Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat in Israel, writes about when he was rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, a woman once 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. Her reaction to this suggestion was most interesting: “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 come to shul or do a particular mitzvah.

But that woman was wrong and we are wrong when we brand as hypocrites people who choose to perform one mitzvah while ignoring most others—or even all others. 1st of all, let’s get straight what a hypocrite is. It is 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 to gorge on shrimp cocktails in out-of-the way restaurants 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 don’t know from Shavuot or Tisha b’Av are not hypocrites. They are 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 Lubavitcher Chassidim who are as close to consistently religiously observant as you can get teach one mitzvah at a time. A Lubavitcher Chassid on Sukkot went to a hospital to fulfill the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick). He visited 2 Jews sharing a room—one secular and the other religious. He suggested they both make a bracha over the etrog and lulav. The one with the yarmulke on his head looked askance at his neighbor, “Why bother with him? He doesn’t even fast on Yom Kippur!”

          The Lubavitcher 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—‘thou shall not’ 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 prevent people from starting to do any kind of Jewish observance is that they fear if they do one thing, they must do many others or they’ll be seen as hypocrites. The Torah itself anticipated this possibility in last week’s Torah reading: “Surely this Torah which enjoin you this day is not too hard 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 observe it.”

It may appear to be very difficult, but it’s not. It does take some time and commitment but it’s not too difficult. People open up a prayer book and see the Hebrew and believe it’s beyond them—impossible. Yet we know that people can learn to read Hebrew by coming to class once a week for a few months and practicing an hour or 2 at home. 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 even a 5-year-olds can memorize.

So it’s not hypocritical to observe something while not observing others. In fact it might even lead to the performing of other mitzvot. The Talmud (Avot 4:2) teaches: 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 never sat together for a Friday night meal. It’s too difficult to change our life styles.”

It reminds me of a famous story about the Kotzker Rebbe. He was teaching about the notion of teshuva—change, repentance, returning. He began by asking his students a question which sounded at 1st to be extremely mystical and difficult: “How far is East from West?” Tremendous question—isn't it? One student said, “24,000 miles, the circumference of the earth.” Another said, “A million miles.” And a 3rd proudly proclaimed “infinity.” 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 that turning around.”

We are now in the throes of the Aseret Y’mey Teshuva (10 Days of Repentance) between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s the time to seriously consider a change in our lives—returning to who we were meant to be. It’s a time for new directions, new approaches, new relationships. It’s a time to repair old relationships and strengthen old commitments. It’s a time to really get 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!

Your shul is here to help you do that—with our Shabbat and holiday observances, our adult education classes and Torah Scholars Institute. Remember how we just concluded the Torah service? Hashiveynu Hashem eylecha v’nashuva (Turn us turn unto You, Hashem, and we shall return). Maybe this is another reason why we face east when we pray—besides facing Jerusalem. It shows us how easy it is to change direction and bring some of our religious traditions into our lives. We just turn and face east and a new world of opportunities opens to us.

My friends, on this Shabbat Shuva—this Sabbath of Repentance—as Yom Kippur approaches, make a deal with Gd; make a commitment, a positive turn towards Gd and His Torah by adding one new mitzvah observance into your life. Take a moment now and think about what it will be. Now close your eyes and commit to it…Know that your life will be enriched by this commitment and that Gd will consider it as He contemplates forgiving our sins on Yom Kippur. Amen! 

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