How Distant Have We Become?
Traditionally, mashgichim spend much of their time in Elul instilling in their charges fear of the terrible punishment awaiting them unless they repent – or at least so one of Israel's most respected senior mashgichim recently told our mussar va'ad.
The Mabit in his Beit Elokim, however, takes a very different approach. He defines teshuva as drawing closer to Hashem from the distance and separation caused by sin. In every sin, he notes, there are two consequences: (1) One incurs liability for punishment; and (2) One angers Hashem by transgressing His command, and thereby distances himself from Him.
To focus on avoiding punishment, writes the Mabit, does not constitute teshuva because it ignores the separation from Hashem caused by ignoring His commands. Indeed, one who remains oblivious to the distance created between himself and Hashem by the transgression of His Will, and concerns himself only with punishment, increases Hashem's "anger" and widens the distance between Hashem and him.
How can we heighten our awareness of the distance that has grown between us and Hashem so that we can begin the arduous road back towards Him? Perhaps the place to start is by contemplating what a G-d-centered life would be like and measuring our own against that standard.
Judaism's central affirmation is Shema, the proclamation of Hashem's unity. All of Creation is encompassed within Hashem; the apparently disparate parts all fit together within His unity.
Were we truly attached to Hashem our lives too would express an essential unity. We would experience our lives as a continuity, as a flow of moments connected to one another. That is the Life for which we pray throughout the Aseres Yamei Teshuvah. Chayei Olam, Eternal Life, does not refer to our reward after death. It is accessible in this world as well. Every day we thank Hashem for having planted within us eternal life.
Chayei Olam is contrasted to Chayei Sha'a. The latter refers not to the life in this world, but to life of the moment. In that conception of time, life is a series of microseconds, each of which is an opportunity for some type of neural stimulation. But whether that opportunity is realized or not, the moment passes and is gone. Life is a series of mini-deaths.
Only Hashem is eternal because His existence derives from within and is not contingent on any power external to Him. His existence and eternity are one and the same; His existence is His essence.
We were given the opportunity to experience that eternal life by attaching ourselves to Hashem through the Divine soul breathed into Adam HaRishon on Rosh Hashanah. Hashem is likened to an endlessly overflowing stream, and to the extent that we recognize Him as the Source of everything, we immerse ourselves in that stream.
The moments of our lives then flow into one another. We experience life as a coherent whole, not as a series of unconnected moments of being buffeted about by our desires. That is the Good Remembrance for which we pray on Rosh Hashanah – that our past, present and future, as contemplated by Hashem from His perspective above time, form a coherent whole. That Remembrance is "good" insofar as the parts of our life form a sufficient whole that Hashem can excise that which does not fit the pattern in an act of selective memory.
Thus the degree to which we experience our lives as a coherent whole, as a unity, is one measure of our attachment to Hashem. Not for us is Emerson's dismissal of a "false consistency [as] the hobgoblins of little minds."
The greatest challenge presented by modern technology is that it has invaded our private space and stolen from us the time for contemplation necessary for the development of a coherent, individual self.
Rosh Hashanah forces us to think about Man's position as the pinnacle of Creation. It marks the moment of Divine inspiration at which Hashem breathed into Adam of Himself and thereby linked us to Him. The blowing of the Shofar, the central mitzvah of the day, recalls that moment of Divine inspiration.
The very fact that Hashem, Who was complete unto Himself, created us means that each of us exists because Hashem determined that we have a role to play in the Divine plan. The particular combination of positive kochos hanefesh with which we were born, the weaknesses that we must overcome, and the circumstances of our lives is unique to each of us.
Our sense of purpose, of having been brought into the world with a unique mission, is another measure of our closeness to Hashem. The more we contemplate Him and the fact that He brought us into existence for some mission that could be fulfilled by no one else the greater our feeling of purpose.
On Rosh Hashanah, we pray to be found worthy of having our mission renewed for another year and being granted that which is necessary to fulfill that mission. Our avodah approaching Rosh Hashanah is to articulate our mission statement. Without that mission statement, our pleas for renewal are empty. If we have never given thought to what our unique mission is, how can we expect to achieve it?
But again our loss of time for contemplation, and the attenuated sense of self that results, has made it that much more difficult to formulate a mission statement and robbed us of our sense of purpose.
May our heightened awareness of how distant we have become from Hashem propel us towards Him as we enter Rosh Hashanah.
Leaving Behind the Past to Face the Future
In June, two-year-old Lane Graves was attacked and killed by an alligator, while his family was on vacation at Disney World in Orlando. Disney had allegedly been warned of other such attacks by alligators emerging from the lagoon on its resort property, but had dismissed the alligators as "harmless."
A month after Lane's death, his parents announced that it would not bring a wrongful death action against Disney, despite the likelihood that they would have won a judgment in the many millions of dollars. The case had all the elements personal injury lawyers love: an adorable victim, a defendant with very deep pockets, and a strong case of negligence.
I do not know whether the Graves received a large payment from Disney, but if they did, it was almost certainly millions dollars less than they would have been awarded by a sympathetic jury.
So why did they decide to forego legal action. First and foremost, I would assume, was the recognition that no law suit could bring back their son, and that as long as the suit went on they would find themselves reliving the horror of his death over and over again. Moreover, the proceeds from such a suit could bring them no enjoyment or solace, as they would be blood money for their son.
In a statement issued by the parents, they said that their sole focus going forward would be "on the future health of our family," including the establishment of a foundation in their son's memory.
There are times when a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution serves a crucial purpose for the family of the victim. In case of child abuse, for instance, prosecution of the abuser validates the pain and suffering of the victim, and as such is often a crucial part of the therapeutic process.
But the Graves family needed no such validation of their suffering, which was inarguable. Rather than remain mired in their tragedy, they turned their attention towards the future and the ways they could use their personal tragedy in a positive fashion.
THE GRAVES FAMILY has provided a particularly poignant example of the type of behavior that all of us must emulate upon occasion. No one just moves on from the loss of a child. But at some point, one either accepts what cannot be changed and starts to think about what comes next, or one goes insane and compounds the original tragedy.
Rosh Hashanah too involves such a conscious turn to the future and setting aside the past, at least for a period of time. The beginning of the teshuva process is future-oriented. The principal avodah of the Chag is to formulate a vision of the person we want to become. The clarity of that vision determines our status at that particular moment, and thus the general outline of how Hashem will relate to us in the coming year.
Only when we have defined our goals and thought deeply about the particular mission for which the Hashem created us are we in a position to then look backwards and work on repairing our past behavior.
Thus we make no mention of our individual sins on Rosh Hashanah, while our Yom Kippur davening centers on vidui – confessional prayers. Without first envisioning a future different from the present, we are powerless to disentangle ourselves from all the various ways in which we have sullied our souls.
The conscious decision to conceive a different future is not an escapist fantasy, but rather very deeply rooted in Jewish thought. Both as individuals and as a nation, we are not just products of our past. Indeed our future, i.e., the purpose for which Hashem created us,is more determinative of how Hashem relates to us in the present than is our past. In the natural order, for instance, Avraham and Sarah could not have had children. But because they were destined to be the progenitors of the Jewish people, Hashem changed the natural order and Yitzchak Avinu was born.
When we identify our individual role in Hashem's plan, we thereby make possible dramatic change in the present. By conceiving a different future, we identify the accretions of sin that have adhered to our souls as foreign bodies, and thereby make it possible to wash them away on Yom Kippur.
Of all created beings, only Man is capable of conceptionalizing the future and working towards long-term goals. On the anniversary of the Creation of the first man, it is appropriate therefore that we concentrate our efforts on obtaining clarity about what is the particular mission for which we were created and towards which we are striving.
To do that, however, requires not becoming bogged down in the past, to effectively leave it behind (even if only briefly). For providing a powerful example of how to do so, we should all be grateful to the Graves family this Rosh Hashanah.