KEY TEYTZEY 5773
Today’s parsha contains the most commandments of any in the whole Torah—72, according to Maimonides. And the laws run the full spectrum—from laws of marriage, divorce and family life, to monetary laws, personal liability and negligence, to laws of Tzedaka and compassion. Why the diversity of these laws and why do we read this sedra now? It’s because Rosh Hashanah—Yom Hadin, “The Day of Judgment,” the day when we will be judged on how we keep all those laws—is less than 3 weeks away. That’s why we read the parsha with the most mitzvot now.
As most of you know, last week I was in NY for my mother’s unveiling. Being with my family, it reminded me of another time when we were all together in NY in August—my mother’s 85th birthday. My parents’ summer home was in the Catskill Mountains in Kiamesha, near many of the former kosher resorts like the Concord, Grossingers and the Browns. Today, most of the summer Jews in the Catskills are Chassidim.
After I returned from that birthday celebration I shared with you something that happened just before Shabbos when I went to Walmart to pick up a few last minute items. Let me share it with you again. The checkout lines in the Kiamesha Walmart were long and an exasperated young man with a beard and peyos in front of me on the line—obviously a chassid—was bouncing up and down nervously till he couldn’t take it anymore and shouted out, “Nu, shoin, it’s erev Shabbos.”
“Nu shoin, it’s erev Shabbos.” Now hearing that in a Walmart really impressed me. In fact—having time to think while standing in that line—it seemed to me that there is a whole worldview encapsulated in those 5 words. What was he really saying? “Come on already, it’s getting late. I have a very important guest coming—the Shabbos Queen—and I have to be ready to properly receive her.”
If you’ve never experienced a full Shabbos, then it’s hard to understand what this man was saying. I can tell from the 5 words that he used that he is a person who literally lives his life from Shabbos to Shabbos. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, he lives off the memory of the previous Shabbos. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, he lives in anticipation of the Shabbos to come. And for him to be stuck in line when Shabbos is on the way is really a crisis.
It occurs to me that in this early part of Elul—less than 3 weeks before Rosh Hashanah—I should do something like that Chassid did. And so let me shout out to you and to me, “Nu shoin, it’s Chodesh Elul. It’s the month before Rosh Hashanah! It’s time to get ready.” For if on Shabbos, a queen comes to visit with us, on Rosh Hashanah the King of Kings comes to visit, and so we had better start getting ready. “Nu shoin, it’s Chodesh Elul!” And, as I said last week, the purpose of my remarks these few weeks before Rosh Hashanah—especially a Rosh Hashanah that comes so early—is to help get us—me and you—ready.
I never cease to marvel at how most Jews think they can come in cold on Rosh Hashanah—with no preparation, some without having used their prayer muscles for a while and expect to get much out of the service. How can a person come in without any inner preparation and settle back in his seat and say to the Rabbi and daveners, “Nu shoin, lift up my spirits; move me; pray for me?”
A wedding takes about 20 minutes to perform. The wedding dinner takes about 3—or at the most—4 hours to enjoy. And yet brides and grooms and parents take months preparing for it, worrying about every single detail, fussing over the flowers and the silverware and the color of the tablecloths and the type of music that will be played. Why? Because it’s important!
And when the King of Kings comes? Isn’t that of supreme important? We really have to get ready. But how? Let me offer you 3 suggestions.
1. Take a few minutes each day to be alone with yourself for prayer and meditation. It’s an old Chassidic custom called hisbodedus. Spend the time reviewing this past year and thinking about your hopes and dreams for the coming year. Our tradition also recommends saying Psalm 27, L’David Hashem Ori, “Gd is my light,” twice each day. That’s the psalm that says, “I am not afraid, I am not afraid, I am not afraid.” The reason we say it is because we are afraid, and rightly so for who knows what the New Year will bring? So say psalm 27 twice a day, as a way of lifting up your spirit for this psalm reassures us, ki Ata imadi, “For You Gd are with me,” and whatever happens in this New Year, we will never go beyond Gd’s love and care.
2. The 2nd way of getting ourselves ready comes from today’s parsha: Zachor eyt asher asa Hashem Elokecha l’Miryam b’derech b’tzetchem mimitzrayim, “Remember what Hashem your Gd did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt.” This is one of the 6 remembrance verses from the Torah that the siddur suggests we recite every day.
Miriam was smitten with the disease tzaraat that we translate as leprosy, but really was something else, when she spoke lashon hara, “gossip,” about her brother. A metzora, one who has the disease, is according to the sages, a motzi sheym ra, “one who brings a bad name,” gossiping about someone or something. This, according to our tradition, is one of the worst sins and the most difficult to avoid. We all love to hear some juicy gossip, don’t we?
What it all comes down to is that the Torah is telling us that there’s a relationship between what we say and what happens to us. The consequences of lashon harah can be devastating, not only to one who is being slandered, but also to the slanderer. So what I’m suggesting to you is, that from now till Rosh Hashanah, to make an effort to remember every day what Gd did even to the righteous Miriam for her sin of gossip…so that we, who are not nearly as righteous, will think twice every day before speaking lashon hara as well. When you catch yourself and don’t gossip, you will experience and actually feel an aliyat neshama, an elevation of your soul.
3. And my 3rd and last suggestion is to be aware of the common thread that links the 72 mitzvot in today’s parsha. They are essentially caring behaviors: be sensitive to the feelings of a captive woman, a secondary wife, someone who asks for a loan or a handout, the body even of a criminal, the lost possession even of your enemy, the feelings of the mother bird as you take an egg, and so on. Be sensitive to the people and world around you and zei a mentsh, “be a mentch,” live your life doing caring behaviors.
Let me get real personal for a minute. From now until Rosh Hashanah I want you to begin with those closest to you. So much of our time in our relationships is transactional—you do this for me and I’ll do that for you; you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. We waste so much time feeling hurt, cheated and taken advantage of if we don’t get what we want.
One way to break the cycle is to do caring behaviors for the ones we love—not expecting anything in return. Do some of their chores; buy something special for them; make them a special meal. You know only too well how to push the buttons that make them upset. But you also know how to push those buttons that make them feel loved and cared for. So push those buttons again and again—every day from now till Rosh Hashanah. I promise you that you will be amazed at the difference it will make—not only in your relationships and in your own feeling of self—but in your spiritual capacity to connected with Gd. You see, it is a great spiritual principle that as we show love and caring for each other, so Gd shows His love for us!
These are my 3 suggestions today for what we ought to be doing in the 19 days—but who’s counting—before Rosh Hashana: Find time every day to be alone with yourself reviewing the year past and thinking about your hopes and dreams for the coming year…and recite Psalm 27. Remember Miriam by refraining from gossip. And do caring behaviors every day. What I have tried to do this Shabbos is to shout at you and to me. As that Chassid on line at Kiamisha’s Walmart shouted, “Nu Shoin, it’s erev Shabbos,” I shout now out to you and to me: “Nu Shoin, it’s Elul. Rosh Hashanah is almost here, so let’s start getting ready!”
And to this, will you all say, not just with your lips, but by what you do and how you spend your time in these countdown days...will you all say with me, “Amen!?”
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis