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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Three Days, Three Lessons

 This year the High Holidays have been so different, yet they have been so meaningful. When we are faced with the unexpected, we tend to look deeper inside ourselves, and in those experiences, we tend to find little life messages.

Year after year, we come to synagogue and go through the motions; some years we are more inspired than others. This year though, to be inspired while sitting in a tent at the Chabad Center, requires much more effort.  One really needs to pay attention to the words being read, to the theme of the Torah portion being chanted, and to the songs being sung, to really get in the mood.

If you pay attention to the Torah reading, you will notice that the first day’s portion is about Abraham and Sara. On the surface, we read this section of the Torah since they had difficulty having children and they were blessed with a child on Rosh Hashana.

On the second day we read about the binding of Isaac and how he was saved by a ram. We read this because of the message to be ready to give up one’s life for G-d, as well as because the Shofar comes from a ram. 

However, upon deeper reflection, one can say that the first day is about Abraham and the second day is about Isaac. What is the difference between these two men?

 

Abraham taught us to recognize G-d as the creator of the universe. Once we recognize G-d as creator, we want G-d to become our king. Abraham traveled all over the land and beyond to spread this message, letting every person know that there is a G-d in the world that needs to be reckoned with.  

Isaac takes this message one step further. He internalizes it and makes it personal. G-d is not only the king of the world, G-d is “my king;” what does G-d want from me? Isaac busies himself uncovering the wells of knowledge, fulfilling G-d’s wishes, but he never goes far from home. He stays in the Holy Land of Israel, not venturing away from the source of G-d’s wisdom and blessings. He never shakes off the yoke of heaven.

We can say that this is the essence of Rosh Hashana, recognizing G-d as our creator and trying to come closer to Him. To become one with G-d.

What then is the meaning of Yom Kippur? 

Well, let us see what Jacob, the third of our patriarchs, can teach us. How can one connect to someone else? By doing what the other wants. How can someone connect to someone else’s essence? Learn how they think. G-d gave us the Torah, G-d’s wisdom, G-d’s essence. When we learn Torah, we are connecting to G-d’s essence. Jacob was known for being a “man of the tent” because he spent years studying Torah in a tent. Is it a coincidence that we are spending this year’s High Holidays in a tent?  What better way to connect to Jacob this Yom Kippur? Now more than ever before, you can join a Torah class – virtually – at any time live on Zoom, or a pre-recorded class on our website. The choices are endless. 

Now that we are spending more time at home, let’s take advantage of our time, and make the connection with G-d the way Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did.

G’mar Chatima Tova!

The Long Short Way

Once a man came to a fork in the road, and not knowing which was the quickest way to town, he asked a child sitting nearby for directions. The child quipped, “This way is the short but long way, and that way is the long but short way.” The man went the shorter way and quickly found himself at the wall of the city, but found he was unable to enter. He made an about-face, and hurried back to the child and said, “Why did you say that this was the short road to town?” The child responded, “I said it was the short but long road!” And he went on to explain, “Once you get there easily, you cannot get in; you have to come back and go the long way around. However, you can also take the long but shorter way. Although up front it is long, once you get there, you are in the city, without any obstacles in the way.”

This story is the story of our lives. We look for success instantaneously—if not now, then at least as soon as possible. Even when it comes to COVID testing, we not only want a “rapid test” that gives results in 15-20 minutes (vs. a few days), we want the answer even quicker than that. We do not want an answer to the pandemic tomorrow, we wanted it yesterday.  


More importantly, we want G-d to make sense to us, we want to understand. We also want to have faith to rely on when logic will not do. We want it all. How do we achieve it? Are we being unreasonable? After all, it is Rosh Hashana in just another week and we are faced with yet another dilemma: how do we observe the holiday this year? Do we go to shul? Do we stay and pray all alone? How do we guarantee that the holiday and the prayers are meaningful?  

Fear not. Not only does the Torah address these concerns, it does so in this week’s Torah portion. The verse says: “The word is near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, so that you can fulfil it.” The verse is emphasizing that to be close to G-d there is a three-step process. Speech, feelings, and action.  What does this mean? 

First and foremost, a person must spend time learning, reading, studying, and asking questions. One must build their knowledge base. Without this foundation it is difficult to get to the next point in our life, which is to develop the feelings in our heart. If we want to become emotional, to have feelings for G-d and for Judaism, and to make our prayers heartfelt, it cannot happen in a vacuum. We have to invest our energy and time. That is why the words “in your heart” follows after “in your mouth”—only after we have studied and incorporated the ideas into our minds, creating an intellectual attachment, can we strengthen our faith-based connection as well. However, it cannot stop there. 

It is important to bring our intellect and emotions into action. It is within our behavior, our consistent conduct, that we see what commitment really means. Our lives have ups and downs; reason alone cannot carry through every day, some days we need faith. Faith alone is at times not enough; we want answers. However, it is the reliability of our actions, of the daily Mitzvot that we perform that ultimately clinches our connection, the routine of our daily life, perhaps even the monotonousness of it all, that merges faith and reason together as one. 

During the week before Rosh Hashana we start prepping for the Big Day. By reciting Selichot, we want to get in the zone, so that when the day comes, we are ready. 

Plan ahead, be ready in time. 


Politically Unbiased

 The political conventions were a time for each party to get their messages out. A time to exchange ideas, ideologies, and argue over the future needs of our country. Instead, the primary message was – from both parties – the other party and its leadership are not able to lead, why each party thinks that they are better. Our country had, and always will have, two major political parties, so it is not new that we have differences of opinions. However, such an animosity that one party has toward another, is sad.   

 

I recently heard a senator describe the political scene in America today as a “Civil War of Words.” 

 

As a Rabbi I walk in the middle. I am politically unbiased; I avoid taking sides. Yet many see this as a cop-out. The more heated people get with their views the more they want me “in their camp,” and when I don’t join, even if I am on “their side,” they still have a difficult time with me.

 

This week’s Torah portion explains why taking that middle-of-the-road stance is an “active decision,” not an inactive one.

 

The Torah says to “walk in G-d’s way.” What does it mean to walk in G-d’s way? Maimonides explains that this means that we should act like G-d. Just as G-d is kind, so should we be kind. For example, we should visit the sick, help the poor, give charity, etc. Just as G-d has compassion, so we too, should be compassionate, and the list goes on.

 

Here is a question for you: G-d already commanded us to help the poor, give charity, visit the sick, etc. What does this statement “walk in G-d’s ways” add to what we already know?

 

The Torah is telling us what kind of attitude to have while we are performing these actions. You see, we can perform an act without any feelings – simply out of an obligation, or out of self-aggrandizing – such as, “I visit the sick.” The feeling, the heart, that should go into the action, however, is lost. G-d is telling us to perform this act, “the same way as I do it.” Do it for the sake of the recipient, not for yourself. Do it selflessly.

 

Walking in G-d’s way means that you take a step back and view the world from G-d’s perspective; you see the big picture, and you don’t get caught up in the little things. You care about everyone, without judgment. You don’t help only those who agree with you politically, but not those who don’t. You decide to be unbiasedly kind.

 

There are so many distractions these days that it becomes difficult for us to separate the message from the messenger. However, if we can distance ourselves a little bit, and stand above the fray to take G-d’s view of the world, we will be able to walk in G-d’s way and get along with our neighbor—even if we don’t see eye to eye on every matter. Because in the big picture, what matters more than anything else in the world is that we “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” 

 

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.

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