Posts Tagged ‘yom kippur’
By Sam Glaser
I spent my first Yom Kippur away from my folks at my university’s Hillel House. I remember looking out the window at the deep blue Colorado sky longingly, feeling trapped and irritated. The rabbi was doing his best to make the services interesting, but there was far too much Hebrew and far too much melancholy. I burst out of that building at the first opportunity and never returned. Shortly after graduating I was offered a lucrative gig singing in a High Holiday octet at Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills. I figured that if I had to be stuck in the synagogue, I might as well be getting paid. I spent the next eight years harmonizing with a wonderful group of fellow Jewish singers and soaking up the incredible melodies and techniques of our fearless leader, Cantor Baruch Cohon. Towards the end of the hunger-fest that is Yom Kippur I would torment my fellow bass with descriptions of all the food that I was excited to eat at my Aunt Sharon’s traditional break-fast meal. One year he retaliated by surreptitiously placing a napkin from Subway in my Neilah (closing service) sheet music.
Around the time my Jewish music career started to take off, I received my first invitation to serve as chazzan in congregations around the country. Each year I slaved over my machzor during the month of Elul to get in shape for the holidays, confirming that important maxim “according to the effort is the reward.” With such intense preparation my High Holidays became powerful spiritual peak experiences, culminating in a Yom Kippur service where I would truly feel transcendent. Rosh Hashanah is about declaring God’s kingship and praying for personal and communal blessing over the next year. It is also about seeing old friends, schmoozing and lots of delicious food. Yom Kippur is all business. You’ve seen everyone already, there are no meals to interrupt the flow, and you can relax into the dramatic script of the services. Just in case you aren’t already written in the Book of Life, you have twenty-five hours to get real with any shortcomings between you and the Boss and plead for clemency.
My most memorable Yom Kippur occurred not in the month of Tishrei but in the month of Elul. That was my personal Yom Kippur, otherwise known as my wedding day. On August 29th, 1993 I fasted until the late afternoon, eating my first bite only after the chuppah while in our yichud room. Just like the Day of Atonement, our tradition dictates that couples abstain from food and drink, the focus is on the gravity of the day and grooms wear a pure white kittle. To keep me focused I elected my brother Yom Tov (who at that point was still a clean-shaven Yeshiva neophyte) to be my shomer (the guard that assists the groom). He guided me through the long list of “Al Chets,” the Yom Kippur confessional that we recite during the Sh’moneh Esrei. Most importantly, he had me precede my Mincha prayers with a detailed accounting of everyone I could remember wronging, every ex-girlfriend scorned, every bridge burnt. Needless to say, I was sobbing in a quiet corner of the wedding hall for quite some time, alarming my guests who were awaiting my return back at the Tish. In hindsight I should have pursued this intense introspection well before there were so many cameras commemorating my tear-stained face. Of course, as soon as I composed myself, I was thrust in the midst of a stampede of black-suited men on the way to see my wife for the first time in a week. The sight of her seated like a bejeweled princess, the woman of my dreams who would be mine, re-ignited that flow of joyous tears.
Yom Kippur is considered the Sabbath of Sabbaths. This means that it is the holiest day of the year. It is the only holiday that trumps the imperative of feasting on the Sabbath. Both Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av are full twenty-five hour fasts where we begin at sundown and conclude the next evening when it’s dark. There are five primary restrictions on these days: eating and drinking, bathing or washing, applying creams and lotions, intimacy with our spouse and wearing leather footwear. For this reason you will see otherwise elegantly dressed congregants busting out Crocs and Converse All Stars. Leather belts or jackets are fine; this prohibition is about abstaining from luxury, not animal rights. I personally am thrilled to not have to stand for hours in my dress shoes. It’s important to note that those unable to fast for medical reasons have a mitzvah to eat…we must live by the commandments!
The net effect of these limitations is that we have the chance to be angels for the day. Angels have no bodily needs; they only exist to fulfill God’s will. So too with the penitent on Yom Kippur. Ideally, we truly invest in the power of the day and transcend the need for nutrition. With only these precious hours to depart from our bodily limitations and enter the realm of the spirit, it’s a shame to waste even a minute focusing on what is lacking. So don’t spend the afternoon kvetching that you’re starving! During the rest of the year we whisper the mantra of the angels, the Baruch Shem Kavod sentence right after the Sh’ma. On Yom Kippur, now that we’re angels and can say it aloud, really say it! Since I’m the chazzan, I make a special effort to conserve my energy so that I am not sweating any more than I need to. After all, I need all the saliva I can muster to lead the prayers through the last note of Neilah. Therefore, I avoid schmoozing during breaks and I rest at the synagogue rather than strolling outside. This avoidance of small talk and recreation is something that I recommend for everyone.
Yom Kippur is the anniversary of Moses’ delivery of the second set of the Luchot (Tablets). It is a day of Divine compassion and forgiveness for eternity. When Moshe smashed the first set after the egregious sin of the Golden Calf, the Israelites weren’t quite sure if that first commandment, “I am God, your God” was still in effect. When we saw that the second set had this phrase intact, we knew that God would be our God forever. This is the true gift of the day.
This individual and collective reconnection with our Creator and the whitewashing of our mistakes requires only that we engage in heartfelt teshuva (return). After the reconciliation opportunities afforded by the month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah and the week before Yom Kippur, we are truly ready for unmitigated spiritual closeness without pretense. Chazal (our sages) recommend the following four-step teshuva process for each of our shortcomings. First we come clean: we search our hearts and acknowledge those times we fell short and express regret for having distanced ourselves from our true potential. Then we commit to stopping that damaging action and the callous behavior that got us to that point in the first place. Then we verbalize the mistake and ask God forgiveness, and finally, resolve not to repeat the action in the future. Just in case you can’t remember when you have transgressed, we repeat the litany of the forty-four Al Chet statements ten full times over the course of the holiday. Now you can see why you might need that full twenty-five hours in shul! Here’s a elucidation of the list to make it more meaningful. http://www.aish.com/h/hh/yom-kippur/guide/Exploring_the_Al-Chet_Prayer.html
The miraculous ability of Yom Kippur to inspire teshuva offers us the chance to have a clean slate with which to begin the new year. How often in life do we really get a fresh start? Never! Only within the realm of God’s infinite love, compassion and patience is this ever possible. Teshuva goes beyond having the list of transgressions torn up. Those transgressions can become mitzvahs! If that mistake you made gives you the impetus to improve, then it becomes the source of your growth and is acknowledged accordingly.
Down here on earth, teshuva is a bit more involved. After all, praying with all your heart will not whitewash the times you lost your temper and yelled at your loved ones. It will not make your business indiscretions go away. It will not make things better with friends whom you have disappointed. For all the mortals in your life, this four-stage process of teshuva must be enlisted for anyone that you’ve wronged, preferably before the holiday begins. The rabbis recommend that you sincerely apologize until forgiveness is given, and if our victim cannot find it in his or her heart to forgive after the third attempt, you are off the hook. Not forgiving someone is itself an aveirah (sin). Harboring grudges has been described as “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Just make your hishtadlut to apologize to your chevra, especially those closest to you and your Yom Kippur will be complete.
Just to make sense of the litany of tefilot, here’s an overview of the basic structure of the holiday. It begins with a mid-afternoon weekday minyan for Mincha that includes the confessional in the Sh’moneh Esrei, just in case you do not merit to survive until Yom Kippur. Leave yourself some time for the lengthy prayer, Tefila Zaka, which should be said before nightfall and is a great way to get in the mood of forgiveness. Then you scarf down a sumptuous meal in anticipation of the fast. I recommend that caffeine addicts reduce their intake gradually over the week after Rosh Hashanah so they don’t skid through the Yom Tov with a gnarly headache. On the other hand, there’s always caffeine suppositories! Make sure you take your last sip of water just before sundown and then you’re officially “in.” I once made the mistake of eating a huge dinner and then a second snack back at the synagogue since I usually get there early to get the bimah (pulpit) set up. I washed down that extra sandwich with a pint of water and nearly launched a Technicolor yawn a few minutes later at the first note of Kol Nidrei. Now that would have been a spectacle!
Kol Nidrei is recited with a beloved, haunting melody that is surprisingly universal. It is perhaps the most beautiful setting of a contractual document ever. We ask to be absolved of all sins in advance! Each service other than Ma’ariv includes the confessional both in the silent Amidah and the repetition. Each time we read the lines of Ashamnu and Al Chet we engage in symbolic self-flagellation by lightly beating our chest with our fist. The morning service is much like any Shabbat service but includes a Yizkor memorial section during the Torah service. During the lengthy Mussaf the cantor includes a recounting of the original Yom Kippur rite of the Cohanim in the Holy of Holies. Then there is a short break of five minutes to a few hours depending on how long the morning prayers take, and on to the Mincha service where the Book of Jonah is read. The reluctant prophet Jonah is here to remind you that you can’t run away from God or from your personal tafkid, your calling. As the sun is setting, a unique fifth service transpires called Neilah. It’s your last chance to dance…as an angel on Yom Kippur. Most stand throughout the entire service, much like the last inning a tied game of the World Series. Once the proverbial gates close and our decree is sealed, we exalt in the sounding of a triumphant Tekiah Gedolah (long shofar blast). Just when you thought you couldn’t pray another minute, a final weekday Ma’ariv is recited and then Havdalah. Now you can eat!
So what about Purim? The Torah tells us that every holiday has a balance of physical and spiritual, with heartfelt davening and serious banquets. This demonstrates that we are supposed to conduct our lives elevating the needs of both body and spirit. The exceptions are Yom Kippur, which is purely spiritual, and Purim which, with its costumes, partying and feasting, is all physical. The liturgy refers to Yom Kippur as Yom Hakippurim which can be translated as “a day like Purim.” Interestingly, the celebration of Purim begins with a fast, and the solemnity of Yom Kippur begins with a feast. On one we elevate ourselves with indulgence, the other with abstinence. As Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov points out, it’s harder to achieve holiness in a state of inebriation so Purim requires more effort and is therefore a greater holiday! On Purim we drink until we cannot distinguish between Baruch Mordechai (blessed is Mordechai) and Arur Haman (cursed is Haman). The secret of Purim? They are both the same! No alcohol required; the gematria (numerology) of each phrase adds up to 502! In other words, good and evil come from the same source. God gives us an active inclination toward evil so that we have a sense of victory for choosing good. Like Purim, on Yom Kippur this distinction comes into sharp focus; we perceive that our transgressions can be the very engine that drives us towards goodness.
I’ll finish with a story. A benevolent king, beloved by his subjects, had a favored eldest son who all assumed would someday reign. The king and queen showered all their children with love and affection, giving them the best of life’s delicacies. As the oldest son grew, the king did his best to teach him leadership skills, diplomacy and kindness. He was concerned that perhaps the “easy life” in the palace had softened his children’s resolve and tenaciousness; indeed, they had never wanted for anything. Furthermore, he was unsure if they could handle the trials of leadership and the temptations of power. So when his oldest son grew to marriageable age, the king sent him on a journey to a distant kingdom. He gave his son enough to survive but wanted him to interact with the world anonymously, without the trappings of vast wealth. Unbeknownst to the son, the king sent a trusted knight to watch over him from a distance. As soon as they were settled the king instructed the knight to send a prostitute to seduce his son. Thankfully, the son resisted her advances and retained his regal purity. Upon hearing the report, the king rejoiced and sent word that the son could return from the voyage in order to be trained for the mantle of leadership.
When Yom Kippur comes around we are faced with the litany of tests that we have failed. Our sages teach that God created teshuva before God created the world. Rather than allowing our mistakes to initiate a downward spiral of depression, we have an invaluable mechanism to reboot our Divine connection. God provides tests not to sabotage us, but to give us the chance to use our freedom of choice to act Godly, and then bask in the glory of our victory. This is why Yom Kippur is a holiday, a joyous day, a Yom Tov. This is why on this day we are dancing with the angels. On Yom Kippur we truly perceive the essence of God’s oneness. Just as Purim allows us to see that our evil and good inclinations come from the same source, so too does Yom Kippur reveal the hidden opportunities within our most profound challenges. The goal of our annual tefila-teshuva marathon is that next time we face these challenges, we get it right. May we turn all our aveirot into mitzvot, may we turn our mourning into dancing, our sackcloth into garments of joy.
By Sam Glaser
I’d like to thank my friend and mentor Rabbi Simcha Weinberg for the inspiration for this newsletter.
My favorite comic of the season is Bart Simpson at the blackboard scrawling, “I won’t count how many pages are left in the Machzor.” Formal prayer is an acquired taste, and its acquisition is best achieved with frequent prayer. This theological Catch 22 is exacerbated by the fact that many of my fellow Jews only show up to pray on the two days a year when the prayers are by far the most long winded, confusing and complicated. I have a theory that the intensity and importance of the High Holiday liturgy requires that the chazzan keep the congregation engaged in participatory melody, and the rabbi uses his teaching moments primarily to answer the elephant in the room question: “Why are we here?”
Thankfully I came armed this year with several powerful divrei Torah on this very subject to share with my sweet congregation in Virginia Beach, VA. During Elul, the last month in our Jewish calendar year, I dive into the Machzor (holiday prayer book) out of necessity. As cantor I feel that it is important to run the High Holiday services several times in their entirety so that I am fluid on the melodies and liturgy and can focus on deeper meanings. In order to give words of illumination when I give a sermon, I spend the month steeped in holy books, holy websites and sitting eagerly in the front row when various Torah luminaries grace my shtetl in Los Angeles teaching holiday preparation workshops.
The net effect of this preparation is much like the difference between rushing through an art museum versus taking a comprehensive tour with a knowledgeable docent. It’s great to just show up and see some paintings, but the effect of deep preparation and a powerful guide creates a completely different experience. I realize that if I weren’t leading the holidays in a professional capacity I would not put in the time. But because I do make an effort, I can see how making that effort in other areas of my life would make a profound difference.
I’d like to offer a five part answer to the “Why are we here” question that I hope will enhance the experience of my dear readers come this Yom Kippur. The key “take home” concepts are first impressions, aspiration, desire, beauty and royalty.
First impressions: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are truly portals to newness. We are told that “we never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but the miracle of this holiday period is that God gives us that very gift. We are judged “where we are at,” with a completely new chance to be the people we want to be. We learn from Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion from Avraham and Sarah’s home, in the Torah portion read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, that God judges Ishmael not for the mischief he caused with Isaac, nor for the trouble he would create for the Jewish People in future generations. Ishmael was judged where he was at the moment when he was fighting for his life, dying of thirst in the harsh desert, and God answered his prayer with a miraculous rescue. This powerful opportunity to become new again isn’t just semantics. Our cells are continuously regenerating. We know we are vastly different from the people we were ten years earlier. We know that change is possible because we HAVE changed as a result of our deepest experiences, both triumphant and traumatic.
When my wife and I were contemplating the wedding of our dreams we realized that the most profound weddings that we had attended were those few Orthodox nuptials that we had witnessed. We started learning with a favorite rabbi about the deeper meanings of all the customs and decided that while a full blown Tish, Bedeken, Kabbalat Panim and Yichud might bewilder our guests, the spiritual rewards of these traditions were worth the effort. The way it works is that the guys go to a tish where they drink, toast, sing and take care of the formal documents. The ladies greet the bride, a queen for the day seated elegantly at the Kabbalat Panim, and receive her exalted blessings. Then the guys rowdily march the groom out to see his bride, as if for the first time ever, and revel in her majesty. My rabbi suggested that we not see each other or even speak a full week before our big day. “Not even speak? Isn’t that severe? What about the last minute details? What about entertaining our out-of-town guests?” I asked in exasperation. He said, “When you first see your beloved bride, the one you have chosen out of all others in the world, you don’t want to think, “How could you have said that to me last night?”
We wisely took the rabbi’s advice. We created a most powerful first impression that will remain forever etched in our minds. Our capable photographer caught the crystalline tears as they cascaded from my eyes as I veiled my bride in a totally overwhelmed state. Our task is to conjure such a first-time meeting when we stand in the synagogue. The new you. Totally separate from the person you were before walking in the room. Just like Adam, the first man. Rosh Hashanah is commonly known as the anniversary of the creation of the world. In actuality, it is the birthday of Adam, the anniversary of the sixth day, the one that really mattered. Just like Adam stood alone in a nascent Garden of Eden, the very definition of a fresh start, so too can we on this first day of the year, and every day thereafter.
Adam’s first prayer was one of aspiration. He saw an incomplete world and according to Rashi, felt in his heart, “this could be so much more!” This is the theme that should inform all of our prayers during this High Holiday period. We’re not davening for selfish reasons; we must see a world of potential and want that potential realized. Only when Adam prayed did the rain fall and create the vast greenery of the garden. Let us all be like Adam and truly want greatness from ourselves and from our world. We live in a time of information overload. Constant news updates, constant connection. After enough bad news it’s easy to close our eyes, to ignore the world’s pain. This is the season to reawaken our aspirations, to remove complacency from our hearts, not to accept the status quo. Think big thoughts! God will hear your prayer! We could be so much more.
God gave Adam a few jobs: take care of the garden, name the animals, avoid certain trees. Adam became a Yes-man, calmly awaiting God’s next command. God quickly saw that this was not ideal (lo tov) and realized that the key to inspiring Adam to take initiative, to think outside the box and feel a sense of desire, was to give him the gift of a wife. Eve ignited his passion and cajoled him to reach his potential. We see proof of Adam’s complacency in the fact that God put him in a “deep slumber” much like God did with Abraham and Daniel. Rather than seeing the overarching prophetic visions like the other biblical heroes, Adam saw nothing during his sleep. Adam’s newfound desire with Eve was a good thing: although he ate from the forbidden tree, at least now he could be a partner with God, not just an employee. This time period, therefore, is the season for the rekindling of desire. We sing Zochreynu L’chaim in our prayers acknowledging that God is DESPERATE for us to desire life, to act as his “hands” in the world, to fill our days with purpose and beauty.
Speaking of beauty, a popular Midrash from the book of Exodus tells us that the Jewish women made mirrors of copper to use when beautifying themselves for their husbands. Most couples had given up on reproducing in the face of the crushing slavery. We were redeemed in the merit of these women who made the effort to show their exhausted husbands both of their images in the mirror. The husbands could see the beauty not only of their wives but the wives would remind their husbands that they too were beautiful in their eyes. The women rekindled their appetite and thereby ensured the future of the Jewish people. In light of their “illicit” origins, Moses was reluctant to follow the command to turn these mirrors into the kiyor, the washbasin that the cohanim (priests) would use in the Mishkan. But God insisted that the cohanim would see their reflection and be reminded just how beautiful they were to God. My friends, we are all God’s children. We are so beautiful to God, just like our own children are beautiful to us. We slide home at the end of a tough year of hard knocks and bruises to our ego. We may get dressed up in our nicest clothes and show up in style to the synagogue on the High Holidays, but inside we feel like a mess. This is the season of restoring our inner beauty, knowing that we are a treasure, one of God’s precious children.
We are so beautiful in God’s eyes that in fact that we are supposed to feel like royalty. One of the crucial changes in the liturgy is the repeated emphasis on God as melech, or king. The Rosh Hashanah service opens with the cantor’s bold Hamelech fanfare, we make the melech insertions in the Amidah or risk having to start the whole thing from the beginning, and we cry out with the plaintive Avinu Malkeynu, our Father our King. Does an omnipotent God need our flattery? Well, yes. A king is powerless without subjects. And having a king as your Father in heaven elevates you to the rank of prince or princess. Our sages tell us that we earned our pedigree by being the offspring of our exemplary matriarchs and patriarchs. The Akeyda, the binding of Isaac, which we read the second day of Rosh Hashanah, sealed our regal status in the eyes of all the heavenly realms. If we do our job over the High Holidays, we emerge whitewashed of sin and reunited with our Creator and our meritorious ancestors. We leave in royal robes, deeply perceiving our inner beauty, filled with aspirations to make the world a proper kingdom for God.
It’s not only Rosh Hashanah where we see mention of God’s kingship. An important part of our Yom Kippur service is the re-enactment of the procedures followed by the priests in the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple.) The reason is not only to commemorate what was. It is to remember that we had a palace, a national central address fit for our King. When we sing about the rebuilding of Jerusalem we’re not talking about the Ben Yehuda mall. Think of the sound of the shofar as a coronation trumpet; think of the unforgettable melody of the evening High Holiday prayers as the coronation suite. Thanks to the genius of the commentator Ba’al Haturim, we see that the gematria (numerology) of the Beit Hamikdash equals 861. So does the word Rosh Hashanah. There is an integral connection that bonds both concepts, inspiring us to reclaim our regal heritage and turn our hearts towards Jerusalem.
Perhaps the best way to answer the “why are we here” question is to rejoice in the fact that we are judged. Judgment day sounds like a frightening eschatological B-movie. We live in a time of unparalleled political correctness where judging others is frowned upon. What’s good for you is good for you just as long as you don’t hurt anyone. Dress in woolen suits on a hot day and sit in a synagogue to be judged? I’ll take the beach! But the reality is that we crave judgment. We’re desperate to know that we are on a true path. We spend millions on success coaches, consultants and seminars to help us realign our trajectories and reach our goals. Parents that don’t judge kids destroy their kids. Give your child consistent reward and punishment and you show your love. Ignore him or her and you demonstrate disinterest or even hatred. The idea of God judging me gives me comfort that God cares about me. In response to the love of my Father in Heaven, my Avinu Malkeynu, I am swooning with love that I am eager to reciprocate; I joyfully enter Sukkot with care that I don’t do ANYTHING to damage this precious relationship.
Chassidim frown upon saying the Vidui (confession) on Yom Kippur with a sad voice. How mind-blowing is it that we can fix everything? That God forgives us? That makes me want to cheer! A chet (sin) literally means “missing the mark,” in other words, there can be no intentional sin, only being off target because we don’t perceive the gravity of our actions. Those sins that give us impetus to repair our relationship with our Creator become mitzvot! Confession is a Torah mitzvah, and we must serve God with joy! I’m not recommending putting on a clown suit and parading around the bima (pulpit.) But when you pound your chest in pain for all those shortcomings of our humanity, do it with a smile inside, knowing that God cares, judges us with love and is ALWAYS ready for us to come home.
The High Holidays are about restoring what we always have inside, which is a sweet, loving child. Our inner child is quick to recover from a hurt, openly affectionate and sees the world with wide-eyed wonder. That child knows he or she is beautiful, is filled with desire, and since the world revolves around him he can be a tyrant prince. When a toddler sees his dad on his knees with his arms outstretched across the room, he RUNS into his daddy’s arms with joyous abandon. Rabbi Weinberg quoted the Zohar as stating that the shofar blast is really a lullaby. I know that in my last blog post I referred to the Talmudic reference that the sound is supposed to a forlorn wail modeled after a certain nameless biblical character. But for now, just picture that the final tekiya gedolah at the end of Yom Kippur is a gentle lullaby from God, just for you. May the answer to “why are we here” be perfectly clear: all we need to do is simply run into the arms of our loving Father in Heaven, and hold on to that feeling everyday of the year.
This is the season of reckoning. Back to the drawing board. Press reset, clear the cache, reformat the hard drive. It’s time to step out of your busy life and figure out why you are living it. See where you are versus where you want to be and figure out what it’s going to take to get there. We call it t’shuva, or return. Jews don’t believe in original sin. We believe in original purity. Along the way we get covered in road grime and once a year we pause to get back to that candy apple red finish underneath.
One important component of t’shuva is ownership. You have to figure out where you are falling short with God and take responsibility. The other eleven months of the year you can pass the buck. Now we take the fall. Don’t blame your parents for not giving you the right education or for their verbal abuse. Don’t blame your rabbi for being too busy or for misleading you. The dog ate your tefillin? Folks, it’s Judgment Day. The judge knows your every secret. Why not anticipate the prosecuting attorney’s argument and face up to your shortcomings?
As my friend David Sacks said in his amazing weekly class that I frequent, God is the great sit-com writer in the sky that wants feedback from us, the actors. What do WE see as important for our characters? How is God doing in getting us to our goals, to realizing our potential? The dialog when you are in the synagogue during the holidays is about helping God understand what you need in your world. You have permission to be chutzpadik. Ask for the moon! Not just that you want a job or a raise or a spouse, but that you want to have a starring role in the saga of the perfection of the world, of tikkun olam.
I am part of the Ba’al T’shuva (BT) movement. That means “master of return.” A small trickle of young Jews started to become more interested in their heritage in the 70’s and it turned into a flood in the past two decades. Countless neighborhoods nationwide have been transformed by yuppies looking to create modern day shtetls with shuls, bakeries, restaurants and bookstores all within walking distance. I’d like to argue that this month we all become ba’alei t’shuva. It doesn’t matter where you are or where you came from. This is the time to buckle down. To find a single mitzvah to add to your life. To perform mitzvot you do already with even more dedication.
There are a few pitfalls to avoid in becoming a BT, even if it’s just for the month of Tishrei. The whole idea of connecting with God requires humility, creating a space for God to dwell inside. How ironic that some BTs feel that they themselves discovered God and Torah and now live in the smug triumph of their accomplishment. Anyone less observant is treif, anyone more observant is out of his or her mind. BTs can be infamous bridge burners. Some neophyte BTs are quick to quote Rashi’s comments on the biblical juxtaposition of honoring parents and the Sabbath as the source that they won’t honor parents who desecrate Shabbat. I’m confident that those who nurture filial bonds of love and reverence are far more likely to bring “wayward” parents close.
The antidote to this trap is gratitude, to look at gifts in your life with laser-sharp focus and to be thankful to God for the small details. To recognize that our upbringing may not have been perfect but it gave us the tools to get to where we are now. And that our present state is exactly where we need to be or we wouldn’t have traveled this perfectly orchestrated path. God wants our whole being. Our past and our present. God lovingly arranged for the circumstances of our lives and all of the challenges along the way to give us a feeling of empowerment for “choosing life.” And rather than perceiving a malicious Creator dolling out punishment during the High Holidays, we must be grateful for the divine system of cause and effect.
I had the gift of a potent revelation this week. I was out at a great LA jazz club hearing some absolute musical masters tearing it up. The volume was more intense with every song and I had to beseech the bartender for some earplugs. At one point I noticed that the keyboard player’s amp was on fire. No one was doing anything. A timeless minute went by where my shock at the lack of response turned into action. In spite of my broken foot and crutches I leapt to the stage to pull his flaming amp away from the thick red curtain that it was leaning on. I screamed to the waiter to get a fire extinguisher. The owner of the club ran down to the stage to tackle me…he assumed I was an overzealous fan. The fire was put out, the keyboards were patched through the PA system and the band never stopped playing. However, they did segue into Fire by Jimi Hendrix.
After the excitement I nursed my Corona and reflected: We cannot sit around and wait for someone else to help us. Yes, you have to pray, to make God part of your team, but you can’t sit around and wait for the big break, you can’t depend on anyone to make it happen for you. You can’t postpone the dream, the vacation, the change in lifestyle. There is no easy way out. No free lunch. This is it. Want to lose weight or quit smoking? Cold turkey, baby. Want to connect to God and live a holy life? Get to a class, a Torah website, a Shabbas table. I can’t just wait for the phone to ring for that next gig or album client. I have to figure out what I want and get busy. And make an exhaustive list of goals for myself and for the world when I meet the Master of the Universe on New Years Eve.
The other aspect of my revelation that night was in regard to gratitude, specifically to my parents. They may not have given their four boys a life of mitzvot, kashrut, Torah study and the like. But they did raise a family that was passionate about Israel, Jewish music and the Jewish people. The more I think about it, my parents were superheroes. They gave us the freedom and courage to explore the world and the discipline never to be “quitters.” They raised us colorblind: it was perfectly natural to love everyone, all races and religions. The highest-ranking executives in my father’s garment company were Black, Hispanic, Filipino, or Irish. This was totally normal for us brothers; we treated them like aunts and uncles. We also had no bias in terms of economic standing, sexual preference, age. Poor, rich, young, old, all were welcome in my household. They unleashed four adventurous, open-minded boys with a solid foundation of love, trust and common sense.
This is the season to act on your gratitude. To express
verbally your love for friends and relatives, to apologize sincerely for your shortcomings. When we clear the air of the pain and suffering we inflict on others, especially those closest to us, we are creating a more unified planet. Rosh Hashana is about making God king. God can’t be king unless God has loyal, content subjects. Subjects that are filled with strife, hatred and dis-ease cannot properly honor the King. Yom Kippur gives us a clean slate with our re-coronated King. Now that we’ve taken care of making amends with God’s subjects, we can focus on those places where we’ve fallen short in our observance of God’s decrees. We have 613 commandments, not 613 suggestions. Perhaps mitzvot are better understood as divine pathways or in the words of Shlomo Carlebach, God’s prayers for us. We’re like a kid coming back from a year abroad to a loving parent. It’s all love and forgiveness. Thank God.
This time of year we focus not only on God as loving parent but God as spouse. It’s not about crime and punishment. It’s about the power and beauty of our relationship, a relationship continually deepens and must be celebrated. A relationship that requires care, protection, fences. When we build a home with God, we avoid sin not because we are afraid of the whip but because we couldn’t imagine defacing our beautiful palace.
I’d like to finish this essay with a great story. An executive with very little Jewish education was learning with a rabbi. He had been pushed by one of his peers to give it a try and now it was a high point in his week. The weekly encounter with his heritage gave him fodder to try on his family now that he insisted they be together for Friday night dinner. One thing that bothered him was that the rabbi, who was clearly teaching him, kept referring to their sessions as “learning together.” The executive called the rabbi on this one day: “We’re not learning together, you are teaching me! Why not call a spade a spade?” “No, quite the opposite,” said the rabbi. “I learn from your world of experience and you learn from mine. I don’t know so much more than you do!” “What?” the executive replied, “don’t patronize me! I barely went to Hebrew school and you are trained rabbi!” The rabbi responded: “Imagine you are in an Olympic-sized swimming pool racing Michael Phelps. Who would win the race?” “Well, of course Phelps would destroy me!” said the executive. The rabbi responded, “Now picture the two of you in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Who would win in a race to Los Angeles? You see, we’re both in the middle of the Pacific, you and I. In the great world of Torah, the deepest ocean in the universe, we’re even!”
My dear readers, may you have a year of sustenance, health, love, wisdom and peace of mind. May the world be a place of peace, free from disease, disaster, cruelty and suffering. This is our time to tell the Director what we think of the script. God wants our input. We are not actors or puppets. We are God’s children, God’s chosen ones, partners for life. Don’t limit your vision to a denomination, a movement, a synagogue, an organization. This time of year we have the awesome opportunity to pray together. In different buildings, different countries but still together. On a lifeboat in a vast ocean. We are the Jewish people. We are one. Like different fingers on one hand. Connected, needing each other. Humbly walking with our loving Creator. Building a palace. Masters of return.