SHABBAT SHUVA 5778
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells the story about a woman who came into his office to tell him that she had lost her father, but couldn't make the daily minyan to recite kaddish. She wanted to know what she should do. Rabbi Riskin suggested that just as the kaddish provides comfort with its link to the past, perhaps she would like to begin lighting Shabbos candles which are also connections to our tradition. When she would light the Shabbos candles, she could think of her father and it would be a reminder to the rest of the family as well. The reaction he received to this suggestion was surprising. She said, “Every Friday night we take the car to visit my sister. Do you want us to become hypocrites?”
The woman felt that she could not light candles on Friday night because she didn’t observe Shabbos. And if she did, it would be the height of hypocrisy. And then the woman went on with her protest: “Rabbi, after we visit my sister, we all go to eat stone crabs in Chinatown. And you’re asking for candles? You might as well tell us to join Hypocrites Anonymous.” The vehemence of her response is certainly unusual but not the reference to hypocrite. Just like Rabbi Riskin, I have often heard the word, “hypocrite” applied when someone starts explaining why he or she can’t possibly do a certain mitzvah or to come to shul.
It’s like the story of the rabbi who, when he encourages someone to join the shul he is told, “I can’t go to your shul. There are so many hypocrites there.”
To which the rabbi responded, “Don’t worry, there’s always room for one more!”
But that woman was wrong and we are wrong when we brand as hypocrites people who choose to perform one mitzvah while ignoring others—even all others. 1st of all, let’s get straight what a hypocrite is. It’s someone who publicly claims he or she is one thing but then does something else. For instance, a person who claims he is 100% kosher, but then sneaks off 30 miles out of Atlanta to gorge on BBQ ribs is a hypocrite. While a person who says, “I keep kosher in my home but not outside” is not a hypocrite. Those who observe the Passover Seder, but wouldn’t know from Shavuot or Tisha b’Av are not hypocrites. They’re observing their tradition in part. The most we could say is that they’re being somewhat inconsistent. But as the saying goes, “The only truly consistent person is a dead one.”
Judaism is not an all-or-nothing religion—never was. The Lubavitch Chassidim—who are as close to consistently religiously observant as you can get—teach one mitzvah at a time, one new observance at a time. Try lighting Shabbos candles and when it becomes part of your life, perhaps try not eating pork. One Lubavitch Chassid who, on Sukkot, went to visit 2 hospital patients sharing the same room suggested they both make a blessing over the etrog and lulav. The one with the yarmulke on his head looked askance at his neighbor, “Why bother him for nothing? He doesn’t even fast on Yom Kippur.”
The Lubavitch Chassid turned to the one with the yarmulke, smiled and said, Let me tell you something, my friend. According to tradition, the 613 commandments in the Bible all correspond to features of the human anatomy. The 248 positive commandments correspond to the internal organs and the 365 negative commandments correspond to limbs. Now, if you’re missing one eye, do you blind the other? If you don’t have use of the left hand, would anyone think of saying you don’t need the right? On the contrary. You have an even greater need for the other limb or organ, and so it is with the commandments. The fulfillment of any one of them brings its own blessings and rewards.
I sometimes think that one of the things that prevents people from starting to do any kind of Jewish observance is that they fear it’s too difficult…and that if they do one thing, they must do everything else or they’ll be seen as hypocrites. The Torah anticipated this in last week’s Torah reading: “Surely these mitzvot that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it far away. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ . . . No, the teaching is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.”
It may appear to be very difficult, but it’s not. It does, however, take some time and some commitment. People open up a prayer book and see the Hebrew and believe that it’s beyond them—impossible. Yet we know that if an 8-year-old can learn to read Hebrew, so can an 80-year-old. People say that a Shabbat experience is just too difficult. But all it takes is the lighting of 2 candles, a nicely set table, some wine and challah and a few easy blessings which an 8-year-old can easily memorize.
The Sages (Avot 4:2) teach: Mitzvah goreret mitzvah (The doing of one mitzvah leads to another). So what’s the problem? The answer I get most frequently is that it’s just too difficult to change life styles. “Rabbi, I never lit candles in my life. It’s too difficult to start doing it now. We rarely sit together for a meal. It’s too difficult to change our life styles.” Well, perhaps your family would be much better off if they sat down for a meal together at least once a week, and why not make it a Shabbos meal?
It reminds me of a famous story about the Kotzker Rebbe. He was teaching about teshuvah (change, returning). This Shabbat is, of course, Shabbat Shuva (the Sabbath of returning, of repentence). The Rebbe asked his students a question which sounded at 1st to be extremely mystical and difficult: “What is the distance between East and West?” Tremendous question, isn’t it?
One student said, “A million miles.” Another multiplied a million by a million and a 3rd proudly proclaimed “infinity,” convinced that he had hit upon the right answer. So what is it—a million miles, infinity?
The Kotzker Rebbe looked at his students and said, “The distance between east and west is nothing more than turning around.”
A modern, never-Bar Mitzvahed Jew, educated at Harvard Law School, decided to take a course in the laws of the Shabbat—it took only a small turn. A young Jewish mother, who never had the benefit of a Jewish education, wishes to have that Bat Mitzvah her parents deprived her of—it only takes one small turn.
There is nothing esoteric about Judaism, nothing secret. It’s not in the heavens; it’s not for angels; it’s for us human beings who are terribly and sometimes even foolishly inconsistent. The real hypocrisy lies with those who are inconsistent in so many other areas of their lives, but suddenly demand perfect consistency when it comes to Jewish living. It’s really nothing more than an excuse not to change.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about change, about returning. They’re about new directions, new approaches, new relationships. They’re about repairing old relationships and strengthening old commitments. They teach us the most basic of all lessons about life and change and that is: If you are facing west and you desire at this point in your life to try facing east…all you have to do is turn around.
We conclude the Torah service, Hasiveynu Hashem eylecha v’nashuva (Help us turn to You, Hashem, and we shall return). Maybe that’s why we face east when we pray. It shows us how easy it is to change direction and bring more Jewish tradition into our lives—we just turn and face east and a new world of opportunities opens to us.
Let’s use this time between Rosh Hashanah and Kippur to turn a bit toward Gd and Torah so that our lives will be infused with meaning and purpose. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis