Yom Kippur 2017: Neilah –Streching Our Jewish Lives

I recently came across the last words of Steve Jobs that I would like to share with you.

I have come to the pinnacle of success in business.

In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success.

However, apart from work, I have little joy. Finally, my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed.

At this time, lying on the hospital bed and remembering all my life, I realize that all the accolades and riches of which I was once so proud, have become insignificant with my imminent death.

In the dark, when I look at green lights, of the equipment for artificial respiration and feel the buzz of their mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of my approaching death looming over me.

Only now do I understand that once you accumulate enough money for the rest of your life, you have to pursue objectives that are not related to wealth.

It should be something more important:

For example, stories of love, art, dreams of my childhood.

No, stop pursuing wealth, it can only make a person into a twisted being, just like me.

God has made us one way, we can feel the love in the heart of each of us, and not illusions built by fame or money, like I made in my life, I cannot take them with me.

I can only take with me the memories that were strengthened by love.

This is the true wealth that will follow you; will accompany you, he will give strength and light to go ahead.

Love can travel thousands of miles and so life has no limits. Move to where you want to go. Strive to reach the goals you want to achieve. Everything is in your heart and in your hands.

What is the world’s most expensive bed? The hospital bed.

You, if you have money, you can hire someone to drive your car, but you cannot hire someone to take your illness that is killing you.

Material things lost can be found. But one thing you can never find when you lose: life.

Whatever stage of life where we are right now, at the end we will have to face the day when the curtain falls.

Please treasure your family love, love for your spouse, love for your friends…

Treat everyone well and stay friendly with your neighbours.

These words are incredibly powerful.  Jobs says it’s all about love, and yes love and love of family are central in Judaism, however I would say that he is on the right path, but there is more. I would add that we need to stay focused on meaningful acts of service, serving the Almighty and fixing the world, these are also the main things that we will look back upon as having been meaningful in our lives.  Bill Gates can be used as example of someone who did what Jobs did not do, he quit at the peak of his career and wealth, and is devoting the rest of his life to giving away his wealth and helping others.  As we enter into the final stretch of Yom Kippur, let’s think about the things we do not want to look back upon and regret not having done.  Let’s look forward to the coming year as a year when we do not lose sight of the spiritual values in our lives.   Let’s think about how we can make changes and how we can stretch ourselves to encompass the things that we know will live on as important in our lives.

The first scene in the Torah of the first Jew in history was an act of personal stretching.  Avraham Avinu, Abraham our forefather was asked to leave his home, his birthplace and even his family to follow G-d to an unknown land.’  The Torah is giving us a profound message about spiritual growth.  It is telling us that in order to grow spiritually we strive to go beyond the limitations of what we know.  We strive to expand ourselves, our Jewish lives into areas that we may not have been before.   Most American Jews view their Judaism as a side hobby that they visit occasionally.  The High Holidays, a demonstration on behalf of Israel, a .  And if we look at it that way, then the satisfaction we derive from our Jewish lives will be the type of satisfaction we derive from a hobby.  It is nice, but it is not going to touch me or my world deeply.  If we want our Judaism and our relationship to G-d to touch us deeply, then we need to allow it to infiltrate into the fabric of our lives.  And that involves change, and change is not always comfortable.  In fact, change is usually not comfortable.

Interestingly, there is one day of the Jewish year when many Jews allow Judaism to lead them to a place beyond their comfort zone, and that day is Yom Kippur.  One of the most basic ideas of fasting is that we stretch ourselves to nullify our physical drives, to show ourselves that we are not subject to our physical urges, but that we are master of our physical wants and desires.  Now fasting is not something we would normally do, although I did once have a student who used to love fasting, would go on three day cleansings and talked about the spiritual high he would attain.  When I first started fasting, it was excruciatingly difficult, I had never fasted before in my life, I would count the hours, and I could not really get into the prayer. But as the years went on, I started to get into the swing of it, and now I find it fasting to be a vehicle to feel cleansed and elevated.  I must admit that when I sat in a service it was more challenging; I was more likely to count the hours.  When I run the service I am totally engrossed, and even though it is extremely exhausting, I am able to absorb myself completely.

So let’s think about what areas of our Jewish lives we want to stretch ourselves.  It can be making a commitment to Shabbat.  Keeping Shabbat, whether it is by lighting candles, doing Friday night dinner each week, and here at MJE we have weekly opportunities to do so, not shopping and using money, or not using electricity at all, is stretching ourselves into a mode that can bring us a day of peace and harmony, a day of freedom from our weekday pressures and harried lifestyles.  It can be a commitment to a Torah study once a week.  After work we are tired and just want to go home and veg out in front of the TV, but we know we will derive so much more satisfaction and growth by motivating ourselves to learn.  It can be getting involved in Israel advocacy and putting ourselves out for the Jewish people, lobbying in Washington, or getting informed so we can be spokespeople on behalf of Israel.  Or it can be volunteering to visit an elderly person through Dorot, going on hospital visits on Shabbat afternoon, or giving blood at a blood drive.

The more I invest, the more I put in to my Jewish and spiritual life, the more satisfaction I will derive, and the more I will feel that my life is one that I will not look back upon and feel like Steve Jobs, that I missed what was truly important.

Yom Kippur 2017: Yizkor –You Mean Sometimes I Really Am Wrong?

In ‘The Crime I Did Not Commit’, author Sarah Rigler relates the experience of her cousin Circuit Court judge Alice Gilbert, and her innovative idea.  She required every criminal convicted in her courtroom to write a 2000 word essay answering the questions

How did my crime affect me? How did it affect my family?  How did it affect my community? And what can be done to prevent such crimes in the future?

You would think that the essays would elicit an ode to regret and remorse.  But the reality is far from it.  Let’s take the case of a drunk driver, Frank, who killed a teenage girl.  Frank did start off by saying it was sad that ‘this young girl who should be alive, isn’t’, -note he could not even say the word dead- but proceeded to say he sees no reason why her friends and family should be harassing him with telephone calls at home and at work.  Furthermore he blamed her because she was trying to help a dog on the road who was hit, and her boyfriend was doing a lousy job of redirecting traffic.

Why do people have such a hard time owning up to the wrongs they have done.

By the way this is not the first time that this phenomenon of placing blame on others has been noticed.  You only have to turn to the story in the Torah of the beginning of mankind.  In Genesis 3:13 when G-d calls Adam and Eve to task for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the only thing He asked them not to do, what do they answer?  Adam says to G-d the woman who you matched me with gave it to me.  Not only does he try to absolve himself of responsibility for what he did, but he implicitly blames G-d to for placing him with Eve, when G-d did it to alleviate his loneliness.  And when the Almighty turns to Eve and asks her what she did, her reaction is the same, she said the snake tricked me and that is why I ate it.’

I think there are a number of different reasons why this is so, why it is so difficult for us to admit we are wrong and to be accountable for our actions.  The first reason is simply that we want to be right.  If we get into an argument with our friend/bf/sibling, admitting we are wrong means we lose, and that it’s our fault, and many people do not like to be wrong.  We are competitive by nature (or at least I sometimes am, especially when I am playing monopoly with the kids), and we want to come out on top, we want to be right.  But now the kids do not want to play monopoly with me because I am too competitive.  If we do not admit we are wrong we do not come out on top in the long run.  We will just push people away.

The second reason we do not want to be wrong is that owning up to our bad behavior means I now owe them one.  They have one over me.  I will have to be nice to them next time, to let them choose which restaurant to go to next time we go out, or to let them have the last word on some future disagreement.

But I believe the third reason is the greatest block to owning up to our errors, and it has to do with how we feel about ourselves.  If I admit to my sins, then I am guilty, and being guilty means I am a bad person.  I am rotten and bad and our egos cannot sustain that kind of beating.   With all the heart beating we are doing on Yom Kippur, this is a pitfall we have to avoid in our lives, and especially on Yom Kippur.  So how do we admit that we are wrong, to others, To G-d and to ourselves on Yom Kippur without feeling like garbage?

This feeling that we are bad is based on an outlook which is not a Jewish one, and which I believe is not the correct one about the true nature of us as human beings.  I think this feeling is so prevalent because of the Christian belief is that humans are born with original sin permeates the consciousness of our society.  The Christian belief  is that the human being is bad by nature, and  without belief which brings redemption, we will remain in our sinful state.  You may have noticed that I specifically avoid using the word sin over Yom Kippur because it carries with it this association of my being intrinsically bad.  So many people feel that by owning up to our wrongs we are just reinforcing what we really know deep down, that we let ourselves and others down, and that we are a rotten.  While is true we may have done something bad, and gave in to our selfishness, our anger, or our desire to take a moral short-cut does not make us into a bad person.

The Jewish outlook is presented in a famous story in the Talmud, Berachot 10a, where two people are taunting Rabbi Meir.  It does not say what they did but in one of the other incidents when a Rabbi was taunted, every time he went to the bathhouse, they stole his towel and his clothes.  This must have been worse, because R Meir prayed that they should die. His wife Bruria asked him how he could wish such a thing.  She pointed out that in the verse ‘May the sins be wiped out from the land’  (Psalms 104:35) it says the sins and not the sinner.  So you should pray not they they be wiped out, but that their sins be wiped out. And if you look at the end of the verse it says ‘and may the wicked be no more’, it does not say that they should die. Instead, says Bruria (the wife is right again), it must mean that they are ‘no more’ because they changed.  So she tells her husband you should pray to G-d that they repent, and that is how they would be no more.

The Torah outlook is that when someone does something wrong they do a bad act, they are not a bad person, but they have done a bad actions.  (There are unfortunately, exceptions, there are people who are truly evil, your Hitlers, Addas, ISIS)  Bay the way this important distinction between the person and their actions is also crucial for parenting 101, to make sure this is communicated to one’s children when they misbehave.  We believe that within us is a Diving soul that want to do good, and wants to be giving, sensitive, understanding and spiritual, but we give in to our lower voice that is selfish, indifferent and pleasure seeking.  The Torah views man in a state of struggle, which means that we will necessarily make mistakes and mess us, that is the human condition.  And if we accept that in ourselves, then we will probably see that others will accept it in us and it will be easier to say ‘I am sorry’.

A truly sincere apology will usually receive forgiveness.  It will allow us to not be defensive when someone gives us criticism.  And if we are a person that is not defensive, then others will tell us when they are hurt because they know it will elicit an apology rather than making us defensive.  I recently came across a story that beautifully shows how on can be open to criticism, and also offer explanations without being aggressive.  This true story is related by Shlomo Horowitz.  He needed some guitar supplies for a kumzitz, and he found a local music store.  Before going here he looked at the reviews online.  This is what Suzanne wrote online about Mike’s Music Store: TC 3 reviews a year ago-

It is all about greed and money. They have a very unfair makeup/cancelation policy. So if class falls on a holiday ( Ex. July 4th) and the center is closed, they still charge you for the class, They do not pay the teachers for that day either, so free money for them. According to their policy it is up to the costumer to schedule a make up. However, the teachers are all always fully booked. It is almost impossible to schedule a make up class. Their solution: They offer substitutes. But they are missing the point, after working with a teacher for many years, I don’t need a stranger who has never met my child nor know anything about his progress hanging out with him for 30 minutes. I don’t call that a “make up ” class. That is just a waste of time and money. Also their parking stinks.

Bottom line: I don’t recommend them, Mike and his wife are greedy people.

Shlomo said ‘I finished reading the review and had my doubts about going. I didn’t want to give my business to a greedy, inconsiderate person. But then I noticed that the owner, Mike, had responded. I read further,’

Hi Suzanne,

Wow, where do I start?

How about, “Mike and his wife are greedy people.”? Congratulations, you’ve ruined my day. This is so untrue and hurtful. You don’t know me or my wife. You have no idea how much of our time and money we donate to our community, to those in need, to veterans, to schools every year. I may be a lot of things, but greedy isn’t one of them.

“They have a very unfair makeup/cancellation policy.” Actually, I believe our makeup policy to be just about the most fair I’ve seen in the music lesson business. If your lesson falls on a holiday that we are closed (Ex. July 4th) we PRORATE that month and you actually do not pay for that lesson. If you need to cancel a lesson, we only ask to be notified by the night before. If you do need to cancel on the same day of your lesson we pay our teacher for the lesson, so you would not be able to make it up.

“The teachers are always fully booked.” This is not exactly true, but we do our best to keep their schedules pretty full. Perhaps if our teachers weren’t so amazing they may have more openings?

“They offer substitutes.” This is true. If your teacher is sick or on vacation we will have a substitute. When I was a kid taking guitar lessons, I would show up once in a while and there would be a substitute. I would actually be excited to learn something brand new and different from a new instructor. I realize that some kids and parents prefer not to have substitutes. Not a problem. All you need to do is let us know you don’t want a sub and we will always let you know if/when your teacher is unavailable and we will reschedule your lesson.

“Parking stinks.” I can’t really dispute this one. The parking lot is a bit small for our growing business. We’re working on possible solutions and will let everyone know when we find an answer.


Shlomo says: I was touched by his vulnerability, his admission that he wasn’t perfect, and the dignified way in which he explained himself and addressed the complaints. I want to meet this guy, I thought to myself.  He didn’t respond and claim he’s perfect and he’s a gem of a human being, and that his store and policies, parking, etc were all fantastic. He admitted that he wasn’t flawless and that certain things need fixing. But he also elegantly explained that certain perceptions the reviewer had were mistaken.  Mike was vulnerable and honest, and I found that so rare and refreshing.

I share this true story with you because it shows how someone can be honest and admit their imperfections without becoming defensive and disingenuous.   The word Jew comes from the name Yehuda, one of the sons of Jacob.  This name has its roots in the word Hodaah which means to admit.  To be a Jew is to give recognition where it is due and to be able to admit when we are wrong.

This Yom Kippur let’s all strive to be able to admit and own up to our mistakes because it is only by doing so that we can begin to mend the damage we may have done, to ourselves, to others and to our relationship with others.  And in doing so we say ‘I am sorry’  and we take responsibility for our wrongful actions but know they are not the deepest representation of who we are.  For we believe that ultimately our true selves is our Divine soul, which strives to do good and to make the world better.    This is who we strive to become on Yom Kippur, to purify ourselves and  to get in touch with that Divine essence within each of us.





Yom Kippur 2017: Kol Nidrei – Stretching Our Giving

This story is told my Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Two hundred years ago in Koretz, all the Jews were G-d fearing except Avramele the Schneider, the tailor.  He never went to synagogue, or to the kosher butcher for that matter.  The only place people saw him was at the local pub at night, drunk.  People only went to him to get their clothers  fixed, otherwise they did not care about him at all.   One day Avramele passed away, and R. Pinchas Shapiro, one of the three students of the Baal Shem Tov saw a crowd of people gathered in the corner of the schule.  What’s going on he asked?  Nothing?  No tell me.  Well one of the most disgusting Jews in the city just died, and no one wants to go to his funeral.  I did not know there were disgusting Jews in Koretz, R. Pinchas said.  Oh, it’s Avramele the Schneider.

  1. Pinchas turned pale. The people were afraid he might faint. He started crying ‘Gevalt, gevalt, my dearest friend the tailor has left this world?  What time is the funeral, I for one will certainly be there.

When word got out the R. Pinchas would be there, there was much speculation.  When R. Pinchas went to a funeral, it was only for a tzaddik, a holy person.  Was the scheider a lamed vav, one of the 36 hidden righteous people in the world?  All the Jews turned out of the funeral, people were crying out ‘r. Avramele, please forgive us. They were asking him to intercede on their behalf.

One of R. Pinchas’ colleagues, R. Yaivah was in town and also went to the funeral.  After the funeral he said to R. Pinchas:

  1. Pinchas, my dear friend, you can fool the whole city into thinking the tailor was holy. But you and I know better, we was really just what he seemed, a simple Jew, maybe even a bit sinful. So tell me the truth, why did you mourn him so much?

Ah, Rebbe, we know so little about other people.

Do you remember the orphan girl Feigele who grew up in our house?  my wife and I adopted her as a baby.  Six months ago she got married to an orphan boy, a very nice boy. We borrowed the money to make the wedding.  Just a few hours before the wedding Feigele’s groom came up to me and said that we did not buy him a new talis, a new prayer shawl which the groom customarily wears under the chupah.

I told him that I borrowed from every last person, and I did now know who I would get another 10 rubles from for a talis.  in a few weeks I would be able to find a source for the funds for the talis.

The boy was crying, Rebbe, Rebbe, everyone will laugh at me if I do not have a new chupah.

I know he was right, but there was no one else to go to for money.  ‘okay, I’ll do my best.  Wait here, maybe G-d will open up the gates for me.

I walked down the street and tried to think of who I could go to for money, but there was no one.  So I decided I would go up to the first house with a light on, and that was the house of Avramele the tailor.

When he opened up the door and saw me, he said, rebbe, it’s such an honor; I never dreamed you would visit me.  What can I do for you?

Sweet tailor, you know the orphan Sarah is getting married tonight, and I need 10 rubles for a talis.

Oy, you know how poor I am, I could help you with one ruble.

Schneider, thank you so much, may the Almighty bless you.

I did not know where I would get the rest of the money from, but somehow getting that one ruble made me feel lighter and hopeful.  As I was walking away, I hear someone running after me.  It was the taylor, and I saw he was crying.

He said to me’ I am poor, but I have managed to save some money. I have nine rubles left, my whole life savings.  Rebbe, I would like to give you the money, but do you think I could have a place in the world to come?

I put my hands on his head and said, ‘Avramele, if you do this great mitzvah it is because of you that the wedding is taking place, and I promise you a place in the world to come.

And so, I went to Avramele’s funeral, and I cried walking behind the coffin because I could see that his soul was wrapped in the talis he bought with his last ten ruble for the groom of Sarah the orphan girl.


We learn many things from this story.  Who are we to judge a person, for who are we to say the nature of the acts they do.  Maybe we cannot judge others, but we can judge ourselves, and ask ourselves whether we give to others when it is easy and convenient, or whether we give of ourselves by putting aside our own desires and responding to the needs of another.  Sure, we try to be helpful to our family and friends, to help a friend move on a Sunday afternoon, bring someone chicken soup when they are sick, help someone with their resume or network to help find them a job.  But how often do we really extend ourselves, how often do we really stretch, how often do we get out of our comfort zone for others?

Would we give up theater tickets because someone is having a personal crisis and really needs us that evening, or would we give up our Saturday night fun because a friend is lonely.  How often do we go out of our way to help a co-worker when we know they are struggling with their project, even though we have our own deadline, but our job is not in jeopardy?

A person who is truly giving gives when it is not easy and convenient, when it is a real stretch.  And it is when we stretch ourselves that we really grow.  We become greater people for it.  Avramele’s act was an act of greatness and made him into a great person.  Have we ever given as selflessly as Avramele did?  I am not telling everyone to give away their life savings, but Jewish law prescribes tithing, giving 10% of our net income to charity and Jewish causes.  10% is not just nice, it hits us in the gut, it requires a readjustment of our disposable income.  No this is not a High Holiday appeal, it is an example of how we can stretch, and become greater people for it in the process.

We all understand that when I am working out, if I push when it hurts, if I give the extra umph at the end, that is how I really get in shape.  If I shoot for that extra measure when I am stretching then I will truly be limber.  So this coming year, when we have the opportunity to help someone, or someone asks us to get involved, and our first reaction is to say ‘no’, let’s stop and reconsider.  Is this an opportunity for a spiritual workout?  This Yom Kippur as we think about how we can become better and improve ourselves, as we think about how we can grow as human beings, as Jews and as spiritual beings, let’s specifically embrace the opportunities to do a mitzvah, to go a good deed when my inclination is to shy away, the retreat, to pull away.  And through this, may we merit to learn what it means to be a giver.  We are enjoined in the Torah to follow in G-d’s ways, and one of the greatest ways it to emulate G-d quality of giving.



The Value of Discretion: No I Do Not Need to Post It On Facebook

In December 1939 Nicholas Winton was getting ready to set off on a ski trip from England to Switzerland. Before leaving he received a phone call from his friend Martin Blake.  Blake told him “I have an interesting assignment and I need your help.  Don’t bother to bring your skis.”  Germany had just taken over the Czechoslovakia, and thousands of refugees were dislocated, many with no food or shelter.  Winton found that the needs of the refugees were not being looked after, and he felt that he had to do something for them, or at least for their children.  So he petitioned the English government to find out what was needed for the children to be brought to England.  They told him he would have to find a family willing to take them in, and have a 50 pound deposit per child, a significant sum of money at the time.  Winton left the relief work in the hands of others and went back to England to organize the efforts to save the children.  The British people opened their homes, their hearts and their wallets, and this was after already taking in 10 000 Jewish children from Austria and Germany, one of which was my mother.  Over the next 9 months he would organize one flight and 7 trains, saving 669 children from death.  These children would never see their families again.  In 1988 Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in their attic, with photos of the children, a list of names and letters from the parents.  After pushing her husband to come clean, she found out about his relief efforts.

This story is extraordinary on many counts.  It shows us that one person can make a difference, and that just because no one else is doing something does not mean that it cannot be done.  He did the impossible, which people said could not be done and saved hundreds of children,  whose descendants now number in the thousands.    But what I would like to focus on in the story of this incredible individual is something that we might at first think is a peculiar side point.  Winton  kept his heroic deeds a quiet for 50 years.  Imagine having saving 669 lives, and the world not knowing about it.

In today’s world you go out to dinner, on a cruise or raise charity money by doing a triathalon and the whole world knows about it.  In an article entitled “You Will Never Be Famous, and That’s Okay”  Emily Smith writes in the NY Times that thanks to social media, purpose and meaning have become conflated with glamour.’  In the age of Shark Tank, celebrity chefs, American idol, everything is in the public arena.  Living a meaningful life becomes equated with doing something attention-grabbing, becoming an Instagram celebrity, having over 1000 followers or becoming a reality TV star.    And then when you accomplish that, you figure out how to monetize on it.

This outlook on the world is totally antithetical to Jewish values.  The book of Micha which is one of the books of the Jewish prophets lays out the Jewish outlook on publicizing one’s actions. (Most of you think you do not know the Book of Micah but in fact if you have every done Tashlich before you have read from the book of Micha, the verse which begins Tashlich is taken from there).  The book of Micha 6:8 tell us ‘what does G-d require of us: to do justice and love mercy and walk discretely before G-d.  The Talmud in Sukka 22b asks: ‘to what does this refer? This refers to doing a mitzvah quietly for which we get public recognition like accompanying an orphan bride to the wedding canopy (one who does so would probably be given this role because they have paid for her wedding).’  This means we should not seek out acknowledgment for a good deed we have done.  The Talmud then says all the more so mitzvoth that are done privately, such as Torah study or giving charity.  These also should be done discretely and quietly without feeling the need to tell other people about it.

Why is it important to be discreet about our good deeds?  The Talmud tells us elsewhere in Taanit 31 b that blessing is only found on something that is hidden from the eye.  Why should that be, why should there be a deeper spiritual impact of an action that is done secretly?

I believe that there are two important ideas behind this.   The first is the idea of what is called in Hebrew ‘ayin hara’, or the evil eye.  Poo poo – the idea is that if we publicly display either our material wealth, our prosperity, driving around in the mazerati, wearing high high end designer labels (and making sure they are on the outside), building an enormous home, that other people will put the evil eye on us.  And from what we see this can also be true if we put on display our righteous or spiritual accomplishments. Why is this damaging?   One way to understand it is that if my blessing or my accomplishment becomes the vehicle through which other people’s jealousy becomes provoked, and they resent me because of it, or it makes them feel unhappy with their own lives, then this is not a blessing but something that is causing negativity in the world.  And if it evokes negativity then the Almighty might take away the blessing.

The second point, and this is the one that is most relevant to us on an internal level, is that publicizing our acts erodes the quality of the experience.  When I am doing actions that I know will be observed by others, or that I know I will be putting on display, then the experience becomes not truly mine, but it becomes one that is projected onto others.  In doing so, I am diluting the meaning of the experience for myself.  How many times have you worn something that you really did not like or think is nice, or was uncomfortable but it was the new hot thing so of course you had to wear it.  Knowing we will be on display skews our sense of ourselves.  We become a product of what people think of us,  and doing this undermines our sense of self, our self-confidence and our ability to be our own unique selves.

Always having to show something to others or experience it with others is like pulling a seed out of the ground every day to look at how it is growing.  By doing so I am stunting its growth.  I will be distracted by knowing that I am publicizing it.  It is like when you go to an event and you take pictures.  You cannot really experience it, you cannot really be in the present because you are distanced from it by having to capture, or in this case publicize it.   We are losing the fabric of our internal selves to the constant distraction and interruption of digital stimuli.  As a result we do not know what it is to be in touch with ourselves, to let ourselves feel something or be in the moment, and we become it is not enough to just be in the experience without capturing or publicizing it.

Third, in the Torah we see that the encounter with the Divine is to be found in the moments of quiet and solitude, in moments of privacy. When Moses was on Mount Sinai, Joshua went up the mountain with him part of the way.  But when Moshe asked the Almighty to show him His ways, to allow Moshe to experience him, G-d says find this place in the rock that I have prepared, and be that place as I pass by.  The experience of the Divine is in solitude.  It is in the recesses of our soul which we need internal focus and self-isolation in order to access.  The prophet (I Kings 19-12) calls this the ‘small still voice’ of the experience of the Divine.  In the case of doing a mitzvah, keeping it to ourselves makes it more likely that we motivated to do the mitzvah for its own sake rather than for ulterior motives like getting recognition.  This is called doing a mitzvah l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven and for its own sake.  It should be said that sometimes doing a mitzvah publicly can have the value of serving as an example to motivate other to do it as well, but we should make sure that our primary motive is not seeking the recognition.

The irony and post script to Nicholas Winston’s story turns our point on its head.    After his story came out, Nicholas Winston was knighted and became Sir Nicholas Winston. In a 1988 filming of the show ‘That’s Life’, Winton’s wife brought him to the studio to see the show. Little did he know that he was a focus of the show, and that over two dozen of his ‘children’ were at there.   Winton was 79 years old at the time.  He passed away in 2015 at the age of 104, living another 25 years.  it seems that the blessing continued to rest upon him even after his deeds were so widely publicized.  Maybe that was because he had lived with it privately for so long, a demonstration that his actions were truly L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, for the sake of the good deed and not for the recognition he would receive.  May we all merit to have the strength of character to live with the humility of not seeking recognition, and to do good deeds and live our lives for their true value, and not for what we think other people will see them.  And in the process may we merit to be blessed with the blessing of that which is kept private.



The Message of the Hurricanes Before Rosh Hashanah

These past two weeks have seen unprecedented destruction sweeping across the United States.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey an estimated 30,000 people will need temporary shelter, 14 000 national guards were activated to help save people and 450 000 will need disaster assistance from FEMA.  Losses due to destruction are estimated at $75 billion.  70 people died directly from or events related to the hurricane. In Florida as a result of hurricane Irma, 7 million people fled the state, and more than 6.7 million people were without power in Florida.  This accounts for 2/3 of the population of the state.  The carribean Islands of St Marten, Anguila and Barbuda were had damage to 75-90% of their buildings.   34 people died in events related to hurricane Irma in the Carribean, 26 in Florida.  And now Maria has devastated Dominica, and has swept across the US Virgin Islands and across Puerto Rico, and an extremely powerful earthquake has hit Mexico City killing over 200 people.

All of this devastation and suffering is happening right before Rosh Hashanah, and so we must ask ourselves what message are we to take from this?  It seems like over the years, this has been the pattern before Rosh Hashanah, Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans before RH in  2005, hurricane Sandy decimated the NY coastline in 2012. The most obvious message would seem to be that the hurricane season is in the late summer, which corresponds to the time right before the High Holidays.  But why is that so, why did the Almighty make it so that hurricane season and the Jewish High Holidays converge?

When we see this tragedy unfolding in front of us across the United States and the Caribbean, we are being given a powerful message before Rosh Hashanah, which is that is that life is not something we can take for granted.  Life is precarious, the stability of our lives is precarious, having those we love around us be there for us is not something we should take for granted.  We think the status quo is something that we can take as a given.  But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tell us otherwise.  We are told in the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, that on Rosh Hashanah our fate for the next year is determined by the Almighty.  In a few moments we say ‘on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed’, and we will be praying for another year of life, another year of health, and another year of livelihood.   The hurricanes teach us that we cannot take these things for granted and that we need to turn to the Almighty in prayer and we need to improve ourselves  so that we be worthy to receive His blessings for the coming year.

But even after having seen these images in front of us in the media, and seeing and hearing of so many people whose lives and well-being are in the balance, we still do not really feel it. It is still not real to us.  We do not really feel like the inhabitants of Puerto Rico who have hurricane Maria bearing down on them.  We are not bawling out our prayers and tears to the Almighty asking for Him to help us, and that the fate of our lives is in the balance like the people in the Caribbean, or asking Him for help in rebuilding like the people of Texas and Florida undoubtedly are.  Why is that?  Should we be more distressed and distraught over this impending ‘verdict’ for the coming year as the prayerbook calls it?  I think there are several reasons that we are not feeling the reality that our fate is being determined on this day.

The first reason is that we have not experienced firsthand what it means to have our life in the balance.  Some of us might have struggled with health issues, or have close family members who have struggled with these issues, or some of us may be from Florida or New Orleans and have lived through what it means to have our homes decimated, but most of us have not.  Here are some pictures of what it is like.  It is hard for us to imagine this, to be standing in 3 feet of water in your living room, having your belongings drenched, not being able to live in your house for weeks or months.  Or even to not have electricity and air conditioning for a week like people I know in Florida.  And since we have not had everything taken away, or have never really lived through these hardships, we do not know what it is really like to beseech the Almighty for our lives and wellbeing.  My grandmother, who by the way was a refugee during the Holocaust, used to talk more about living through World War One in Austria when there were food quotas and they lived on the brink of starvation.  It was etched into her consciousness.  A person who has been through such life experiences knows what it means to really pray for their lives.  We do not really know what this kind means of vulnerability means. We live in an era of the greatest prosperity in the history of mankind.  We have luxuries, air conditioning, unlimited clean water, unlimited selection of food whenever we want it, which the majority of people in the world do not have, and that wealthy people in past did not even have.  And so we tend to take it all for granted.  When we see the decimation the hurricanes are causing, one message we can take away from it is to feel the reality of the transience of life, and to internalize the idea of our reliance upon the Almighty for our well-being for the coming year, and to open up our hearts in prayer in a real way.

The second reason that we do not feel the reality of Rosh Hashanah is a good one.  It is that we believe that even though we are being judged on Rosh Hashanah, the Almighty is not out to ‘get us’.  G-d is not looking to nab us on our wrongs.  -Okay time for a little comic interlude.   Joe is lonely, so he goes out and buys a parrot for some company.  The parrot talks to him alright, but it is outright abusive. Joe is stupid, joe is a jerk, I hate Joe.  Joe asks the parrot to stop, he will not stop.  Joe warns the parrot, but it ignores him.  Finally Joe can’t take it anymore, and he grabs the parrot and sticks him in the freezer.  He hears the parrot cratching around, and then all goes silent.  Joe gets scared, he wanted to scare the parrot but he did not want to kill it.  So opens up the freezer and there is the parrot, looking all contrite.  The parrot says Joe, I feel really bad, I should not have been so mean, do you forgive me?  Joe says yes, sure I do.  The parrot then says ‘but I just have one question’, and pointing to the frozen chickens in the freezer asks ‘what did they do?.’

We believe that the Almighty is like a loving parent.  In the central prayer we will be saying on Yom Kippur, we say ‘Avinu Malknu’, our Father our King. The Father comes before King, and we know the Almighty relates to us as a parent would to their child.   A parent sometimes has to teach a child a lesson, if a young child runs out into the street the parent will have to speak to them sternly so they know what they have done is very serious, they may even need to ground them.  But they will look for the minimum punishment that will convey the message.  And if the parent sees that the child really gets the message, then they do not even need to punish them at all.  So too we believe, as the sages say ‘that the Almighty inclines to the side of mercy.’   The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 17b says that there are three people, the righteous, the wicked and the average person, the beinoni.  Even though the beinoni might have made many mistakes over the past year, Beis Hillel teaches that G-d’s quality of Rav Chesed, Great Goodness, one of the 13 qualities of G-d’s mercy, means that G-d inclines to the side of mercy. If our count is balanced 50/50 the Almighty will give us a good verdict, and overlook the negative.

Yet even though we believe the Almighty is merciful, we still need to feel the urgency of prayer.  The sages tell us that when the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were closed, but the gates of tears were not closed.  When we pray to invoke G-d’s mercy, what we are telling the Almighty is that we got the message and do not need the consequence.  That is why we are told that prayer can change a negative decree. G-d does not need us to grovel before Him (or Her), to beg and bow.  We do it so we can feel our own contrition, and so we are motivated to try and change ourselves and our actions.

This is the three pronged action plan laid down in the Netanah Tokef, the prayer that says that on Rosh Hashanah our fate will be inscribed. It continues and says even though our lives for the next year has been written down, Teshuva, Tefila, and Tzedaka, Changing our actions, Prayer and Charity can change our fate and our outcome.  Prayer is beseeching the Almighty, and it is self-transformation, but it is also a vehicle to bring about change in our actions.  This is the Teshuvah.  RH is also a time to envision new goals for ourselves, new possibilities in our lives.  Yes I can make that career change, yes I can repair that frayed relationship (or end the over-frayed relationship), yes I can break the destructive habit, yes I can be more focused on my spiritual and Jewish life.

And the best way to change my actions is through charity, by being a more giving person.  I can give charity through financial support, and I can give charity through personal support.  I can be a listening ear to someone who is down, I can visit someone in the hospital, I can network to try to help someone get a job.  We are told that the time of year going from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur is a time to intensify our efforts in these areas of our lives.  All of these efforts, teshuva, tefila, tzedaka, repentance, prayer and charity become all the more real when we listen to the messages that have been sent to us through the recent events in the world around us. So, unfortunately, this year on Rosh Hashanah, we can take the message of the devastation of Harvey, Irma and now Maria to drive home the reality that life is precarious, and that we can merit the Almighty’s blessings by turning towards Him in prayer and by improving ourselves for the coming year.