For the week ending 20 September 2014 / 25 Elul 5774

The Days of Awe - Reconnecting to the Real You

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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There is no doubt that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur definitely carry with them a certain feeling of apprehension. After all, we are being judged for all of our actions from the year gone by. How many people can honestly say that they did their very best the whole time? Or that they didn’t hurt anyone else? If there is such a person I would truly love to meet them! The Days of Awe are so intensely powerful that we are taught that Hallel — the classic series of beautiful chapters from the Book of Psalms that are normally recited on every Festival — are not recited on Rosh Hashana because the forthcoming judgment weighs upon us so heavily that we cannot reach the true levels of joy to be able to recite Hallel properly.

And yet, the Days of Awe are also a period of the most incredible opportunity to reach back within ourselves and to reconnect to our souls in a way that is terribly difficult to do at other times of the year.

There appears to be a dichotomy between the two emotions – on the one hand we have judgments and verdicts of enormous repercussions for us; and on the other hand we feel a sense of freshness and perhaps even a frisson of anticipation of being able to start anew.

What we are being taught is that the two concepts can be balanced, but it requires one to make the other possible. Yes, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur grant us an unparalleled opportunity to start again with a clean slate. We can rebuild relationships that need to be rebuilt: with G-d, family, friends and even our own soul. We can redefine ourselves so that the “negativity” and the parts of us that we are embarrassed about can be changed and fine-tuned to become parts of us that we are proud of. But to reach that point, to get to the moment when I become a better, improved version of myself, requires the knowledge and the acknowledgement that I did wrong things. In addition, I need to want to change the way that I do things – to aspire to become better than I was. That is far harder than just “wiping the slate clean” by pretending that nothing happened in the past that requires my attention.

And along come the Days of Awe and grant us an incomparable opportunity to stand in front of our Father in Heaven and say the hardest words in the world: “I was wrong. Forgive me.”

In Ethics of the Fathers the great Sage Hillel teaches a fundamental of spiritual growth, “And if not now, when?” The commentaries explain that a person should endeavor to work on improving his character traits when he is younger because as he gets older those negative character traits tend to become more a part of him and much more difficult to redirect. However, Hillel is telling us not to give up. Never lose hope. Even later in life it is possible to stand tall and say, “If not now, when?”

There is a famous saying that we should not put off to tomorrow what can be done today (actually, my credo as a young boy was “why do today what can be put off until tomorrow!). In other words, Hillel’s words: “If not now, when?” If there is a time of the year when we should try to truly take those words to heart it is now. As we stand at the threshold of a brand new year we have the opportunity to reach up beyond ourselves and reconnect to our inner dimensions, to the spiritual elements within us. “If not now, when?”

It is related that one of the great Chassidic Rabbis would spring out of bed each day and declare in a loud voice, “Wake up! Wake up! We have a guest with us whom you have never seen before, and when he leaves, you will never see him again: Today!”

There is another familiar saying: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, that’s why it is called the present”. Personally, I think that it is a very beautiful saying. Even though it is not a “Jewish saying” I think that it encapsulates what Hillel sought to convey, and I also think that it can help us understand that “If not now, when?” is not just a catchy phrase. Rather, it is the doctrine we should use to utilize our lives to the fullest.

I recently heard a true story that causes me goose bumps every time I think about it. An elderly person made his way toward the central Synagogue in Karmiel, a city in the north of Israel, one Friday afternoon. People were already there waiting to begin the Afternoon Service that would be followed by the Shabbat Service. During the prayers, the Rabbi of the Synagogue got up to speak and during his speech the elderly man suddenly began to search with his eyes for something. He looked and looked until he found a series of bookshelves on the back wall that were packed with holy books. In the middle of the Rabbi’s speech he got up and walked quickly towards the books, and it was clear that he was looking for one particular kind of book. Slowly he proceeded down the long shelves till he came to the Babylonian Talmud. He stopped in his tracks and began looking with great intensity at the titles embossed on each volume. Finally, he pulled out a particular volume, Tractate Yoma, and with tears streaming down his cheeks he opened it. He found the page that he wanted and he began to read.

After a while the Rabbi came to the end of his speech and the community began the Shabbat Services. At the end everyone lined up to wish the Rabbi “Shabbat Shalom”. When it was the elderly man’s turn he introduced himself as Leonid and he told the Rabbi that he had arrived from Vitebsk, Russia, that very Friday morning and had been accommodated in the absorption center near the Synagogue.

“Forgive me,” he said, “for getting up in the middle of your speech and going to the bookshelves, but I couldn’t hold myself back. I was a small child, sixty-five years ago in communist Russia. We hid with our teacher in the corner of a cellar near our home, somewhere in the Soviet Union, and we learned Torah. I loved my teacher. He had a white beard and a shining face, and all he wanted was to teach us Torah. He learned Talmud with us and I was good at it; I was blessed with a good head. One day I had a question and the Rabbi began to turn his big yarmulka around and around as he did when he was thinking. Then he said ‘Ah, Leibele (Leonid’s Jewish name), what a wonderful question!’ and as he said that we heard the dreaded steps of the secret police. They smashed the door down and took us all out by force. As he was being led away, the teacher, whose name I don’t remember, shouted to me, ‘Leibele, Leibele, the answer to your question is in Tractate Yoma page forty two’.

“From that day on I saw no Talmud. Soviet Russia robbed me of anything that connected me to my Jewish roots. I went to university and studied medicine. I became a senior doctor and did not keep anything from my previous life as a Jew. I am not even sure what possessed me to come to the Synagogue today, but today in the middle of your speech I suddenly remembered that question of mine, of Leibele, with its solution in Tractate Yoma. I reconnected to the child I was. I not only found the answer but I found Leibele too!

“You understand, Rabbi? I waited sixty-five years to get the answer. I couldn’t wait one minute more! As soon as I remembered that in a Synagogue there must be a set of the Talmud and that it contains Tracate Yoma I knew that I had to find the answer to Leibele’s question, the child from that town who learned Torah with his Rebbe. That child who is me!”

Hillel teaches, “If not now, when?” It is not just for the “Leibeles” among us. It is for each and every one of us. And the “now” that is being presented to us right now are the Days of Awe. May we all be able to recognize the enormity of the opportunity that G-d is presenting us with. May each and every one of us merit reconnecting to the inner, spiritual being that is the real “me”.

And may we all be blessed with a sweet, sweet year. A year in which we see how each moment is truly a gift from G-d, and by doing so we can acknowledge and appreciate the “present” that has been given to us.

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