Have you ever heard of a family breakfast?
Neither have I. There’s no such thing. Family dinner? I’m all about that. It’s a chance to catch up, hear about each other’s day, and of course those famous studies that talk about the inverse relationship between family dinner and drug use. But family breakfast is not a real thing. It only happens on old family sitcoms because in real life it’s simply impossible. The first challenge is getting everyone at the table at the same time. I have one child waking up at the crack of dawn who already ate breakfast at 5 AM and is now up to lunch. There’s another who is just getting up at 8 AM, who we dress while they’re still half-asleep, and gets breakfast in a plastic bag to eat on the way to school. I’m sure the family taking carpool doesn’t love having honey nut cheerios all over the back of their car, but they should just be happy I don’t pour milk into that bag…
But even if we somehow had everyone at the table at the same time, you know what happens? Every child wants to look at the back of a cereal box. People complain that looking at a cellphone during a meal is rude, these boxes cover their entire face! My 2 year old thinks that that’s how you eat cereal! Aside from the fact that she can’t read, but it doesn’t matter to her if it’s the super exciting back of a Fruity Pebbles box or it’s the back of Fiber One with a person who is clearly not eating Fiber One because they look like they’re enjoying themselves, my daughter needs to have a box of cereal in front of her to eat her breakfast.
Now I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but I’ve seen my fair share of cereal boxes at this point but I’m pretty sure that the most common and exciting game on the back of cereals is Spot the Difference. There are two pictures, side by side and the goal is, to spot the subtle differences between them. Which when you think about is a cruel joke on parents. Because you have this four-year-old child with awkward hand-eye coordination and not the finest motor skills, attempting to put a spoon overflowing with cereal and milk in their mouth, while staring intently at the back of a cereal box. Clean up after breakfast is not pretty.
Now I was thinking that since it’s such a popular game, we should have a Spot the Difference game in shul. There seems to always be something different in shul every single Shabbos and if you need a break from davening, instead of talking to the person next to you, you could just start looking around and spotting the differences. I know many of you play it with the weekly Shabbos sheet looking for all the mistakes and discrepancies, but we could also play a pot the difference by looking around. Like did you spot the difference when we transitioned from the green tissue box with sandpaper tissues and moved on to this new company. Did you notice that? Or, what’s missing in the shul this week? Well last week, the lights above my head were all off. Did anyone else notice that? Anything else missing this week? The flags! The flags have been gone for a month now!
By the way, I am 90% sure they are in that room. Can you check? Bring them back?
So why am I telling you all of this?
Today is Shabbos Mevorchim for Chodesh Elul. In a week, the 30-day countdown to Rosh HaShana begins. Elul is a time of introspection, it’s a time of growth, it’s a time of change. Many of us, when we think of change, when we think of the change that needs to take place in our lives, we play a game of spot the difference. For example, we say, ten years ago, I was more compassionate, I was kinder, more of an idealist, more spiritually engaged, fill in the blank, and today, I am missing all those things. And we ask ourselves, how do I make this modern picture, the current me, look like the old one? Repentance then, is a big game of spot the difference. There is the picture of old me, the picture of current me, and the goal is to see the differences and then make the new me look a lot more like the old me.
That’s a legitimate model for change, but it’s also a very limiting one. How mature were we five, ten, thirty years ago? Definitely not as mature as we are today – I hope. How much life experience did we have under our belt in the past? Obviously less than what we have right now. If we are constantly looking backwards, and trying to recreate the past, we’re also limiting ourselves. We may have been more innocent but it’s precisely our lack of innocence, the difficulties and challenges, the setbacks and the failures, that allowed us to discover parts of ourselves that we never knew were there.
So I’d like to share with you today a new model based on an idea by the Sefas Emes, the Gerrer Rebbe. In this week’s parsha, we are commanded to love G-d. And all the commentators ask the same question, how can we be commanded to love? Love is a feeling, it’s an emotion, and emotions aren’t programmed, they are formed. If we don’t have that feeling inside of us then how can we express it? A parent can command a child to sit or to stand but they cannot command a child to love them. How then can the Torah demand of us to love Hashem?
The Sefas Emes beautifully explains that the question is the answer. “You cannot command love where it does not already exist, he says, and since the Torah does command such love, then the only logical conclusion is that there is ingrained in every Jewish heart a deep and abiding love for G-d and for Torah. There exists in every Jewish heart what he calls a NEKUDAH, a “dot” or spark of love for all things spiritual and G-dly.” (Rabbi Norman Lamm) The command to love is therefore a command not to create a new feeling, but to acknowledge the pre-existing connection and longing that our soul already has for G-d. It’s a commandment to find the innate love of G-d that exists within. And yes, it may be difficult to feel, it may have been covered by so much shmutz that we don’t even know it’s there, but it is. There exists within every one of us a natural unbreakable bond with G-d.
You know what people call that unbreakable connection to our heritage and to G-d? They call it the Pintele Yid, which means the little holy Jew that lives on inside. But I think that’s completely inaccurate. Because what the Sefas Emes taught us is that there isn’t a pintele Yid, a small Jew, living on inside. There is a tremendous, larger-than-life Jew, a groisse Yid! You know what groiss means? It means it’s HUGE! There is no tiny spark that we need to furiously fan. There is a roaring fire already there! G-d commands us to love Him because we already have the capacity to be in love with G-d! That’s not child’s play! That is the most spiritually-sophisticated relationship known to man!
The model for change, the charge and the challenge for the month ahead is not to lamentingly looking back at the past, witfully wishing to go back in time. The mission of the month of Elul is to recognize the potential we have going forward. The mission of the month of Elul is to recognize that yesterday’s greatness pales in comparison with the latent greatness of tomorrow.
There is an apocryphal story told of Michelangelo, how a man was watching as he sculpted his famous statue of Moses. The man was overwhelmed with the talent of Michelangelo and commented, “How wonderful to watch a master at work. You take a mere slab of stone and make a Moses of it.”
“No,” said Michelangelo. “I see Moses inside the stone. My job is to chip away at all the extraneous pieces so you could see it as well.”
In this upcoming season of change, don’t spot the difference from the past. Instead, paint a masterpiece of the life we know we could live in the future. How we could be more loving and understanding towards our family, how we could be less judgmental and more accepting of our colleagues and friends, and how we could grow in our relationship with G-d. The goal of Elul is to acknowledge and recognize our capacity for greatness, to chisel away until we can all see the groisse Yid that lives on inside.