In recounting our many wanderings during the war years and the final journey that brought us to America, my father, of blessed memory, often related the comment of one of his fellow travelers. This man had lost everything during that fateful time. The Nazis had stripped him of his home, his wealth, his community, his relatives, and every member of his immediate family.
Left with none of the features that generally identify a person, he concluded that it was here and now, on this ship, that he was obliged to determine where he would live, what he would do, and what the context of his life would be. In effect he would have to recreate himself -- to be reborn -- and start his life anew.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, marks the anniversary of the creation of man. Elul, the month prior to Rosh Hashana, is designated as a time of inventory, a time to take stock of what was and what we want to perpetuate into the new year and what we want to let go of.
It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word for year -- shana -- has a dual meaning. It implies both "change" and "repetition," underscoring the task at hand of deciding what should be changed in the coming year and what behavior is worthy of repetition. This is the critical time on the "ship" between the world of yesterday and the tomorrow when we are given the opportunity to redefine or, if you will, "recreate" ourselves. When we appear before the heavenly tribunal on Rosh Hashana, that is both the birthday of man and the day of judgment, the brief we present should reflect a plan for the coming year that is an improved version of what was in the past.
The Almighty created us as unique beings replete both with our individual strengths, weaknesses, struggles and challenges. Only the Almighty who "strung us together" knows what we could be. Only He, by virtue of His personal investiture of potential into our person, has a true image of what we could be, and that is the benchmark for our accountability and God's judgment of us.
However, it remains our prerogative, by dint of the life choices and decisions we make, to choose either closeness or distance from the realization of our potential self that was our "essence before creation."
During the month of Elul, the voyage on this ship mandates devoting our full energies to the existential crisis at hand that demands decisions and resolutions, mindful of the urgency to reach for the best in us -- that which will resonate with the supernal image of us.
CHANGING YOUR NAME
Maimonides, the great 12th century commentator and teacher, instructs us on the necessary steps towards teshuva (repentance) and returning to who we truly are. He identifies "changing one's name and stating I am a different person than the person who committed the deeds of the past year" as a requisite step in the process.
My husband commented that Maimonides was obviously not suggesting a change of I.D., social security number or such. He explained that all of us have predicates to our names. For instance, it might be a PhD or M.D. so that it might read Paul Jones M.D., Alice Smith PhD or Karen Hill M.S.W. etc. These are predicates that identify, in great measure, who they are.
There is, however, other less formal but equally powerful predicates that others or we ourselves assign to us. Examples might be: Betty the lazy, Harry the indolent, Jerry the selfish, Helen the disorganized, Abby the miserly, etc. As part of the introspective process on the "ship," Maimonides exhorts us to change our name, the predicate that will alter the perception of how we see ourselves.
How we view ourselves, the labels, categories and stereotypes clearly circumscribe our lives and impact our behavior.
Judy had always seen herself as incompetent and disorganized. She called to tell me that she had made a deliberate and conscious decision to change her name, and as a result woke up that morning energized and eager to begin life anew with her new self-chosen designation of Judy, "the competent and the organized." She was determined to follow through with the behavior that would support and confirm her new name.
How we view ourselves, the labels, categories and stereotypes clearly circumscribe our lives and impact our behavior. If our names reflect negative affects, we remain stuck in self-fulfilling patterns of behavior. If, however, we can convert them to reflect positive and affirming attributes, we will free up the necessary energy to access the best part of ourselves. Redefinition and substantive change of I.D. is a major step towards "rebirth."
I was on the east coast at the time of the blackout of 2003. Lakewood, the particular area I was visiting, was not affected but all the neighboring communities found themselves thrust into total darkness, some for a few hours and others beyond a day. It was a sobering experience to see New York, the most powerful metropolis in the world rendered impotent. The mighty cutting edge world of technology we put such heavy stock in proved useless.
Human endeavors, glorious as they may be, are limited and ultimately we must acknowledge that it is indeed God who runs the world. Since no events in our lives are arbitrary, every occurrence invites scrutiny and should be gleaned for its message or communication. The blackout, on the threshold of the month of Elul, conjured up the following image.
I saw myself in the great theatre of life, having come to experience the great play. It was intermission time and the throngs of people filed out to the lobby, heading to the refreshment stands. They sought ice cream, popcorn, drinks, and soon the ensuing socializing took on a life of its own. The lights began to dim and blink but the crowd was too engrossed, enjoying the pleasures at hand, reluctant to yield to the blinking dim lights.
What if they ignore the subtle reminders? What if they become so preoccupied in their current distractions? Will they miss the rest of the play -- its culmination, its concluding point, and its message? Would it not be a shame if they were to exchange the purpose of their being there for the equivalent of popcorn and ice cream?
Jewish sources, similarly, relate a parable of a domain whose beloved and benevolent king announced that he would be available to meet his subjects on a designated day for a select few hours. The day arrived and the people flocked to the palace, eager to lay eyes on their beloved monarch, the source of their bountiful existence.
The massive gates were thrown open and the crowd was blown away by the regal splendor of the magnificent grounds, the verdant gardens leading to the palace rich in flowers of every shape and color, their beauty and fragrance breathtaking. Many in the crowd were so enchanted that they could not tear themselves away. Others made it to the first chamber where they beheld the most magnificent of furnishings. Yet others were mesmerized by the awesome architecture of the palatial structure. Some were riveted on the fascinating art, paintings and sculpture. Then, there were those who stood transfixed by the sounds the spellbinding music and melodies.
We need to make sure that we are on the path that will grant us proximity to the king.
So luring and totally absorbing were the endless features and appointments of the palace that, sadly, most of the people forgot their mission, the purpose of their coming. And when, abruptly, it was announced that the time granted for his subjects to seek him out had ended, all too few had actually made it to the king's chamber. All too many, in their pursuit of the frills and nonessentials, had forfeited their dream of coming into the presence of the king and beholding his face.
Perhaps the blackout was a variation of dimmed and blinking lights, of reminders that intermission is over and we need to move on to the play -- what we came to this world for. We need to make sure that we are on the path that will grant us proximity to the king.
ENTERING THE PALACE
How do we merit the privilege of the king's presence?
Proximity to a Being who is not bound by time or space can only be achieved by resemblance to his essence. God is perfect and all the Godlike deeds that we perform make us more like him and bring us a notch closer to his perfection and hence His presence.
A wonderful anecdote is told of a woman who, in preparation of the upcoming holidays, took her four children to a store to outfit them. She left the store with her family, all newly and completely attired and stopped short at the sight of a young boy in tattered and ragged clothing wistfully looking into the shop window. The stark contrast between the lad's impoverished state and her privileged brood was more than she could bear.
"Are you God?" "No," the woman responded, taken aback. "I am not God; I am just one of His children."
She told her kids to wait outside as she took the young lad inside and outfitted him from head to toe, just as she had done for her own children. As she was about to take leave of him, he looked up at her and asked, "Are you God?"
"No," the woman responded, taken aback. "I am not God; I am just one of His children."
To which the young boy, with tears in his eyes, replied, "I knew you had to be related."
Godlike behavior brings us closer to God. It requires looking beyond ourselves, perhaps noticing and alleviating the pain and the burden of others -- a kind word, a call, an inquiry, an act of forgiveness, getting beyond the petty, a charitable gesture. It just takes a little bit of caring to bring a smile and some sunshine into the lives of others. But it does require a shift in focus from "me" to "them," from "intermission" to the "play," and most significantly from the preoccupation with the accouterments and the trappings to remembering that we came to see the king.
We are on the "ship" that bridges the past and the future, and about to embark. What will our resolve be?
Best wishes for a happy healthy and productive year to all my wonderful friends.