Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



The recession has hit everybody really hard. I did some research to find out just how hard and this is what I came up with:

My neighbor got a pre-declined credit card in the mail.

CEO’s are now playing miniature golf.

Exxon-Mobil laid off 25 Congressmen.

I saw a Mormon with only one wife.

If the bank returns your check marked “Insufficient Funds,” you call them and ask if they meant you or them.

Angelina Jolie adopted a child from America.

Parents in Beverly Hills fired their nannies and learned their children’s names.

A truckload of Americans was caught sneaking into Mexico.

A picture is now only worth 200 words.

A woman died this past January, and Citibank billed her in February for their annual service charges on her credit card and in March added late fees and interest because the annual fee hadn’t been paid. The balance had been $0.00 when she died, but now was somewhere around $60.00. A family member then placed a call to Citibank saying: “I am calling to tell you she died back in January.” Let me read you what happened next:

Citibank : “The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply.”

Family Member: “Maybe you should turn it over to collections.”

Citibank : “Since it’s 2 months past due, it already has been.”

Family Member: “So, what will they do when they find out she’s dead?”

Citibank : “Either report her account to the frauds division or report her to the credit bureau, maybe both!”

Family Member: “Do you think Gd will be mad at her?”

Citibank : “Excuse me?”

Family Member: “Did you just get what I was telling you—the part about her being dead?”

Citibank : “Sir, you’ll have to speak to my supervisor.”

The supervisor gets on the phone and the Family Member tells him: “I’m calling to tell you, she died back in January with a $0 balance.”

Citibank : “The account was never closed and late fees and charges still apply.”

Family Member: “You mean you want to collect from her estate?”

Citibank : “Are you her lawyer?”

Family Member: “No, I’m her great nephew.”

Citibank: “Could you fax us a certificate of death?”

After they get the fax the supervisor calls back and says: “Our system just isn’t setup for death. I don’t know what more I can do to help.”

Family Member: “Well, if you figure it out, great! If not, you could just keep billing her. She won’t care.”

Citibank: “Well, the late fees and charges will still apply.”

(What is wrong with these people?!?)

Family Member: “Would you like her new billing address?”

Citibank : “That might help...”

Family Member: “Odessa Memorial Cemetery, Highway 129, Plot #69.”

Citibank : “Sir, that’s a cemetery!”

Family Member: “And what do you do with dead people on your planet???”

Isn’t that Priceless? No wonder why Citibank needed a $300 billion bailout from the Feds?

As we reflect back on our lives over the past year today on Rosh Hashanah, every one of us have gone thru frustrations, disappointments and things that didn’t make sense—some more than others, especially in this difficult economy. Here at Shaarei Shamayim, we’ve had our share of frustrations and disappointments. Our short history is filled with excited anticipations and hard disappointments—starts and stops. The good news is that we’re still together as a wonderful congregation. Sure I would like for us to have a nicer facility in a better location that would attract more members—and I haven’t given up on that dream and you shouldn’t either—but this is still a wonderful congregation we all should be grateful for that.

It’s easy for anyone to get discouraged and ask, “Why did this happen to us?” Or, in our personal lives we ask questions like: why didn’t my loved one make it? Why did I get sick? Why did this person treat me wrong? Why did I get laid off? I spoke to a man this year who told me how he lost his job after so many years. He simply couldn’t understand it. “I gave that company my best,” he said. “I was always on time. I was loyal. It’s just not right.”

This year, after almost a half a century of service, American icon Jerry Lewis was abruptly dismissed as the host of the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.’s telethon. The whole affair seemed shrouded in mystery because there were no details given as to why. But it made me think of something Jerry once said when his television show was cancelled. He quoted a passage from the Talmud (Brachot 60b) that his mother had taught him: gam zu l’tova, “This, too, is for the good.” This is how a Jew is supposed to approach his/her life. In fact it is codified in Jewish law in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 230:5): “Always a person should say, ‘Everything that Gd does is for the best.’”

We have to understand that even though life doesn’t always seem fair, Gd is fair—everything He does is for the best. We may not always be able to see it, however. Life is like the back of a needlepoint. From the back you can’t tell how all the stitches come together. You can’t see the real picture. In other words, you can’t isolate one part of your life and say, “This is not good. It’s not good that I got laid off. It’s not good that my child got sick. It’s not good that that relationship didn’t work out.”

Yes that’s true, but that’s just one stitch, one part of your life. Gd sees the big picture—the front of the needlepoint. Your disappointment is not the end. Your life doesn’t stop because of a setback. That’s simply just one piece of your puzzle. There’s another piece coming that’s going to connect it all and work together with the rest of them for your good.

I remember making chocolate cookies with my children when they were young. We were very careful to put in the right amount of ingredients in the exact order it was called for. I remember one time we forgot to put the baking soda in. I thought, “No big deal. It’s just a little teaspoon full. How could that matter in such a large bowl?” And when we got those cookies out, they were as flat as can be—tasteless—no one would eat them.

What was the problem with our cookies? An ingredient was left out. Just a small amount made a huge difference. Some people are sour on life because they haven’t waited for all their pieces to come together. When things happen that you don’t understand—things that don’t make sense—don’t get stuck there. Gd has some more ingredients coming your way. You may feel like your life is kind of flat today—flat in your finances, flat in your career, flat in your marriage. But all Gd has to do is to add some of His baking soda and that will cause you to rise to a new level.

Rosh Hashanah is not the time to ask for forgiveness. That’s mostly for Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, according to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b) is the time to envision what we would want our lives to look like in the coming year. It’s a time to raise your expectations. So expect Gd to add the right ingredients to your life this year. That means the right people, the right opportunities, the right breaks at just the right time. You may have had some disappointments. Life may not have treated you fair. But you wouldn’t be alive now if Gd didn’t have something better in store for you. That setback was not the end. That breakup you had years ago—it may not have made sense—but there’s another piece coming that’s going to pull it all together. Don’t be impatient. It’s not over until Gd says it’s over.

We all have things that happen to us—that if we consider them by themselves—they are so hard to understand. But if you’ll just keep pressing forward, one day you’ll look back and see how it all plays into a master plan that Gd has designed for your life. Don’t be like Woody Allen who asked: “If only Gd would give me a sign, like making a large deposit in a Swiss bank account in my name.” That’s not the way Gd works.

The problem is that when we isolate our negative experiences—considering them by themselves—wondering why they happen to us, it causes us to get bitter—to loose our joy and enthusiasm. But some things just don’t make sense by themselves. We have to keep a faith that says, “I know that Gd loves me and even the challenges life confronts me with are an expression of Gd’s love. Gd has a great plan for my life. He’s going to work out even my challenges for my good.”


Joseph was the favorite son and when he brought an “evil report” about his brothers to their father Jacob, they began to hate him. When he told them about his dreams which had them bowing down to him, they became so jealous that they said, “Let us go and kill him and throw him in one of the pits and say that a wild beast ate him. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams.” Talk about being in the pits. But instead of killing him, they sold him into slavery and he wound up in Egypt, sold to Potifar.

He had lost everything—his family, home, freedom and favored status, but he knew that Gd would not abandon him. He rose to become head of Potifar’s household. Soon he came to the attention of Potifar’s wife who tried hard to seduce him. We know that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and Potifar’s wife then accused him of rape. And just like that, Joseph was back in the pit—actually, this time a prison. Again Joseph lost everything, even though he had done the right thing!

Years later, Pharaoh had 2 very disturbing dreams that no one could interpret to his satisfaction. Pharaoh’s cup-bearer, who had been in prison with Joseph and remembered that he accurately interpreted his dreams, told Pharaoh about Joseph. He was released from prison, cleaned up and brought before Pharaoh, who was so impressed with him that he made Joseph prime minister of all Egypt.

Our tradition teaches that this happened on Rosh Hashanah. What’s the Rosh Hashanah message in Joseph’s story? Joseph was in the pits over and over. But he never despaired. He learned humility and eventually was able to save his family—the Jewish people—and much of that part of the world from starvation. Historian Charles Allen once wrote: “When you say a situation or a person is hopeless, you’re slamming the door in the face of Gd.” Joseph never gave up—and that’s the Rosh Hashanah message for us: Never give up because it’s not over until Gd says it’s over!

I read about a young man who wasn’t wanted by his parents. He was given up for adoption at 6 weeks. When he turned 2 he developed a mysterious illness that prevented him from growing properly. Originally they thought it was something like cystic fibrosis. For 6 years he was in and out of hospitals trying to find out what was wrong. Eventually he got a little better and started growing. But he still was very small. His dream in school was to play sports—baseball, basketball, football, but he was way too small. To make matters worse, some of the kids bullied him, made fun of him and called him names.

It didn’t look like Gd had a plan. It didn’t make sense. But remember, it’s not over until Gd says it’s over. All he needed was a few more ingredients. Yes, he was left by his parents. Yes, he spent years in and out of the hospital. But he knew this was not the end of his life. Even though he couldn’t play those kinds of sports, he tried something else. He took ice-skating lessons with his sister. It wasn’t long before the coach noticed that he was an extremely gifted skater. He started training for the Olympics. All the experts told him that he was too small: “You don’t have a chance. You’re just wasting your time.” But listen, you are not who people say you are. You are who Gd says you are. Scott Hamilton went on to win every national and international skating championship for 4 straight years including the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal.

You may not see how you can accomplish your goals; you may not see how you can fulfill what Gd has put into your heart to do. But know today, all of your ingredients are not in.

When we made those chocolate chip cookies, our favorite thing was to put in the chocolate chips. That’s what gives them the flavor and makes them so appealing. Some of us today, we haven’t had our chocolate chips put in yet. Why are you soured on life? You don’t know what Gd has in your future. Get your joy back, your vision back. Quit dwelling on all your disappointments and why you went through what you went through. Shake it off and have the attitude, “I’ve had my flower put in; I’ve been through the mixing process; now I know I’m getting close to those chocolate chips. Just a few more ingredients and Gd’s going to bring it all together and cause it to work out for my good,”

After the crossing of the Red Sea, the Children of Israel began their trek through the desert towards Mt. Sinai and then to the Promised Land. After 3 days they didn’t find water. Moses led them to a place called Mara—which means “bitter”—because the water there was so bitter that they couldn’t drink it. Have you ever come to a place in life where you thought it would become your dream come true but all of a sudden something wasn’t right? You’ve spent years building a business, or you’ve been working there and you’re ready to retire only to find that you can’t afford to retire or that the business is failing.

That’s what happened to the Children of Israel. There was no water to drink. They were so thirsty so they complained to Moses. They got so discourage they thought it was all over. But no, Gd still had a plan. Gd told Moses to put a certain kind of tree in the water. And when he did, those bitter waters turned sweet and they were able to drink it.

What was Gd teaching them by telling Moses to place that specific tree in the bitter waters? “When life feels bitter, when things seem unfair, I still have a specific ingredient to add that can turn your bitterness to sweetness.” You may not understand why you went through what you went through. Don’t kill yourself trying to figure it all out. Trust that Gd loves you and that everything He does is for the best.

Some people get all caught up on why Gd didn’t answer their prayers. Things like: Gd, You could have healed my loved one. Gd, You could have restored my marriage. Gd, You could have prevented me from getting laid off. I don’t remember who said it but I love this piece of advice: Don’t ever put a question mark where Gd has put a period. [Repeat] When something is done and gone, let it go and move on to the next chapter in your life. It may be bitter, but Gd has another ingredient. There’s something in your future that’s going to turn the bitter into sweet.

The Chafetz Chaim—great early 20th century scholar—once met an old student of his and asked him how he was doing? The student responded, “Oy siz chlect, O it’s bad.”

The Chafetz Chaim reproved him saying, “Chas V’shalom, Gd forbid. You’re not allowed to say that. You can’t say life is bad. Say it’s bitter, but you can’t say it’s bad.”

He then asks, “I don’t understand. Forgive me Rebbe. Bad or bitter. What’s the difference?”

The Chafetz Chaim was so upset. He said, and here comes the punch line, “You don’t understand. A medicine may be bitter but it’s not bad.” Wow! Bitter is a momentary sensation. It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad because it’s for your good. After the bitter comes the sweet.

When one door closes, Gd’s going to open up another door. It may even be a bigger and a better door. And I’ve found that sometimes, if we don’t have the courage to move ahead, Gd will give us a gentle push—or in my case, a kick in the pants—to get us out of our comfort zone. I never would have come to Atlanta if a fire had not damaged my shule in Brooklyn. I was devastated. I lost 16 years of lectures and sermons and 3 years of work on a doctoral dissertation. I couldn’t understand then why this happened. But the truth is that I was spiritually stuck in Brooklyn. My shule was a Bar Mitzvah mill and, despite my best efforts, people weren’t serious about Jewish life. I spent half of my time on the cemetery doing funerals for the funeral homes just to make a living.

That fire was a blessing in disguise. Your bitter waters may be a blessing in disguise. No it’s not good that you lost your job; but it could be good if it causes you to stretch to the next level. It’s not good that you get a bad report about your health; but it can be good if it causes you to get back in shape. The symbol for the word “crisis” in Chinese is made up of 2 words: “danger” and “opportunity.” In every crisis, in every loss, in every disappointment there is both danger—to become bitter and soured to life—and there’s opportunity to grow and stretch and inspire others to keep moving forward towards the good things Gd has in store.

The Talmud (Avoda Zara 5a) interprets the verse in Genesis (5:1) Zeh seyfer toldot Adam, “This is the book of the descendants of Adam,” to mean that Gd has a book that has recorded every part of every person’s life from the beginning to the end. Gd knows every disappointment, every loss, every challenge. The good news is that your final chapter concludes with you fulfilling your Gd-given destiny if you’ll only continue to move ahead.

Here’s the key. When you go through a disappointment, when you go through a loss, don’t stop on that page. You’ve got to keep moving forward because there’s another chapter in front of you. But you’ve got to be willing to walk into it. Sometimes we get so focused on what didn’t work out, why my child rebelled, why I didn’t get that promotion that I worked so hard for. Listen, you’ve been on that page long enough. You’ve reread that chapter 1,000 times. Let it go and move into the New Year with a new chapter Gd has in store. You may not understand everything that you went through. But if you’ll just keep pressing forward—not letting the bitterness take root—you’ll come to a chapter that will pull it all together—a chapter that will cause it all to make sense.

I was talking with a couple not long ago that has a son they used to be so close with and now they’re estranged. The son won’t even speak to them. He moved away and didn’t tell them where he’d gone or even leave a phone number. You can image how discouraged and concerned they are. I told them what I’m now telling you: that is not your final chapter. Somewhere in your future is a restoration chapter. It may be a month, a year or 10 years—but don’t get stuck on that page. Keep praying and keep believing. That chapter will come to an end. The bitter waters will turn sweet and you will see that relationship restored. Rosh Hashanah tells us to envision it and let the seed take root.

Everything that you have been through is to get you prepared for where you are right now. Those disappointments, those challenges were never meant to destroy you. They were meant to strengthen you, to build your character, to give you the fortitude you need to accomplish your Gd-given destiny. You may have had unfair things happen, things that you don’t understand. You have come too far to stop now. You need to dig your heels in and say, “I may not understand it. It may not have been fair but I’m not getting stuck on this page. I know Gd has another chapter with my name on it and that chapter is full of blessing.”

Believe it or not, you have not seen your best days. They are still in your future. If you will learn to shake off the bitterness and not dwell on unanswered questions, but really believe that Gd is really in complete control, then Gd is going to show up and show out in unusual and often unexpected ways. I’m asking you today, on Rosh Hashanah to make a deal with Gd. Believe that—despite the current economy—your best days are still in front of you. Expect good things. Don’t give up on what Gd has put in your heart to do.

Draw closer to Gd this coming year and demonstrate your faith and trust in Him. Come to shule more regularly. Consider having a kosher home or become kosher outside of the home. Come and study Torah with me on Sunday mornings or Talmud on Tuesday evenings. Put on tefilin and say Shema weekday mornings. It’ll only take a few minutes. Set aside 10 minutes a day to just be alone with Gd and pray or talk to Him. Make a resolution now to do something more—anything—in this year to draw closer to Gd.

My friends, life will have its difficult moments. Remember, Abraham was 75 years old when he decided to follow Gd, but he became the father of the world’s 3 great religions; Moses had a speech defect and he became the most important religious leader ever; Ruth was a childless poor widow who followed her mother-in-law Naomi to a strange land where she knew no one, but became the progenitor of King David and the messiah; Joseph was thrown into prison through no fault of his own, yet rose to become the prime minister of Egypt and save much of the world from starvation. Your life may be hard but tell me, what’s your excuse for not pressing ahead?

Let’s leave the shule today with renewed determination and expectancy. Let’s keep in our hearts the words of Psalm 27 from our prayers this season: Kavey el Hashem, “Hope in Gd,” chazak v’ameytz libecha, “strengthen yourself and He will give you courage to go on,” v’kavey el Hashem, “yea hope in Gd!” Amen!

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

Rosh Hashanah 5772

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