Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing




My uncle Albi, may he rest in peace, loved to tell Yiddish stories and he would laughed and laugh as he told them. Let me share with you one of my favorites from his repertoire. Moshe goes to a tailor to have a new suit made. After it was finished he came to try it on. But when he put it on he noticed that the right arm was too long and asked the tailor about it. The tailor said, “You’re right. For that sleeve you have to hold your arm up to the side. (Pick up right arm.) See, now it’s fine.”

            Moshe then said, “You know the other sleeve doesn’t fit at all.”

            The tailor responded, “You know you’re right. For that sleeve you put your left arm up to the side as well with your shoulder touching your ear.” (Pick up left arm.)

            “But I’m now stepping on my cuffs!” Moshe cries in desperation.

            “Nu, bend your knees and point your feet inward,” the tailor said. After he complies the tailor tells him, “Look in the mirror. The suit fits you perfectly.” (Point feet inward.)


So twisted like a pretzel, Moshe lurches out onto the street. (Walk like a pretzel.) A couple comes by and the husband says, “Look at that poor man,” while the wife says, “What an amazing tailor. Considering his condition, that suit fits him perfectly!”


(Continue walking like a pretzel.) Well, my friends, this is us. We are in the suit. We walk around in the suit because we have adapted to our life. We’ve all built up distorted defenses to the hurts life throws at us and we’ve twisted ourselves into pretzels. We have gotten so used to our pretzel existence that we don’t even know that this is our survival suit—our protective armor. We think that this is the real us.


For example: if I learned to cope with the hardships of life by becoming cold, withdrawn and really distant, or if I coped by becoming fiercely independent, aggressive and competitive, or if I coped by becoming submissive and manipulative, after a while I begin to think that this is who I really am. But inside this suit of armor that we have made for ourselves to help us cope, our human essence remains intact. Inside the survival adaptation of our suits, we are our essence—and our essence is loving and compassionate.


The Ari—the father of modern Kabbalah—taught us that every soul has a levush, a garment, woven from their deeds and experience. While the garment is not the essence, it is the medium through which our essence expresses itself and interacts with everything external. Garments, therefore, obscure and filter the essence that they enclose.


Teshuva, “repentance,” actually means, “returning.” It’s a returning to the real you that’s inside your levush, your suit—the beautiful you, the amazing you, the holy you, the loving you, the wonderful you, the compassionate you, the generous you. How do we get out of these external suits that we have fashioned for ourselves and return to our true essence? It’s not good to live all twisted in knots like a pretzel.


First of all, we will have to learn to step out of ourselves and into the minds and hearts of those whom we care about. A dear Imago Therapy colleague and mentor of mine, Hedy Schleifer who reminded me of this story my uncle Albi used to tell, calls it a “crossing of the bridge.” For example, when we are upset with a loved one, if we can for a moment, put aside our feelings, come out of ourselves and try to cross the bridge into our loved one’s mind and heart—trying to figure out what motivated he/she to upset us like this—it would make it so much easier to understand and to move toward forgiveness. Then we would begin to see that this bad behavior is not our loved one’s essence. It’s just our loved one trying to figure out how to survive and be safe in this world.


For example, if a husband continually badgers his wife about spending too much on clothes and household items—while there seems to be more than sufficient funds in the bank—perhaps it’s because earlier in his life he suffered financially and that fear still lingers. A wife who inappropriately blows up at her husband for not showing up when he said he would might have had parents who did that to her too often. When a loved one hurts us, it’s usually the suit, the levush, their fears that are responsible—and not their real essence. 


When we can cross the bridge into our loved one’s mind and heart, it allows our souls to be nourished and helps us transform from our survival suits (walk a few steps like a pretzel) to our true human essence—which is loving and forgiving. Forgiveness is often the key to freeing our true essence from the confines of our suits of armor.


I found a cute little piece called, “Install Love & Forgiveness,” written from a more modern prospective:

A man was having problems with a very sophisticated operating system and calls Technical Support. The tech asks: “Can you install Love?”

Customer: “I can do that. I’m not very technical, but I think I’m ready to install now. What do I do 1st?”

Tech: “The 1st step is to open your heart. Have you located your heart?”

Customer: “Yes, I have, but there are several programs running right now. Is it okay to install while they are running?”

Tech: “What programs are running?”

Customer: “Let me see? I have,, and running right now.”

Tech: “No problem. Love will automatically erase PastHurt from your current operating system. It may remain in your permanent memory, but it will no longer disrupt other programs. Love will eventually overwrite with a module of its own, called However, you have to completely turn off and Those programs prevent Love from being properly installed. Can you turn those off?”

Customer: “I don’t know how to turn them off. Can you tell me how?”

Tech: “My pleasure. Go to your Start menu and run Forgiveness—now execute. Do this as many times as necessary until and have been completely erased.”

Customer: “Okay, I’m done. Love has started installing itself automatically. Is that normal?”

Tech: “Yes, it is. You should receive a message that says it will reinstall for the life of your Heart”…“Now click on the following files and then copy them to your ‘My heart’ directory: ForgiveSelf, SelfEsteem, and Also, you need to delete “SelfCriticize” from all directories.”

Customer: “Got it! Wow! My Heart is filling up with really neat files. Smile.mpg is playing on my monitor right now, and it shows that, Peace& are copying themselves all over my Heart!”

Tech: “Love and Forgiveness are installed and running. You should be able to handle it from here.”


Forgiveness is the key—not only because on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we ask Gd to forgive us, and Gd will not forgive us for our sins until and unless we forgive each other.  Forgiveness is the key because when you forgive others, it helps unlock your true self. Also, science is now showing that there are other benefits as well.


An article in Newsweek highlighted research that suggests that forgiveness has major physical benefits: “It reduces the stress of bitterness, anger, hostility, hatred and resentment by reducing the level of cortisol—a hormone associated with impaired immune function.” The article goes on to also point out that, “Someone who nurses grudges and keeps track of every slight is likely to shed relationships and live shorter lives.” So you see, forgiveness is not only for the sake of the person who hurt you, it’s also a gift to yourself.


Sometimes the suits we wear are forever altered by life-changing trauma. Aimee Copeland from Snellville GA greeted America for the 1st time last Tuesday, standing tall using a walker, on Katie Couric’s new talk show, “Katie.” After a May zip-line accident introduced a rare flesh-decaying bacteria into her system, surgeons had to amputate her left leg, right foot and both hands to try to save her life. Now Copeland plans to get cracking soon on her master’s degree thesis. The segment on “Katie” showed her using her computer with voice commands and a stylus in her mouth and texting with her nose. She wants to work with other amputees, including veterans, and looks upon her ordeal as preparation.


What would your attitude toward life be in her circumstances? How many of us would resign to having our suits label us as an “amputee,” allowing others to take care of us for the rest of our lives? Not Aimee. She said, “I’ve been really blessed to see life through a different perspective…If we never struggle, we never grow…On the inside, I’m still the same person.” Through everything, Aimee stayed true to her real self.


In our congregation we also must remain true to ourselves. All of us have been so frustrated that we have not been able to grow our congregation and find a suitable home for it over the past several years. There has been one thing after another blocking our way—the most recent, obviously, is the difficult economy. It’s easy to hear the voices telling us, “You can’t do it.” Well I as your rabbi am here to tell you that we must not allow that to be our levush, our suit. We cannot allow the naysayers to define us. “We can do it and we will do it!” Just because we had to sell our property on North Druid Hills doesn’t mean we have to give up on our dream. It may not now look like there is a way, but Gd will help us and make a way—if we remain true to ourselves.


Shaarei Shamayim is a small—some might say an intimate—congregation. I know, how about calling it a boutique congregation—a small, but wonderful community that directly impacts the lives of its members? We need to take pride in who we are. We need to stop mourning the loss of our building project and build a community that matters. And as an update I should tell you that we are now looking into a real and much less expensive alternative location. We will let you know when we have more to tell. But for now, let’s not give up on our real selves.


Sometimes the suits we wear are altered by the life-changing decisions we make. There’s an old story of a middle aged woman who had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. While on the operating table she had a near-death experience. Seeing Gd, she asked, “Is my time up?”

            Gd answered, “No you have another 40 years to live.”

            Upon recovery, the woman—elated from her near-death experience with Gd—decided to make the most of the rest of her life. So she stayed in the hospital and had a facelift, liposuction and a tummy tuck. She even had someone come in and change her hair color. After her last operation, she was released from the hospital. While crossing the street on her way home, she was hit by a car and died. After arriving in heaven in front of Gd, she demanded, “I thought you said I had another 40 years to live?” Why didn’t you pull me out of the path of that car?

            Gd replied, “Gloria, was that you? I didn’t recognize you!”


Sometimes the bad decisions we make like taking drugs or being unfaithful to our spouses or not spending enough time with our family make our real selves—the inner you—unrecognizable.


One of the great culprits that hide’s our inner self is criticism. There’s the story of an elderly man who is stopped by the police around 2am and is asked where is he going at this time of night?

The man replies, “I am on my way to a lecture about alcohol abuse and the effects it has on the human body, as well as smoking and staying out late.”

The officer’s curiosity is aroused and he asks, “Really? Who is giving such a lecture at this time of night?”

The man replies, “My wife, of course!”


Criticism is a cancer that can slowly, but surely, ruin a marriage or scar a child for life. When you use harsh words, demeaning adjectives, or a sarcastic tone of voice, you literally strip your loved one’s core of self-confidence. It may make you feel better, but it comes with a big price. There aer times when people do need to hear the raw truth, but harping on about something or criticizing without compassion, support, and kindness will damage your relationship. So be careful how and when you criticize because it rarely has the desired effect and only makes your levush, your suit more twisted than it already is.


When you feel the urge to criticise, find something to praise first and then explain why this behaviour bothers you so much. Avoid using words like, “You always,” or “You never.”For example, instead of saying to your wife, “You’re always late. Whenever we have to go anywhere you’re never ready on time.” Say instead, “I know you have so much to take care of before we leave—making sure the children are taken care of, the dogs are walked and the school lunches are ready for tomorrow. I truly appreciate all that you do. You’re wonderful! But I get terribly embarrassed when we come late. It reminds me of how embarrassed I was when my parents were often late in taking me to school. So if you think you might be running late, let me know how I can help you.” Can you see the difference?


Or, instead of saying to your child who shows you her report card, “I see that you got all C’s and B’s, how come you didn’t get all A’s?” Say instead, “You got 3 B’s. That’s wonderful. You are so smart. I’ll bet if you try just a little harder next semester, you’ll get mostly A’s!”


Another way to allow our true essence to emerge is by doing soul-nourishing activities. My colleague, Rabbi Michael Gold, put it beautifully when he said that we need to realize that, “We are not only in Gd’s hands; in this world we are Gd’s hands!” Our hands can do horrifying things—commit terrible acts violence, rape and destruction. And our hands can be Gd’s hands—when they do acts of chesed, love and compassion. Acts of violence and destruction make our suits of armor into twisted pretzels—more and more impenetrable. Gdly acts of love and compassion, however, reveal our true essence. So look for opportunities to do acts of love and become Gd’s hands, making a difference in His world. Writing a check—although important—doesn’t count for this. You really have to do it. This will make you feel so alive and good about yourself as your true essence emerges. 


Let me read to you the story of Dr. Gary Reynolds who was called in for an emergency surgery.

When he arrived at the hospital the father of the patient yelled at him, “Why did you take all this time to come? Don’t you know that my son’s life is in danger? Don’t you have any sense of responsibility?”

The doctor just smiled and said, “I am sorry, I wasn’t in the hospital. I came as fast as I could after receiving the call…And now, I wish you’d calm down so that I can do my work.”

“Calm down?! What if your son was in this room right now, would you calm down?...Giving advice when we’re not concerned is so easy,” murmured the father.

The surgery took some hours after which the doctor came to him and said, “Thank goodness your son is saved! If you have any question, ask the nurse.” And he ran off.

“Why is he so arrogant? He couldn’t wait so that I could ask about my son’s condition?” said the father to the nurse.

The nurse answered with tears coming down her face, “His son died yesterday in a car accident. He was at the funeral when we called him for your son’s surgery. And now that he saved your son’s life, he left running for his son’s burial.”

Where most people would shield themselves, immersed in their own grief, this father wouldn’t miss the opportunity—even then—to be Gd’s hands in this world. 


And, as Jews, we must add one more path that will bring out your true essence: make Gd a part of your daily life. Make a set time everyday for at least 10 minutes to pray, meditate or just quietly talk to Gd. Perhaps, to one looking in from the outside Jewish life doesn’t always seem logical or rational. But for having a relationship with Gd, it works wonderfully. We don’t always know how or why all the parts of our cars work. But they do. Gd gave us the Torah—His factory authorized manual for how to have a relationship with Him. So in this New Year choose a new mitzvah or 2 and do it with enthusiasm, that more than anything will reveal the real you—and your children and grandchildren will see it. Here are 10 from a list by my colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg:

  • Come to shule for no reason! See how many people come over and ask if everything is okay. Make it once a month.
  • Come for Yizkor at the end of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. You’ll feel good and your parents will feel great.
  • Put a mezuzah not only on your front door but throughout the house. And while you’re at it, check the one that is on your front door. If you got it as a gift from your bank, you can be sure it’s not kosher.
  • Say the words, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad” every night before you go to sleep. It’s only 6 words.
  • This one’s my favorite: Stop emailing and texting on Shabbos. Who says so? Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google who told graduates at Boston University this year: “You can’t let technology rule you. Remember to take one hour a day and turn that thing offand look into the eyes of the person you love.” We call that “Shabbos.”
  • Help make a minyan Friday and Saturday nights.
  • Build a sukkah.
  • Light Shabbos candles. Women who do it say it is the most spiritual moment of their week.
  • Turn your kitchen kosher. Once and for all, “just do it!”
  • Buy and read a Jewish book. No, it may not be as exciting as 50 Shades of Grey, but you’ll learn a lot more from it.


When you step out of the shower and you look in the mirror, you can’t see yourself because the steam has fogged the mirror. Perhaps you can see your form, but the vision is distorted. But with just the wipe of a hand the real you is revealed undistorted. Because of our levush, our suit of armor, we appear distorted to people. Yet like the mirror with a simple swipe of the hand—when we use our hands to be Gd’s hands—our true essence comes forward. Connecting with Gd removes the fog. Connecting with Gd lets us know that we’re not alone, that we’re safe and that anything is possible. We all walk around with our suits of amour as if we just stepped out of the shower, not allowing others to see our true self. Rosh Hashanah is the time to readjust your suit to fit your real self— the beautiful you, the amazing you, the holy you, the loving you, the wonderful you, the compassionate you, the generous you—the you that’s an image of Gd. 


So today on Rosh Hashanah, let the piercing sound of the Shofar break through our levush, our twisted outer suits of armor, directly into our neshamas, our holy souls. Let’s do a real teshuva and return to our true selves by filling our relationships with the light of love and forgiveness, by surpassing the obstacles that life or we put in our path, by nourishing our souls by being Gd’s hands in this world and by drawing closer to Him by enthusiastically enriching our Jewish lives. It reminds me of the wonderful saying, (walk like a pretzel a few steps) “I used to be different (now stand up) and now I am the same.”


May we return to who we really are with love and forgiveness installed on our hearts. Shanah Tovah U’Metukah, may we all have a good, sweet, healthy and meaningful New Year. Amen!


                                    Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

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