A Divine Embrace

It was the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, British athlete Derek Redmond took his mark as a favourite to medal in the 400 meter sprint.   The starter’s gun fires, and they’re off.  150 meters into the race Derek felt a searing pain in his leg.  In agony, he fell to the ground, he had torn his hamstring.

His dream of medaling turned into a nightmare. After laying on the ground for a brief moment, Derek, not willing to give up was determined to finish the race.  He got himself up and staggered forward.  Meter after meter hobbled in unbearable pain.

All of a sudden a man from the stands broke through security and rushed towards Derek, waving off officials as he approached.  He put his arm around him helping him keep his balance.  After a couple of meters, Derek looks up, it was his father.

“You don’t have to do this,” he told his son.

“Yes, I do,” he replied.

“Well then, we’re going to finish this together!”

Together father and son continued.

Just before Derek arrived at the finish line, his father let him go to complete the race receiving a standing ovation from a crowd of over 65,000.

From Tisha B’Av, through the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana, Aseret Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur, we have been immersed in self-reflection and contemplation.  Where have I been, where am I, and where do I want to be?  How have I acted, how am I acting, and how do I want to act in the future?  Who was I, who am I and who do I want to be?

Personal growth is a rewarding, yet painful process at times.  We’ve work so hard and may feel, right now, that we’ve falling to the ground with our own torn hamstring.

The race is not over yet.  We swiftly get up from pain and exhaustion, we set our sights on the finish line, the culmination of the holiday season, Sukkot.

We may struggle, hammer and nail in hand, limping to get all the Yom Tov preparations in order.  But then we sit together, friends and family in a Divine embrace.  Hashem telling us: “You’ve worked so hard, you’ve accomplished so much already.  I know you are in pain, I know it hurts.  Let me help you.  I want to give you a hug.”

According to our tradition, to be kosher the sukkah must have at least two walls and a tefach (a handbreadth) and a maximum of 4 walls. Rabbi J. H. Shmidman, zt”l, used to say that a hug is hidden in the very name of our temporary dwellings – ס כ ה.  The “two walls” and a “tefach” version, represented by the letter “Heh”, could appear like an arm wrapped over another’s shoulders.  The three walled version represented by the letter “Kaf”, could appear like a two armed embrace.  And the four walled option, represented by the letter “Samech”, could appear like a great big hug.

After going through the Days of Awe, isn’t that all we need?

As we enter our sukkah, it is traditional to offer the following beautiful tefila:

“…יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אלקי ואלקי אבותיי שתשרה שכינתך בינינו ותפרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך”

“May it be your will, my God and God of my forefathers, that You cause Your Presence to reside amongst us and that You spread over us the sukkah of Your peace…”

We sit and look around at our beautifully decorated sukkot, we look around at our friends and our families.  And we pay attention to the brachot that surround our lives,  basking in Divine embrace.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.


Two Shofars on Rosh Hashana:  Which is yours?

058Two people walk by a synagogue just as the shofar is being sounded on Rosh Hashana.  Shul windows open, the thunderous notes of the shofar fill the street.  

Upon hearing the sound, the first person thinks to himself: “Wow.  What am I doing outside here?  There is something special going on inside.  I wish to be included in this special moment.”  

The second person, head down, scanning through his emails, pays little attention thinking to himself: “Hmmm, maybe I’ll come back later, I have too much going on.”  The sound of the shofar quickly becomes drowned out with the noise in his mind and from the street.

Both people heard the same sound, but did neither, either, or both of them fulfill the mitzvah of shofar?  More significantly, what is the role of intention in our Jewish lives and in our religious commitments?

Yes, indeed, both did heard the sound of the shofar, but only one of them listened to it.  Intention is what distinguished the two friends’ experiences, and therefore only one fulfilled the mitzvah.

According to Maimonides (Hilchot Shofar 3:4):

“Although blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana is a mandate of the Torah, there is a hint in it. As if to say, ‘wake up sleepy ones from your slumber and the dozing ones arise from your sleep and examine your deeds and return with teshuva and recall your Creator, those people who forget the truth with the silliness of the times and waste all their years on foolishness and emptiness that will not help and not save. Look to your souls and improve your ways and mistakes and abandon each one of you his mistaken path and his intention that is not good.’”

The shofar’s purpose, while it must be musically in tune, is not meant only to be good entertainment.  The shofar’s purpose is to awaken us and to call us to action.  This can only be achieved with a level of intentionality of the listener, even if it’s just a little amount.

We each engage in our Jewish lives in different ways and at different levels of intensity.  Often determined by our upbringing, the circumstances of life, and even the day’s mood.  Some of us connect more intellectually, some more emotionally, some more socially, some more nationally and some more spiritually.

But, what is our intention, what is our purposefulness in those interactions?  Are we hearing or are we listening?  Are we just passing by or are we engaged?

Over this High Holiday season as we congregate together, we must ask ourselves these questions.  Why am I here as part of the collective? Why am I here as an individual? What is my intention? And subsequently, how do these answers influence my level of enthusiasm and my level of engagement?

Are the prayer services, the shofar blasts, the camaraderie, the sermons stirring up something meaningful in me, moving me to positive action?  Or am I pretty much the same coming out as I was coming in?

Of course, there is onus on the sweet sounding Chazzan, the powerful shofar blower, the devoted lay leadership and the passionate Rabbis to inspire, but to be truly inspired, to be transformed by Rosh Hashana and all of Jewish life it takes intentional listening to the prayers, intentional listening to the Torah reading, intentional listening to the shofar, intentional listening to the sermons, and most importantly intentional listening to ourselves.

Being genuinely moved is dependent on each and every one of us.  To listen we must quiet down the noise and be fully receptive to the powerful messages that are around us.

Blessings for a Shana Tova filled with health, happiness and meaning and most importantly, a good listening ear.