For the week ending 12 September 2015 / 28 Elul 5775

Twelve Months Later

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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It seems that we have come full circle yet again and we are now facing Rosh Hashana and another new year. If you are like me, that last sentence may have been read with a little twinge, even though we all know perfectly well that the year only has twelve months in it. And it is not as if we don’t know that eleven and a half of those months have passed already. So why the panicked reaction?

For many of us the answer is as simple as it is depressing. You see, the whole Rosh Hashana period is not just a time for “new year resolutions”. It is really a time for stock-taking, for looking back and trying to gauge what it is that we have achieved over the current year, and only then to try to work out what can be done to make the new year even more successful. Better and greater than the year that has just slipped by us into the past.

The problem is that we all know this, and yet for many of us, somehow or other we have lost sight of what we wanted to achieve over the year and the wonderful resolutions that we accepted upon ourselves this time last year. I am always reminded of a quaint story that is told about one of the adherents of one of the greatest Chassidic Rabbis from pre-Holocaust Poland, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, known as the “Imrei Emet”.

Once, one of his Chassidim was going on business to Paris, and, to the surprise of the Chassid, the Imrei Emet asked him to bring him back a very good quality cigar. Despite his astonishment at the request (the Imrei Emet was renowned for his being detached from the physical pleasures of the world), the Chassid agreed immediately and was filled with joy at the idea of being able to bring his revered Rebbe something that he needed.

Not only was the Chassid enormously successful in his business endeavors but, never having been to Paris before, he was amazed at all that he saw. In fact, he was so amazed at the kaleidoscope of sights and sounds that he completely forgot his pledge to the Rebbe. As his train was pulling out of the Gare du Nord he suddenly remembered and his face fell. The person sitting next to him asked what was wrong, and he explained that he was supposed to have bought an expensive cigar for someone very close to him and he had forgotten. His travel-mate told him not to worry. The train was due to stop in Brussels and the cigars in Belgium were even better than the ones in France! The train duly stopped in Brussels and the Chassid ran to the first cigar store that he found and asked for the very best cigar that they had. They brought out an enormous cigar in its own wooden box, which he bought and then raced back to the train feeling very pleased.

On his arrival back in Poland he hurried to his Rebbe’s house to tell him about his success and to present him with the cigar. The Rebbe looked from the impressive box to his Chassid and back again, and finally asked him where it came from. The Chassid hummed and hawed and then, rather sheepishly, admitted that it wasn’t a French cigar at all, but rather a Belgium one. But he was quick to reassure the Rebbe that he had been guaranteed that the cigar that he had bought was of the finest quality that money can buy. Far better than anything he could have bought in Paris.

The Imrei Emet looked at him long and hard and then said, “Do you really think that I needed a cigar from Paris? What I wanted was for you to remember that you had a Rebbe when you were in Paris — and you forgot!”

I always feel a certain pang of regret for the poor Chassid whenever I think of that story. But the story is really far more than just a story. The message that the Rebbe gave to his hapless disciple is the same message that G-d is giving to us all the time. We wander around this beautiful world that G-d has created for us, and we are supposed to remember constantly that not only did G-d create this world but that He wants us to live in this world in a way that reflects that knowledge. He gives us each year to grow within it and to truly live it! G-d demands from us that we attempt this year to reach beyond where we reached last year. And to grow even more next year than we managed to grow this year. And He gives us Rosh Hashana and the build-up to the New Year to try to remember that fact. That involves far more than just sitting on the side and waiting for the year to get better. It means being absolutely engaged in making the year better!

Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, used to say, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”

We are no different. The more engaged we are, the greater is our own input into the year, the greater are the chances that the New Year will truly be one that we can be proud of. The less we understand that and act upon it, the greater are the chances that the year will fizzle out and we will be left with that sense of impending panic as the year draws to a close.

There is a verse in Deuteronomy (11:12) that reads in Hebrew, “M’reishit hashana ad achrit shana” (from the beginning of the year to end of the year). The Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbuam, points out that there is a grammatical inconsistency in the verse. The verse should either read, “M’reishit HAshana ad achrit HAshana” or “M’reishit shana ad achrit shana”, but it should not read as it does. The Satmar Rebbe explains that in Hebrew grammar the use of the letter “heh” at the beginning of a word is to denote a definitive article. When the year begins we are convinced that this year is going to be the year. It will be the year that I live up to all my resolutions. It will be the year that I remain attached to G-d and aware of G-d throughout the year (not just when I am in trouble and need Him). It will be the year that I am a better, kinder, gentler and more thoughtful person. And yet, when the end of the year rolls around it transpires that the year was just another year like all the other years that came before it. It wasn’t the year at all. That somewhere along the way I lost sight of my true goals and aspirations.

What could be a blessing that can contain all of our aspirations and goals for the New Year? That G-d should bless each and every one of us with a sweet and happy year. With a year of good health and continued growth and awareness. That we turn the year into something unparalleled. And if we do so, we should merit that this time next year we are able to make a very small but extremely significant change to the way in which that verse is read with respect to how we live our entire year. That we will be able to add a small “heh” to the beginning of the word “Shana” so that the verse reads – “M’reishit HAshana ad achrit HAshana”!

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