Shaarei Shamayim

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Rosh Hashanah is only 4 days away. Can you believe it? Are you ready? I know I’m not—not yet! And that’s why I think our tradition always has the Torah portion of Nitzavim read the Shabbos before Rosh Hashanah. It begins with Moses standing on the banks of the Jordan river giving his last words of wisdom to his people who are about to cross over into a new life and a new land. This week we all stand on the edge of the old year getting ready to cross the threshold into a New Year. 

We’ve only got 4 days left. Beyond the cooking and cleaning, how do we get ourselves ready for Rosh Hashanah? Let me begin by asking you to take a few minutes in the next 4 days and count up all that was good in your life in the year that’s almost over, and then think about what you want to do, and what it is that you want to be, in the New Year that will soon begin. 

Let me explore with you 3 questions that I think we need to think about when a New Year begins and then let me suggest some possible answers to them from 3 stories and a teaching:

          1. Where are we? And what are we doing with our days?  2. What do we weigh today? And how much do we want to weigh a year from now? Not physically...but emotionally.

          3. How can we find Gd?

The 1st story is found in the old Hebrew textbooks that were commonly used in the cheders of pre-WWII Europe. It’s somewhat silly, but the end has a powerful message:

          Once there was a man who was very forgetful. When he woke up in the morning, he could never remember where he had put his things the night before. One night, he worked out a plan. He took a pencil and a pad of paper, and as he got undressed, he wrote down exactly where he put his clothes. Then, the next morning, when he woke up, he took the piece of paper and read the list. “My cap is on the dresser”...he went over to the dresser, and sure enough, there it he put it on, and made a checkmark on the pad of paper.

          Then he looked at the paper again. And it said, “My pants are on the chair,” and so he went to the chair, and there they were... so he put them on, and made a check on the paper... And so it went until he was fully dressed. And then he said, “This is fine...but where am I?” He looked and he looked, but he could not find himself. 

That, it seems to me, in one sentence, is the purpose of the High Holy Days. It’s the time in which we try to find ourselves—our real selves—not the mask that we show to other people, but our real selves, the selves that we should be, the selves that we could be...the selves that so easily get lost in all the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.

So ask yourself today, “Where am I in this world? And what am I doing with my days? And if I am wasting my life...if I am frittering away my days on this earth…who am I fooling besides myself?”

The 2nd  story is one of my favorite Shlomo Carlebach stories. Shlomo came to America as a teenager from Austria. He came as a refugee from Nazi persecution, and he became a great folk singer and spiritual teacher. He traveled all over the world, giving concerts and teaching Torah to Jews and non-Jews. Every so often, he would go back to Austria and Germany and give a concert there. Someone once asked him, “How can you go back there? How can you give concerts there to gladden their hearts? After what they did to you and your family, don’t you hate them?”

          Shlomo’s answer was so beautiful. He said, “If I had 2 souls, I would devote one, full time, to hating them, but I don’t. I only have one soul, and so I am not going to waste it on hating.”

Isn’t that a wonderful response? I tell you this story on this Shabbos before Rosh Hashana because I believe that it speaks—not only about Jews and Germans—it speaks to all the hatreds and all the grudges that we carry around inside of us—that weigh us down. And so I ask you: What do you weigh now and how much do you want to weigh next year at this time?

What Shlomo Carlebach says to us is, “Enough already! Isn’t it time to say, ‘I don’t need this anymore. I don’t need to shlep this baggage around within me, into the New Year. I’m going to forgive, or, if I can’t do that, then I’m going to forget...not because the person who hurt me deserves it—he doesn’t…but because the person who hurt me doesn’t deserve to have so much power over my life. That person doesn’t deserve the power to turn me into a hate-ridden human being.’” 

Doesn’t that make sense? If it does, then let us make one New Year’s resolution to leave at least one grudge behind as we enter the New Year, because what do we need it for? And what good does it do us? And who does it hurt when we hate? Drop it, and you will weigh much less inwardly, as you enter the New Year. You will look better and you will feel better.


And the last question is the question that underlies all our questions. How can we find Gd? To put it in Rosh Hashanah terms, how do we do teshuva, how do we repent and uncover our true neshama, our eternal soul which is attached to Gd? Sometimes we get so lost that, surprisingly enough, Gd finds us. Let me read you a story about Elie Wiesel that begins in Saragossa, Spain, and ends in Jerusalem:

          In 1990 Elie Wiesel visited Saragossa. Like most tourists, he visited the sites as well as the impressive cathedral. While walking through the Church, a man approached him speaking French and offered to be his guide. In the course of their conversation, it came out that Wiesel was Jewish and spoke Hebrew.

          The man exclaimed: “I’ve never met a Jewish person before, but I have something I have to show you. Maybe you can tell me what it is.” The men walked to the Spaniard’s apartment, and when they arrived, he took out an old manuscript. “Is this Hebrew?” the man asked, “My family has passed it down for generations. We were told that if it were destroyed, we would bring a curse on our family.”

          In fact, it was Hebrew and it was almost 500 years old. Wiesel began to tremble as he read the document. Slowly he translated it for his host: “I, Moshe Ben Avraham, forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children and theirs, in order that on the day when Israel will be able to walk again, it’s head held high under the sun without fear or remorse, they will know where their roots lie. Written in Saragossa, the 9th of Av, in the year of punishment and exile. [which was 1492]

          “What’s the meaning of this document?” asked the alarmed Spaniard, who had assumed it was some kind of amulet. The man knew nothing about the history of Spanish Jewry or the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. In fact, until that moment he considered being called “Judeo” an insult. As Wiesel told him the story of our people, his eyes grew wider and wider.

          Wiesel and the man parted ways and it was not until a few years later that Wiesel understood what had happened that day. While visiting Jerusalem Wiesel was accosted on the street by a stranger. In broken Hebrew he said, “Mr. Wiesel: Shalom! Don’t you recognize me? Saragossa!” It was his guide.

          Once again, the man from Saragossa invited Wiesel back to his apartment, explaining as they walked how he had come to Israel, studied about Judaism, and returned to the religion of his ancestors. When they entered the apartment, Wiesel knew why they had come. On the wall hung the old document he had read years before. As Wiesel studied it again, the man smiled and said: “I haven’t told you my new name: Moshe ben Avraham.”

Yes, sometimes we get so lost that Gd finds us. Our stories many not be as dramatic as Moshe ben Avraham, but in so many, often subtle ways, Gd reaches out to all of us in our lives to get us to notice and to appreciate Him. It may be the terrible car accident that you walk away from without a scratch, a new job or promotion that you weren’t expecting or a recovery from a serious illness. Gd is intimately involved in our lives in so many ways. We just have to pay attention to find Him.  

Another way to find our way back to Gd is through relationships. The Hebrew word for love is ahavah. Its gematria, numerical value, is Aleph 1+ Hey 5+ Bet 2+ Hey 5 = 13. The 4-letter name of Gd that we pronounce Ado-nai or Hashem that’s spelled, Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, has a numerical value of 26 (Yud is 10, Hey is 5, Vav is 6, and Hey is 5 = 26). The sages teach: “Whenever you have 2 13’s together...whenever 2 people love each other; whenever a person gives love and receives love...there, Gd is present.” It doesn’t matter if it’s a spouse or a family member or a friend. 2 13’s together equals 26.

What the sages were saying was that if people are selfish and self-centered, they drive Gd out of the world. And that if people give and receive love, they increase Gd’s presence in the world. Gd is to be found in the space between 2 people who love each other. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Hebrew word for that sacred space, Makom, is also one of Gd’s names. So, do you want to find Gd? Begin with those nearest and dearest to you. Tell them before the New Year begins how much you love them and how much you appreciate having them in your life. Then go out and do something for them that will make them feel loved—and, again, do it before Rosh Hashanah so that you can begin the New Year closer to them and to Gd.

So here are my 3 stories and a teaching. One that raises the question: “Where are we? And what are we doing with our days?” One that raises the question, “What do we need to hate for? And, what good does it do to hate?  And, whom does it hurt when we hate?” And one that raises the question, “Where is Gd and How do we find him?” 

I offer you these 3 questions to think about this Shabbos before Rosh Hashana, or at any time when the soul wants to speak. May Gd bless us in our search. Shanah Tova Tichateyvu V’teychateymu, May Gd inscribe and seal you and yours, and all of us, for a good, sweet, healthy and a happy New Year. Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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