Weekly class delivered at WITS/Machon Ohr Yehudis in Baltimore.
Weekly class delivered at WITS/Machon Ohr Yehudis in Baltimore.
The Torah provides us with the rules, laws and framework through which to live a fully actualized life. The mitzvos are an expression of Divine will designed to help us attain personal holiness. Yet, this all-important Book of Laws doesn’t begin with instructions or commandments; it begins with a story. Not just any story. The story of creation.
We are told in great detail what God created on each day, culminating with Divine rest on Shabbos. It is a story we all know, yet, cannot comprehend. What is a “day” in the eyes of God? What does it mean to “create something from nothing?” Why include a story which the human mind cannot totally grasp and understand?
It is quite simple, actually. God teaches us how He built His world so that we may use the same strategies to build our own. We are each creators of our personal worlds. While it is true that we cannot choose so many of our circumstances, we create our reactions, we create relationships and we create many different realities. There are deep lessons embedded in the Genesis narrative that we can use to fashion and create meaningful lives and meaningful worlds.
“And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, and let it be a separation between water and water.’ And God made the expanse and it separated between the water that was below the expanse and the water that was above the expanse, and it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven, and it was evening, and it was morning, a second day.” (Bereishis 1:6-8)
The commentaries point out the glaring omission – this verse omits “and God saw all that He did, and it was good (ki tov).”
Now why does it not say, “that it was good” on the second day? Because the work involving the water was not completed until the third day, although He commenced it on the second day, and an unfinished thing is not in its fullness and its goodness; and on the third day, when He completed the work involving the water and He commenced and completed another work, He repeated therein “that it was good” twice (sic): once for the completion of the work of the second day and once for the completion of the work of that [third] day. — [Gen. Rabbah 4:6]
The verse is indicating that success is measured by results, not just effort. But this verse is describing God. God only says, “ki tov” (it was good) when the job is done, for He controls the results. Man says “ki tov” every time he expends the necessary effort. Although we are made in the image of God, we do not use the same metric for success. God’s success is measured by results, our success is measured by effort. There are many times in life when we try and fail. We have dreams and aspirations and despite herculean effort, they never materialize. We take on initiatives and projects and we find ourselves unable to carry through. In those moments, we lament the failure, wasted time and resources. But it is in those very moments of perceived failure that we must remember that any time we try, we succeed. “I am a creator. In my world, ‘ki tov’ is the phrase that describes meaningful effort. If I try to make my dreams a reality, if I expend the energy to move myself forward, I have created a ‘ki tov’ moment. I am not God, I can’t control the results, I can’t guarantee success, but I can always guarantee maximum effort.”
As we enter this beautiful and incredible new year, we each begin to create new worlds. For some we must deconstruct old worlds to make room for the new, others we’ll build and add to already existing worlds. Let us remember that our ultimate legacy is the effort we expend and not the results we attain.
In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, there was an incredible celebration during Chol HaMoed Succos called the Simchas Beis HaShoeva. The focus was on the service of nisuch hamayim (pouring of the water.) Throughout the year, there are many libations and sacrifices, but this specific service is unique to Succos. It sounds like a simple act, pouring water, and yet, the Gemara states, “Whoever has not seen the joy of the Simchas Beis HaShoeva has not seen true simcha (joy) in his lifetime.”
What is so celebratory about this service? The Shem MiShmuel (Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, the second Sochatchover Rebbe) gives an incredible explanation. He says that when Hashem created the sky, He separated between the celestial waters and the earthly waters. The earthly waters complained that they would no longer be close to God. Hashem said, “Don’t be upset. You will have two opportunities to connect with Me. The first will be the service of nisuch hamayim during the Simchas Beis HaShoeva on Succos, and the second will be that all sacrifices will have to be salted (salt comes from sea water).”
So why, asks the Sochatchover Rebbe, do we make such a celebration over the pouring of the waters, but not when we apply salt to the daily sacrificial offerings? He answers that in order to extract salt, part of the water must evaporate, which means it has already ascended. On Succos, we take the earthbound water in its entirety, and all of it rises to Hashem.
This is a metaphor for the Yomim Noraim. There are those who have been diligently working on themselves since the beginning of Elul, and so the process of their elevation happens over time. But for some of us, we are still stuck. Rosh Hashanah didn’t work, Aseres Yimei Teshuva didn’t work, Yom Kippur didn’t work. Finally, come Succos, we pour all the waters. It is never too late to begin the work of perfecting ourselves, address that which is broken, and fix that which has been in disrepair. Nisuch HaMayim represents those of us who could not complete the process during Elul and the Yomim Noraim, coming before Hashem saying – we still want to try.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says that the Sukkah has a special quality like Eretz Yisrael. When we walk into the Sukkah, we have a unique connection to Hashem. We come before God and tell Him that even if we still have work to do, our greatest desire is to have a relationship with Him. On Chol HaMoed, we put ourselves on the alter, and we resolve to build that relationship and commit to a life of service of God.
האזינו השמים ואדברה ותשמע הארץ אמרי פי
“Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth!” (Devorim 32:1)
People relate to music in different ways. Some enjoy slow, melodic tunes which create the inner space for contemplation and introspection. Others enjoy upbeat and fast paced music which allows for a sense of simcha and excitement. Parshas Ha’azinu contains Moshe Rabbeinu’s shira, song. But this song is neither slow nor fast, instead it is a song of testimony. As the nation prepares to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe has important information and direction he must share. In this song of Ha’azinu, Moshe reminds the people of their responsibilities to themselves, their nation, and their God. The Shira is filled with both joy and sadness. Joy over the beautiful connection we have with our Father, and sadness as there are times when we leave, forsake, and abandon Him. But despite the valleys and low points of the relationship, our collective heart is always with Hashem and we know that His Divine heart is always with us. The Maharal of Prague and the Maggid of Mezeritch stressed the importance of reciting the Song of Ha’azinu and knowing it by heart, “for it purifies the mind and heart ….”
But Shira is not simply a song. It is one of the most pure and beautiful expressions of love, devotion and commitment. Henry Giles, an English preacher in the mid-1800’s, wrote, “A song will outlive all sermons in the memory.” When there is a need to express something more profound than the simple meaning of spoken words, Shira begins where words end.
Why did Moshe choose to deliver his last messages in the form of a Shira?
Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik of blessed memory, in his comments on Shiras HaYam (the song recited by the nation of Israel upon crossing the Red Sea), explains: “Shira is appropriate only when one attains a victory—and to be a victor one must actively participate in the struggle.” (The Warmth and the Light, Feldheim, p. 129)
Shira can only be sung when one has accomplished something of epic proportions. Shira is the melodic culmination of man’s work, toil, and struggle to accomplish a particular goal. In order to cross the sea, the people had to summon incredible inner strength and belief in themselves and God. After walking into the roaring waves and emerging on the other side, they sang Shira reflecting their incredible spiritual accomplishment.
Perhaps this is why Moshe chose to conclude his life and begin the next chapter of the Jewish narrative with Shira. Moshe told the people: My children, you have triumphed. There were times during our forty-year journey when it looked as if we would not make it. There were times when you wanted to give up; there were times when I felt I could not go on. But you persevered, we persevered, and we stand just mere steps away from the realization of our destiny. You have made it this far, and I know that you can be successful in the future. My happiness and pride are so great that I cannot capture it in words. I choose to express it in Shira.
As we stand on the brink of a new, year there are many uncertainties. But one thing is certain – we will face challenges. There will be both national and individual hurdles and obstacles we must traverse. May we find the strength to embrace and overcome our challenges. May we merit to lead lives of spiritual accomplishment. May we find the courage to create the melodic notes of our personal Shira.
We stand here on the verge of a new year, 5781. We each have dreams, desires, and aspirations that we hope to see fulfilled in the months ahead. It is in these final days of one year and the initial days of the new one that we look back and take stock of all that has occurred over the last year. I would venture to say that for most of us, the months before this past March are a blur, a distant memory. For after Purim, our world and our lives changed in such a dramatic way, making us forget all that came before. Our days and nights are filled with talk of coronavirus and its impact on our lives. Work, school, and really all aspects of life have been affected. Many of us have been distanced from family and the social relationships which we took for granted. “Social distance” is a term understood by everyone, and a mask has become an accessory which accompanies us wherever we go. For some of us, these last few months have made us stronger. The need to retreat within has created a greater self-awareness, stronger relationships with nuclear family, and even a rekindled spark of holiness. We have seen incredible acts of chessed and selfless dedication to the needs of the other – albeit at a distance. Yet, for others, the last few months have brought the sadness of loss, loss of loved ones, loss of connection, loss of joy. It is incredible to see how one microscopic particle can create opportunity for some and devastation for others. On a personal level, in March, as I watched our world change, I was sure I would change as well. As everything I had known for the last four decades began to evolve, I was sure I would too. But now, 7 months later, I do not feel I have experienced the positive change I thought I would. In fact, some days I feel that I have regressed. I find myself more impatient and agitated, and I am not sure why. Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Crisis presents us with the opportunity to rethink and reshape the way we live and who we are. I find myself fearful that this will pass (which IYH it will, and in just a little while it will be like a distant memory), and I will not have experienced the profound, metamorphic change that I had hoped to tap into.
But now it is Rosh Hashana, and we must reflect on how we lived this past year and make a plan for the year to come. We have two days where our core obligation is to think and ponder. What mistakes have I made, and how can I avoid repeating them? What strengths have I discovered, and how can I build on them? If the world changed as a result of this pandemic, how can I change as well?
Allow me to share with you some thoughts and reflections.
#1 The Importance of the Mask
Before this past March, masks were associated with superheroes and healthcare providers (who have actually taught us the true meaning of superheroes), and now they are part of our everyday lives. We do not leave the house without one, and if you are like me, you have a few in every important location.
The mask prevents the droplets which are expelled while we speak from spreading to others. What you say can have a dramatic impact on the other. Words are just words, we often say. Yet, we have come to see that too many unprotected words can cause illness within the other. With masks we measure our words more carefully. It is uncomfortable and at times incomprehensible to speak with a mask. We think before we speak. We have caused ourselves and others pain with our words. Whether negative words said about another, hurtful words said in a moment of anger, or self-deprecating words uttered from a lack of self-esteem or self-worth. The mask has taught the power of the spoken word. As we enter into the new year, let us pledge to use our words more carefully. Do not post something on Facebook or Twitter if it is harmful or hurtful. Do not make a joke that you may find humorous but may cause your fellow pain. When you have to critique or criticize, do so with love and compassion. But proper use of speech does not only manifest itself in holding your tongue. Give compliments and praise to those around. Tell your wife you love her and your children you are proud of them. Tell your friends how appreciative you are to have them in your life. Greet total strangers with a smile. We have lost the ability to communicate in an unfettered way. Let us use this as an opportunity to reframe how we speak.
#2 The Need to Distance
Everything in life is governed by 6 feet. It is how far we stand when conversing with friends and how much space is needed between our chairs in shul. We distance as we do not want to spread or contract illness. There are things in life which are toxic and unhealthy and often cannot be removed or eradicated. In these circumstances we must learn to distance. The individual in recovery must distance from the triggers which could lead to relapse. We all sin, we all make mistakes, we are human. But we must identify our weaknesses and find a way to distance ourselves from those realities, circumstances, and situations which lead to a dark place. It is not enough to stop sinning. Those who simply focus on the cessation of sin will inevitably relapse. This is because sin is not an isolated, self-contained event. It is the result or culmination of a smaller choices and decisions. The process of Teshuva demands that we look at how we arrived at the threshold of failure and work to plot a different course for the future. If I am not willing to change the exposures or circumstances of my life, I will fall off the wagon of Teshuva. I must find the courage to spiritually distance myself from those very things which lead me to an undesired journey of descent and personal failure.
#3 Search for the Vaccine
I have yet to hear someone say, “Let’s just leave the virus alone, it will all be ok. No need to spend so much money and time on a vaccine.” I think if most of us were to asked right now what we want most – it would a vaccine. We want to return to “normal,” we want our world back as we knew it. We are unwilling to leave the problem alone – we must find a solution. We must apply this desire for resolution and healing to our personal lives as well. Too often, when we have a problem, we simply allow it to fester. The problem may be obvious, yet I lack the conviction or drive to fix it. We are in relationships which are troubled, yet I do not want to do the work to fix them (even though I know what has to be done). We engage in behaviors which are detrimental and deleterious and yet, we don’t try to curb our appetite. We must create the vaccine for our life issues. Vaccines require trials and testing, and many times the drug fails to produce results. We often try to change, but then we fail. No vaccine is created on the first try. It takes time. teshuva takes time. At times, the vaccine progresses through all the different stages of testing but then fails in human clinical trials. There are times when I do teshuva, and all is working well, but when I try to implement this teshuva in my life – I fail. I must find the strength to start another clinical trial, or sometimes, the vaccine I thought would work, does not, and I must begin to work on something new. Do not resign yourself to your problems, dysfunctional behavior, or detrimental lifestyle. Find the courage to work on your vaccine of teshuva.
#4 Do not Live with Anxiety of the Unknown
If there is one thing coronavirus has taught us, it would be that we do not know what tomorrow brings. Life is filled with incredible opportunity, but there are no guarantees. I may plan my life but then something can happen which upends all of that planning. We have seen weddings which were planned for months, occur with a minyan in someone’s backyard. We have experienced lifecycle events which should have been celebrated or commemorated with throngs of people and yet were shared over zoom. Too often, we only embark on initiatives when we are guaranteed success. Truthfully, we don’t know what the next hour will bring. The only thing you control is the moment right in front of you. Seize it, maximize it, and don’t spend your time worrying about what will be.
#5 Take Responsibility for Your Children
We are truly fortunate that our local schools and yeshivos are open. For the last few months of the past school year, we saw our children engage in distance learning. Some schools created an organized plan for learning, and others did not. But one thing rang true in virtually every household (especially those with younger children), we had to roll up our sleeves and devote more attention to our children’s education. Whether it was help with devices or schoolwork, many of us received another education. We must remember that we are our children’s primary teachers. We send our children to school as we must pursue careers and may lack the pedagogical abilities and knowledge to teach our precious sons and daughters. But at the end of the day, my child’s primary chinuch (education) comes from me. I am responsible for instilling proper values and ethics within my child. It is I, the parent, who must teach my child proper middos and character. I must model for my child what it means to love Hashem, respect my fellow Jew, and live a life of inspiration. I must instill a work ethic and respect for elders and authority within my beautiful, precious child. We must rely on our schools and yeshivos to teach our children skills and information, fill them with confidence, and shower them with love and positive reinforcement. But the school is not the surrogate parent – the parent is the parent. We must parent our children with love yet discipline. We must set expectations yet be understanding of failure. We must teach them to be good Jews and citizens by modeling for them the correct behaviors.
#6 The Power of a Simple Gesture
Over the course of the last number of months, we have witnessed incredible acts of chessed (kindness) within our Kehilla and greater community. We have learned that chessed is not only a large check or a magnanimous self-sacrificing act. A phone call, text message, Erev Shabbos deliveries can be the difference in someone feeling connected, loved, and appreciated vs. feeling alone, marginalized, and forgotten. We must strive to build small acts of kindness into our daily lives. We must teach our children what it means to feel collective responsibility. We must avoid the temptation to be self-absorbed and forgetful of the other. There is nothing more important in the life of a Jew than being part of something bigger. Being part of a kehilla not only affords us the privilege of learning and davening, it creates the space for kindness and chessed. We must do for each other each and every day. Little things make a great difference.
As I go into Rosh Hashana, I am going to change. I will not let this crisis go to waste. I will become better, I will work harder, I will begin to think about what I need to do to make this coming year meaningful, fulfilling, and holy. I am ready to undertake this new journey – I hope you will join me.