
And when our lives are over,
those who joined us on the path to Fulfillment
will keep going without us and inspire others to join them too.
This is how best-selling author and business consultant, Simon Sinek, begins his book, The Infinite Game. Finite games have a beginning and an end, winners and losers, infinite games do not. Football is a finite game. Pickleball is a finite game. The important things in life are typically infinite. Love is not a finite game – there is no winner or loser, and the goal-line is constantly being moved. The pursuit of knowledge is not a finite game – we may have stages in our education, degrees and the like, but there is no beginning or end point, and when one of us becomes more knowledgeable, we all win.
Sinek’s thesis is that too often, likely because we are concrete, finite beings, we look for something to hold on to, some marker of our success, something tangible to point to, to assure us that we have accomplished. But in focusing on the tangible, we stop striving, we stop growing, we lose out in the richness of playing the infinite game.
Rabbi Akiva shared his newfound life philosophy in another well-known tale. Teaching Torah after the Bar Kochba revolt was a crime punishable by execution, but that did not deter Rabbi Akiva. “Are you out of your mind?” they asked him. “Why are you risking your life? For this?”
Rabbi Akiva shared a parable of a fox who saw a fish swimming furiously away from some fishermen. The fox encouraged the fish to join him on the shore where he would be safe, to which the fish replied, “You fool. Yes, I am endangering myself by staying in the water. But without water, I am dead. Without water, there is no life to preserve.”
Torah study, Rabbi Akiva now realized, is not a finite pursuit. It’s not about the books you’ve read, the students you have, the titles before or after your name. Torah is our life. “Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu,” we say in the evening prayer. “For it is our life and the length of our days.” No beginning, no end. It’s an opportunity to transcend our finite world.
The mystics explain that when we pray, we are speaking to G-d, but when we study, it’s as if G-d is speaking to us. His infinite wisdom is somehow captured in the stories, the lessons, the laws, and given to us to imbibe. It’s not about learning a particular lesson; it’s about understanding and connecting to G-d Himself. Some go so far as to describe the Torah as a love letter from G-d to us, His beloved people.
In the 10th century, Rav Saadia Gaon wrote that the Jewish People are a people, not due to shared geography or culture, but by virtue of the Torah. According to him, studying Torah is about Jewish Peoplehood and identity. It’s about connecting through this shared language to our past, present, and future, and to Jews all over the world.
There is no beginning or end. The lessons are at times relevant to our day-to-day, and at times entirely impractical. But so are so many of life’s infinite pursuits, love, wisdom, and yes, deep and immersive Torah study.
Rabbi Akiva, as we know, gave up his life for this infinite pursuit. But infinite pursuits live on beyond the grave. His name is invoked, his teachings are taught, his legacy has lasted for two thousand years.
And he wasn’t the only one. Throughout the centuries, our ancestors sacrificed so much to bring you and me to this place and time. What were they sacrificing it for? They too believed in the infinite. They too believed, like Rabbi Akiva’s colleague who was murdered together with him, that the finite scroll may burn, but the infinite letters, the teachings, they go up to the heavens. That each generation may come and go, but there is something precious, our national treasure, the Torah, that will live on.
But we struggle, like Rabbi Akiva once struggled, with this task. We, who live with plenty, who have career paths with concrete goals, who get monthly statements from our banks, who live in a most material, physical, and finite world, we struggle to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of something that defies our finite world. Perhaps we can be inspired by Rabbi Akiva. Perhaps we can be inspired by the ignorant shepherd who hated the Torah and its teachers. Perhaps we too can change.
With Rabbi Akiva as my inspiration, I’d like to invite you to join me in a project. It is the most ambitious project that I, and our shul, have ever engaged in. I want to invite you, when I say you, I mean every single one of you, to learn every day from Sunday through Friday. Not for an hour, not even for a half hour, but anywhere from 1 to 13 minutes. That’s it, a maximum of 13 minutes. No one here does not have 13 minutes to spare.
We’ll call it 6/13. Get it? Six days, 13 minutes.
And I’m going to make it easier for you. I’m going to suggest what we learn each day. There’s this well-known book. It’s actually sitting right in front of you. That blue book that the mystics would describe as THE ultimate love letter from G-d, or the rationalists would describe as THE book which our entire Jewish identity revolves around. It’s a good book; a bestseller, we read it every week in shul, and we are called the people of the book, but how well do we know what it says?
And I’m going to make it even easier for you. I’ll be giving daily classes – not longer than 13 minutes, I promise, sharing a synopsis and insights from the weekly Torah portion so that together, as a community, we can complete THE book within a year.
Now I don’t want you to commit to an entire year. I want you to consider it. Whether it’s with me, by yourself, with a friend, or using one of the incredible apps that can help you do so. I’ll send an email after Rosh Hashana with all the information you need.
Can we strongly consider doing this for a year?
Can we try doing this for at least the exciting book of Bereishis, from Simchas Torah to the end of December?
Can we commit to joining me just for this week?
It’s Rosh Hashana and G-d is deciding what our year ahead will look like; life and death, health and wellness, gains or losses. But He’s not the only one making decisions today; we also have decisions to make. We are all standing at that crossroad – Do we continue down the path of finitude? Of trackable accomplishments that will live and die? Or do we take the path of the infinite? Reaching beyond ourselves into eternity?
I hope you can join me on this journey.
In 1997, a man by the name Martin Seligman was trying to do some gardening work. The only problem was that he had a five-year-old daughter, Nikki, and she had different plans. Every time he’d pull out some weeds, she’d pick them up and gleefully throw them all over the place. He asked her to stop and started plucking weeds again. She playfully picked them up and threw them all over. Finally, Martin lost his cool. He yelled at Nikki.
But Nikki was no ordinary five-year-old. She looked at her father, and said, “Dad, I used to whine all the time. And one day I decided to stop. I don’t whine anymore. Why can’t you just stop being such a grouch?”
Now I’m not sure how I would respond if my five-yar-old would say that to me, but to Martin’s credit, he not only listened, he used his five-year-old daughter’s feedback to redefine the field of psychology.
You see, Martin Seligman had just been elected as the president of the American Psychological Association. He had written extensively on depression, and that’s what catapulted him to fame and to his new and prestigious role. But something was gnawing on him. His daughter’s comment – “Stop yelling at me, stop trying to fix me,” made him realize that instead of focusing on fixing negative behaviors, psychology should instead focus on wellbeing, not human brokenness but on human flourishing. And with that, the field of positive psychology was born.
Positive psychology in the early part of this century was all the rage. Affirmations – you are great, you got this, believe in yourself, were everywhere. Gratitude journals and meditation were being encouraged in otherwise cut-throat office spaces. Even the US Army employed Seligman to train soldiers in positive psychology.
The only problem is it didn’t work. Since the turn of the century, American happiness has continuously declined. According to some studies, we are the country that smiles the most and we are also the country that uses the most drugs to boost our mood. The entire field or as some cynically called it, the happiness industry, was predicated on a goal of becoming happy. But like the title of a popular Canadian band’s album, apparently, happiness is a fish you cannot catch.
Despite the immense investment of energy and resources into making us happies, our happiness levels kept dipping. Seemingly, the pursuit of happiness is futile. Some would argue that the pursuit of making myself happy is not only futile, it’s counterproductive.
There’s a story of someone who wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The letter real like this: “I would like the Rebbe’s help. I wake up each day sad and apprehensive. I can’t concentrate. I find it hard to pray. I keep the commandments, but I find no spiritual satisfaction. I go to the synagogue but I feel alone. I begin to wonder what life is about. I need help.”
The Rebbe sent back a reply that did not use a single word. All he did was circle the first word of every sentence in the letter and sent it back. The circled word was the letter, ‘I.’
Perhaps it’s our fixation on making ourselves happy that is actually contributing to the problem. Positive psychology focused our attention on ourselves, and that is a recipe not for happiness, but for the opposite.
When the Torah does talk about happiness, it’s never about us, it’s always about others. The word appears twice in our parsha. One time in the tochacha, the string of curses that we read today, of all the evil that will befall the Jewish People if they misbehave, The Torah tells us why these bad things are happening – tachas asher lo avad’ta es Hashem Elokecha b’simcha, because you didn’t serve G-d with happiness. In a chapter of Tehillim we say every day, we read, ivdu es Hashem b’simcha, serve G-d with happiness. Each time happiness is associated with service of Hashem.
We experience joy when we accomplish something that we’ve worked hard to achieve. A big project for work, childbirth – or so I am told, running a marathon. Every time we toil and get to the finish line of something we find meaningful, we experience simcha, or joy. We know that. But what the Torah is teaching us is that true joy can be found not just in any accomplishments, but most specifically in the service of G-d.
Two years ago, I started teaching a class known as Semichas Chaver. It’s part of an international program that teaches Jewish law from the original sources to modern day applications. The founder of the program has a number of restrictions on how the program can be taught and one of the rules is that it is only for men. So not too long after I started teaching Semichas Chaver, a number of women approached me and said, lama nigari? What about us? Why can’t we learn in-depth text-based Jewish law? And they were absolutely right.
So I started a class at 8:30 AM on Sunday mornings for women. I assumed no one would come at that hour, but I was wrong. Over the past year and a half, we’ve had crowds as large as 35 people coming to learn. This year, I decided, we weren’t only going to learn together, but there would be an exam when we concluded the book we were studying.
In the days leading up to the exam, I received numerous calls, texts, and emails, from some of the women describing the intensity of their preparation. It’s a lot of work to memorize the laws of meat and milk, of kashering a kitchen, and how to keep it kosher. But despite the difficulty, nine very brave women took that exam and I’m happy to announce that they all passed.
I’d venture to say that they all feel pretty good about themselves. Because you worked hard on a goal, and more specifically, you worked hard on a spiritual goal, on doing something for G-d.
I know I feel happy. A year ago, right before Rosh Hashana I described to all of you my goals for the shul and one of them was high level Torah learning for women. This class and that test is a spiritual goal of mine and I know that it brings me great joy.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge those women:
Shayndee Lasson, Yael Friedman, Channah Rothchild, Lisa Friedman, Faige Bauman, Dina Cotton, Adriene Kozlovsky, Karyn Toso, and Shelley List.
We start a new topic after Sukkos; I invite all the women here to join us.
There’s another place in this week’s parsha that the word simcha, happiness, appears, and that is in sharing our food with others; inviting those who do not have food or do have family to partake in our blessings. Once again, contrary to the notion of running after our own happiness, the Torah encourages us to make others happy.
And wouldn’t you know, giving to others is actually one of the greatest keys to happiness. In a series of studies that took place in Northwestern and the University of Chicago, participants were given five dollars daily. Half the group was asked to spend the money on themselves, and half the group was asked to spend the money on others. Those in the first group, the group that spent the money on themselves, described their happiness level decreasing with every consecutive day. Those who gave the money to others described the opposite – an increase in happiness.
Did you know that there are fourteen Yom Tov and Shabbos meals over the course of a few weeks? That’s a lot of time to be eating alone. Or, it’s a lot of time for all of us to be experiencing genuine joy. The choice is ours.
Simcha, in Judaism, is the loftiest of emotions. It is, as I spoke about two weeks ago, one of the prime themes of this holy month of Elul. We attain true simcha, true joy, not sunbathing on the beach drinking a pina colada – though that’s important from time to time, but in service, in service of others and in service of G-d.
We are two weeks away from Rosh Hashana. What spiritual goals do you have for the year ahead? How will you share what you have with others? In what way will your spiritual accomplishments bring you joy in the year 5884?