Testing Our Jewish Limits
This Dvar Torah was written by Rabbi David Abramowitz, Executive Director of the Jewish Leadership Institute.
I was about 16 years’ old when my father walked into my room one Shabbat afternoon holding his stomach. He groaned, “Do we have Kaopectate?” Before I could answer he told me that the regular Torah reader at his synagogue was on vacation so he had been chanting the Torah at services. But he had a terrible stomach ache and wasn’t up to it for Mincha, the afternoon service. I would have to do it. So I learned the Torah portion in the few hours I had to prepare and chanted it.
Did my father really have a debilitating stomach ache? Those of you who knew him have a knowing smile on your face.
It’s a cute story, but then again it’s not. It can teach us a great deal about how we should approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Let’s look at the story more closely.
What was my father trying to accomplish? I had learned how to chant the Torah for my Bar Mitzvah a few years earlier. But he wanted to see if I had retained the skill. He wanted me to put it into practice. He wanted to test me, and have me test myself, under pressure. Why the Kaopaectate gambit? He knew that if he asked me in a straightforward manner I would go all teenager on him and refuse. So he used a stratagem a/k/a/ ruse to push me towards his goal. He thought it was important enough to improve myself Jewishly that he told a little white lie.
What are the lessons from my side of the story? On the simplest level, I did what was asked of me. But it’s not that simple. Psychiatrist Gordon Livingston, in his book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, distills his decades of counseling into 30 key insights for a healthy life. One of them is: feelings follow behavior. We spend too much time seeking the feelings we want, searching for the type of person we want to be. But we’ll never be unless we do. I didn’t know it at the time, but my father was implanting a small seed of Jewish feeling in me by making me behave Jewishly.
There is something else that I did know at the time. I complained that there wasn’t enough time for me to learn the Torah reading. But learn it I did and thereby learned that I could stretch my personal and Jewish limits.
The story is a blueprint for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Starting at the beginning, we have to determine our goals, what we want to accomplish. The hard part is that my father did that in the story and we have to play his role ourselves. We do that by asking ourselves two questions. First, what is important in life? No, the question really is: what is truly, deeply, inalterably important in life? Second, what do we have to do to live that life? No, the question really is: What do we have to do to live the most meaningful life we can? Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, filled with prayer, readings, sermons, singing and fasting, create an environment that allows us to laser-focus on these questions. Judaism gives us this gift of tuning out our noisy world that runs roughshod over meaning and granting us a small amount of time to ponder what really matters.
The other part of the story is me doing something: chanting the Torah. Here our tradition itself is laser-focused. The New Year is the time we’re meant to change, and that only occurs when we change what we do. Maimonides’ classic description of teshuvah, repentance, has three components. The final step, after recognizing what we’ve done wrong, is finding ourselves in the same problematic situation and acting differently. No change in behavior - no repentance. Paraphrasing Livingston, the feeling of repentance follows the behavior of repentance.
You may have noticed that I skipped a part of the story. Where’s the Kaopectate? Where is it on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? It’s the shofar. The shofar is our Kaopectate. Even I can’t believe I wrote that. But it’s substantively true. For thousands of years the shofar blasts have been our wakeup call. They are meant to do for us exactly what my father’s Kaopectate challenge did for me: push us to make new Jewish commitments. On the spot. No wiggle room.
On this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we hear the shofar, we should resolve to test our Jewish limits. Then go and test them.
I wish you and your family a Happy and Healthy New Year.