Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Torah Thoughts

This was a really good Rosh Hashanah. It had a slow start but I really hit my stride and feel like I connected with the day and its various messages, so I'm feeling pretty good about that. During the last few days, I developed a couple of ideas that I wanted to commit to virtual paper.

The first was inspired by the speech the rabbi gave in shul yesterday. He started off with a story and as I listened to it, I thought to myself, "that's nice but it could be so much more powerful if only it went like this..." So I am writing this up as "Inspired by a true speech which included a probably apocryphal story which I will make more apocryphal by inventing half of it."

There was a tradition that, after the end of the sabbath, people in the small community of New Square would line up to wish the Rebbe a good week and receive a blessing from him. The practice was so popular that the lines grew and grew. Even past 2 AM the line still snaked outside of the Rebbe's office as people waited nervously to shake the great sage's hand. On the line was a young man, new to the community who was looking forward to his first meeting with the Rebbe. He was scared. He had run home after services and cleaned himself up. He put on a freshly laundered shirt, straightened his hat and sharpened the crease on his spotless, black pants. And he waited. As he waited, he heard stories of the piety of the Rebbe and his works. He heard about the miracles which seemed to have been inspired by the Rebbe's wishes and the intuition and intellect which the man exhibited, presenting insight into character and understanding into text which amazed Jews everywhere.

As his turn approached he began to sweat. The sweat was not so much that there would be any stains, but enough to make the young man self conscious. He wanted to present himself as a paradigm of youthful idealism and religiosity. He had studied and was prepared to discuss topics if asked by the Rebbe. He had learned in yeshiva for many years and had also secured himself a job which would make him a good shidduch possibility and a provider, willing to give charity back to the community. But he was scared. He had prepared what he would say, down to the comma, practicing for hours at home. He wanted it to be perfect.

Slowly, each person in front of him entered the Rebbe's presence and the young man moved forward. Finally, at 3:30 AM, it was his turn. He was tired and scared, visibly shaking as the door opened. The Rebbe sat across the room, radiant and full of life. He beckoned for the young man to come forward. As he did, the man saw himself in the mirror.

He stopped and stared at himself. Slowly, he began to cry. Small tears, leading to uncontrolled sobs as he broke down in front of that mirror. The Rebbe was (and this does not happen often) speechless. He rose, and crossed over to the young man who was sitting on the floor, weeping. He held the man for a few moments and calmed him. He joined the man on the floor and stayed with him while the tears passed and he said, "My son -- please, don't be frightened. I want you to feel welcome and comfortable asking of me. What can I do for you and how can I help ease whatever pain you are in?" The young man, on the verge of tears at the magnanimity of the Rebbe finally caught his breath and said, "Rebbe, I came in here to ask your blessing, I wanted to ask you for success, a wife, health; I wanted you to be happy with who I am and who I can become. I wanted to ask your for your support so that I can be somebody." The Rebbe paused (a bit humbled maybe by the faith the young man had in him), and slowly said, "OK, so nu? Why all the crying?"

The Young man said, "Rebbe, I saw myself in the mirror -- I recognized all the effort I made just for this one meeting and I feel ashamed! I realize that there is only one thing I should be asking you blessing which is the only one that matters because it is the only one I now understand I really need. And I feel like a fool for wanting any other!"

There was a silence as the young man worked up the strength to ask.

"Rebbe, please give me the ability to care as much and to work as hard to perfect my look, my manner, and my speech before I approach the King of Kings, God himself, during my daily prayers, as I have before meeting another human being to ask for a favor!"

And now it was the Rebbe's turn to cry.

The second one is a more traditional Torah thought but with a similar theme:

We spend much of our time looking for a way to connect with Hashem. Back in the olden days, the path was laid out for us. Grab an animal, deliver it to the temple authority, and you can please God, find some absolution, feed the poor, celebrate a holiday...what have you. Agricultural tithes or animal sacrifice (or a meal offering, depending on your net worth) was the prescribed method of fulfilling the obligation to serve Hashem. It wasn't easy, but hey, it was sacrifice. You took the best of what you had, what you had paid for, worked for and striven to achieve, and you gave it over to show that what is yours really isn't yours. The message was good and the means was relevant and powerful.

But all that changed when the temple was destroyed. Since the beit hamikdash's destruction almost 2000 years ago, this avenue for religious fulfillment has been closed to us. So how can we now achieve the kind of connection? The prophet Hoshea says (14:3) Uneshalma parim sefateinu -- the bulls (sacrifices) will be completed by our lips. The avodah, the sacrificial service, is to be replaced by the avodah shebalev, the "work of the heart" which is prayer.

Huh? How is this supposed to work? Do I have to read the portions related to sacrifice so my relating them is as if I completed them? Some say yes, which is why we have the section of korbanot in our daily morning and musaf prayers. But I don't think that this is what it means (at least not exclusively).

The word "korban" (sacrifice) actually has 2 identities. As it is usually translated, it means "sacrifice," the loss of something of value for a greater purpose. Its other meaning though, stems from its root k-r-v, coming closer. The sacrifice is designed to foster an approaching to God, a nearness with the divine. Does just saying the words of the sacrificial service do that?

I teach in a high school. Watching most high school students daven is maddening. They don't always seem to value to opportunity to petition, recognize, and thank Hashem for what is all around us. We speak of daily miracles but they simply don;t see things that are miraculous. And most of all, they would rather be doing something else. We live in an amazing time -- we have technology, we have cuisine, we have entertainment. We have all sorts of things that vie for our attention and reward us.

What do we have of value that we can sacrifice in order to bring about closeness? Money? We give charity and this does help to some degree. But when we throw our pocket change into a box, what are we sacrificing? If I really wanted that slice of pizza, would I be dropping the quarters in the pushke? Probably not. But I have one thing that I can never get back and that I value incredibly highly: time.

This is the commodity of daily life. This is what I value and I demand others value: my time. I live by the school bell and the schedule. My TV shows are scheduled. My football team races the clock to get down field. My microwave has me stare at it while the timer counts down to zero because the three minutes and 32 seconds that it takes to reheat that potato must be abided by to the second. Time.

Davening requires that I stop what I am doing and give up my time. It requires that I put other things on hold and take the one precious commodity that I can't bank and simply hand it over to God. It isn't a cow, or a bird, or corn, or money. It isn't replenishable. And in the middle of a busy day, it isn't convenient. On Rosh Hashanah, it isn't easy to sit around for hours in shul. On Yom Kippur, this means sacrificing an entire day -- I can go to work and not eat, but that's not what this is about. Hashem wants me to lose the only thing that I have a finite amount of with no hope of extending.

And when I realize that this is the sacrifice that I have to be willing to make -- that my tefillah is SUPPOSED to take time because it isn't just the words I say, but the fact that I am willing to make the gesture of losing my place in the rat race that is the world to set aside minutes to say those words, any words, which allows me to become closer to the divine. The avodah shebalev is SUPPOSED to be work, not easy and not simple. The heart has to be in it and has to ache at the missing minutes which could be spent elsewhere. The loss should lead to a gain, but if I avoid the loss by zooming through the prayers or not spending the time it should take to say them with thought, then how can I expect to earn the gain of connection with Hashem?

I hope that as we enter any prayer situation, we take an extra moment or two to realize that we are making an important sacrifice, and that we should value our decision to give of ourselves so that our prayers can be that same sacrificial loss as those bulls were in the temple, and they can lead to the same resting of the shechina in our mikdash me'at.

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