A gentleman in Brooklyn was observed standing daily at a bus stop for an extended period of time. The city buses would come and go, but he would never get on, and just remain there waiting. After observing this unusual behavior several times, someone approached the man, Reb Binyamin Shachner, who explained what he was doing. He told the person that he had been through the Holocaust and seen his share of the one and a half million children go up in smoke. In the depths of that hell he did not imagine that he would ever see a future, that he would ever again see children studying Torah. But now, on that street corner, each and every day he can watch no less than thirty-two busloads of school children on their way to Cheder and to Bais Yaakov. In the camps he had watched trainloads of children being taken to their deaths. Now he watched busloads of children going to study Torah.
Others on that street corner saw the morning traffic they were used to. Reb Binyamin saw a sight for very sore eyes, something that he treasured.
So much of life passes us by. An experience or phenomenon that one would see as a gift of epic proportions, as an incredible opportunity and blessing, another may not even notice. We call it “taking things for granted,” and it is a feeling – or a lack of feeling – that deprives us of much of the experience of life, as whatever is assumed goes unappreciated.
We just read in this morning’s Haftarah about the prayer of Chana for a child, after having read from the Torah about Sarah being blessed with her child. In fact, the Talmud teaches us that on Rosh Hashanah Hashem remembered Sarah, Rachel and Chana and blessed them with children. At a certain point each of them thought that they would never be blessed with that gift. And when they did receive that blessing – they truly treasured it.
When dealing with infertility, I often will tell couples that while we do not know why they have been given this challenge, we can be certain that when – G-d willing – one day they are given the blessing of a child, they will treasure the gift so much more. It should not take trial or tragedy to make us appreciate the Gift of Life, but it usually does.
Our goal today – in these few minutes we share before the sounding of the Shofar – is to awaken that sense of appreciation, of privilege, with regard to the Gift of Life, and with regard to life’s many gifts. This renewed appreciation is central to what we are to take forward from Rosh Hashanah to the coming year, and has the ability to spur us to live fuller lives.
What gets us into shul on the High Holidays? These are the Days of Judgment, when our fate is decided. The most noted prayer of the day – despite its relatively recent vintage – is Unesaneh Tokef, as it spells out more than anything else the intensity of feeling, of vulnerability, the trembling awareness of what is being decided today.
“The great Shofar is sounded, and a hoarse whisper is heard, ‘The Day of Judgment is here!’ , when everyone is recalled in judgment, with little hope of worthiness in that judgment. And all those who have come to the world pass before You, one by one, like the shepherd reviews his flock, so You G-d have every one of Your creatures pass before You, noting and enumerating each one of us, remembering us, looking at us, and You allot us a fixed portion of life, entering our decree of judgment. On Rosh Hashanah You write it and on Yom Kippur You seal it, how many of us will leave this world and how many will be created, who will live and who will die, who after a full life and who prematurely, who by warfare, by crime or by accident, and who by plague or illness. Who will prosper and who will struggle, who will have it easy, and whose life will be filled with turbulence and challenge.”
That is why we come here and why we take these days so seriously. Everything is riding on it. There is a lot to worry about; our lives literally hang in the balance. It is frightening. This is the stuff that fire and brimstone speeches are made of. So we come to shul out of fear of G-d. And we have what to be afraid of. But in fact it is precisely that fear, the realization of that pervasive sense of vulnerability, which holds the key to the great boost of strength that we can all readily hope to get from Rosh Hashanah. Because often the greatest strength is born of the deepest, most intense vulnerability.
This idea is expressed in a specific image – an image that is all about turning vulnerability into strength at a point of incredible weakness. That image is central to today, the image of the Shofar.
The Shofar recalls Akeidas Yitzchak, and the Shofar represents a new lease on life, quite literally a resurrection of the dead. Yitzchak was apparently doomed, bound to the altar, the slaughtering knife across his neck – until Hashem said, “No – he will live on; the ram shall take his place.” Thus the Shofar represents תחית המתים, bringing the dead, the doomed, back to life. A gift of life, directly from the lips of G-d.
Indeed Rav Hutner and others noted that when we sound the Shofar, when we blow into it and awaken sounds of life from that hardened shell, we are reenacting what G-d did on this day at the beginning of time, זה היום תחילת מעשיך זכרון ליום ראשון. This is the day that commemorates when G-d first breathed life into the first human being. דין – the judgment of Rosh Hashanah – renders us vulnerable, undeserving – כי מי יצדק לפניך בדין – and requires G-d to step in and reaffirm our right to life. To bring us back to life. And so today He is breathing renewed life into us.
This is the unique strength we are to derive from Rosh Hashanah, a strength born of vulnerability. We can feel G-d once again blowing into us the breath of life, and we can awaken in ourselves a sense of wonder at the opportunity we are being granted to live again, to live on. The vulnerability is real. And that should make us feel the gift of life.
The Talmud teaches that when one sees someone dear to them after a month without contact they are to make the Bracha of Shehecheyanu, expressing gratitude for having reached this longed-for moment. However if they are reunited after a year of separation the Bracha to make is מחיה המתים, “Blessed are You Who revives the dead.” The Maharsha (ברכות נח:) explained this puzzling rule with an unusual insight. Inevitably if we have not seen each other for a year, we have passed through a Rosh Hashanah season. Since that is the case we must make the Bracha for the resurrection of the dead, as surviving Rosh Hashanah and its judgment is nothing less than a resurrection of the dead. If we would only internalize this, if we could only realize that today we are getting a specific and divine vote of confidence, a new lease of life, it would indeed revive the dead; it would revive our own sense and appreciation of life and vitality. This new lease on life should help us feel G-d’s kindness, His vote of confidence, and bring us to realize that He feels our life is worth living. This is vulnerability transformed into strength.
With G-d’s help we are here a year after last Rosh Hashanah. G-d saw fit to bring us back to life.
ברוך שהחיינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה
What can we do with this thought? What is the practical, the real take home message from it all? In truth, this is a realization we express daily. The first thing we are to say upon awakening each morning is Modeh Ani, מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקיים שהחזרת בי נשמתי. “I express my gratitude to You the living and eternal King, Who has restored my soul to me.” We repeatedly express recognition of a new lease on life, a mini-resurrection of ourselves.
אלקי נשמה שנתת בי
המפיל חבלי שינה על עיני . והאר עיני פן אישן המות
We are expressing appreciation for a gift, an amazing gift. The recognition of this amazing gift should have us bounce out of bed, to embrace life. יתגבר כארי. As the thirteenth century sage, Rabbenu Yonah, wrote in his short work, Sefer HaYirah:
רבינו יונה, ספר היראה, סע” ב-ג
אלה הדברים אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם חיי עולם: בכל בקר בהקיצו משנתו יזדעזע ויהיה נרתע ונחפר מאימת הבורא, בזכרו חסדו אשר עשה לו ואמונתו אשר שמר לו, כי החזיר לו נשמתו אשר הפקיד אצלו. ואז יברך בלבו הבורא אשר הגדיל לעשות עמו כי חדש והחליף כחו, ובשומו הדברים האלה על לבו תבער אהבת הבורא בלבו, ואז אל ישכב במטתו כדרך העצל אך במהירות וזריזות יקום מיד .
“These are the things one should do in order to live an eternal life: Every morning upon awakening he should be gripped and taken by the fear of his Creator, recalling His kindness and His faithfulness in returning to him the soul he had entrusted to Him. He should then bless the Creator in his heart for His great kindness in renewing and refreshing his strength. When he takes these matters to heart, his heart will become inflamed with the love of his Creator, and he will not remain lazily in bed but will quickly and excitedly get up and about.”
This is not just Rabbenu Yonah’s prescription. Psychological research has shown that giving thanks leads to increased energy, generosity, enthusiasm, sociability, health and resiliency in the face of stress. Gratitude is an empirically proven path to a longer, happier life. And the more one is grateful for, and the more often one expresses that gratitude, the greater the happiness, the greater the vigor in our lives.
How about that for a specific idea? How about if we stop and appreciate this incredible gift, this affirmation of our lives? Would that add bounce to our step? Would that awaken us to appreciate and to maximize life?
Our Sages taught us to make one hundred Brachos every day. Each day when we awaken, we thank Hashem anew for everything: for our ability to see and to stand; for who we are and for what we have. We shout out to Hashem – “Thank you for the morning! For this coffee and breakfast; for the privilege of being a Jew and for the workings of my body!” For everything we call out in gratitude.
וכל החיים יודוך סלה. Life is lived with constant gratitude. The more you appreciate life, the more you relish life, the more you live life.
So now, as we stand in judgment and realize how frail life is, when we hear the Shofar we should allow ourselves to feel the breath of life being infused into us. It is precisely now – at the moment of our most intense vulnerability – that we can relish the gift of life and seeing it as just that – an incredible gift. Call out your thanks, now and every day. Think about pausing for a moment to consider the gift of life each morning anew – sing, say, scream – Modeh Ani! “Thank you Hashem for the gift of life!” If we could only feel the gift of life we might really take advantage of it.
I will end by sharing with you a story that I shared with some of you four months ago, a story that I heard from Rabbi Berel Wein, a story of strength born of vulnerability, a story of the breath of renewed life.
To fully appreciate this story, let me remind you or fill you in on Rabbi Wein’s life of accomplishment. In his early twenties he received both Semicha (Rabbinic ordination) and a Law degree, and began his professional life as an attorney in Chicago. At the age of 30 he became the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation in Miami Beach, and at 38 he became the executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union. He founded a shul – Bais Torah – and a yeshiva – Shaarei Torah – in Monsey, and served as Rav and Dean. He literally revived the popular study of Jewish history through a pioneering series of hundreds of lectures on the topic, one of the first sets of widely distributed Torah recordings. He “retired” to Israel in 1997, becoming Rav of the Bait Knesset haNasi in Jerusalem, a Rebbe in Yeshivat Ohr Somayach, and launching the Destiny Foundation, to produce films on Jewish history for a wide audience. Along the way he has published several serious works on Talmudic topics, and a shelf full of works on Torah commentary, Jewish life and history. He continues to be a prolific writer and teacher of Torah and his books as well as his columns in the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere are read by thousands.
How does he keep at it? How does this one person continue to squeeze accomplishment from every moment of life? Rabbi Wein attributes it to a childhood experience with the one-time Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, when Rav Herzog visited Chicago in the forties, shortly after the Second World War. As he tells it:
Rabbi Herzog told us he had been to the Vatican and had asked Pope Pius XII to return the thousands of Jewish children entrusted to Catholic institutions in Europe by parents hoping to save them from annihilation at the hands of the Germans. The pope had flatly refused, claiming that since all the children had been baptized upon entering those institutions, they could not now be given over to those who would raise them in a different faith. Overcome with emotion, the rabbi put his head down on the lectern and wept bitterly. We were all in shock, as the enormity of the Jewish tragedy of World War II began sinking in.
Then Rabbi Herzog defiantly raised his head and looked at the young men gathered before him. “I cannot save those thousands of Jewish children,” he declared, “but I ask of you – how are you going to help rebuild the Jewish People?” Afterward, when we filed by him to shake his hand and receive his blessing, he repeated to each and every one of us: “Did you understand what I said to you? Don’t forget it.”
All my life, Rabbi Herzog’s words have echoed in my ears and soul. Numerous times in my rabbinic career, I’ve been discouraged and downhearted. But then I remembered his words. They have continually inspired and challenged me, shaping many of my decisions and actions.
This is the experience that motivates Rabbi Wein to this day. As a young man, he heard a message from a broken heart. A message from someone who had seen Jewish children snatched from their future, and who was filled with grief over it. A message from someone who saw in him that future that was lost from so many others. And he heard that message as a mandate to treasure life, to never take it for granted, and to use every bit of it for the greatest good. And that young man, no longer a young man, still hears that message, and he still does not take life for granted, and he continues to live his life for his people.
Hashem has given us life. The breath of life. Today, as our life hangs in the balance, we too can come to taste what a gift that is, what an opportunity it offers. Let us appreciate it, treasure it and maximize it. Let us too ask ourselves what we will do for the Jewish People, what we will do with this precious gift of life.